A taste of hope
Sahil District, Somaliland, 2017. The driver was following faint tracks on the dirt road, hurtling at full speed through dramatic scenery: plains scattered with mud-like sculptures hosting colonies of termites and dunes of ruby-coloured sand. But despite the surrounding beauty, the atmosphere in the vehicle was solemn. We had passed hundreds of animal carcasses. Most were sheep, goat and cattle but many – too many, the driver pointed out – were camels.
I had travelled to Somaliland, a self-governing region in northern Somalia, East Africa, during a year of severe drought. By the end of 2017, drought would have killed 60 per cent of the country’s camels, the animal most prized by herders. Pastoralism is ‘believed to have existed as long as Somalis themselves’, according to the scholar and collator of Somalia’s rich oral literature, Axmed Cali Abokor. The Somali language has more than 46 different words for these hardy desert creatures, which form the backbone of the country’s economy, identity and culture.
Somalis have long cherished camels, partly due to their extraordinary ability to endure extreme heat. Their milk is seen as the highest of delicacies (‘a mouthful of camel’s milk keeps you going for half-a-day’, as one proverb has it); its meat is highly nutritious and low in cholesterol. The many proverbs collected by Abokor feature plenty of references to the animals’ stamina: ‘…drought affects not camels whereas other livestock perish all under its severity…’
But despite being expertly evolved to thrive in a hostile environment, even camels could not cope with the drought of 2017; the sheer number we saw lying dead around us was unprecedented. Induced by El Niño, the drought was made more extreme by human-made climate change, according to a study by the American Meteorological Society. But this was just the beginning of a slew of climate-related disasters. Since then, the people of Somalia and Somaliland have been subject to repeated droughts, cyclones, flooding and locust storms amplified by a crisis they have played no part in creating: their combined annual carbon emissions amount to less than 0.01 per cent of the world’s annual total.
The impact has been catastrophic in a nation where 70 per cent of people make their living through herding livestock. Depleted pastures, high death rates of animals and failed crops have left nearly 40 per cent of Somaliland’s 4.2 million inhabitants facing acute hunger.
A live crisis
‘You can see climate change. It is so tangible,’ explains Shukri Ismail Bandare, speaking from the capital Hargeisa. She is the minister for Environment and Rural Development in Somaliland, which has an independent parliament. democratic elections and its own distinct history.
The region’s status is complex. Somaliland broke away and declared independence from Somalia in 1991. But it remains unrecognized by foreign powers despite the fact that its people have enjoyed relative stability compared to its larger, war-torn neighbour.
But Somalilanders are coming under increasing pressure. ‘We used to have droughts, we used to name them. But they would be 10 or 15 years apart,’ says Bandare. ‘Now they are so frequent that people cannot cope.’
Successive droughts have triggered a displacement crisis that endures to this day. In 2019, refugee agency UNHCR recorded over 230,000 people as internally displaced. The majority had ended up in camps on the outskirts of Hargeisa. When I travelled there with a group of young journalists from Som-act, who had long been writing in Somali about issues affecting the displaced, we met people whose lives were mired in uncertainty.
Mohamed had lost his livestock to the drought in 2017. Two years later, he was still living in a camp bordering the edge of the city. ‘In the past, grains and plants would grow naturally. Now you can see that the ground is dry, like a desert,’ he told us.
Some herders had not been able to recover from the destruction of their way of life. A 24-year-old woman, Saado, told us her brother had committed suicide, devastated at the loss of his herd. Others had died in pursuit of new futures. Saado’s neighbour, Asad, broke down in tears as she remembered receiving a phone call telling her that her daughter had drowned off the Libyan coast trying to cross into Europe. When her second daughter left, Asad paid traffickers to bring her back.
Today the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) has more than doubled, reaching over half a million. In 2021, drought conditions are expected to increase displacement once more. The government knows it must somehow pull off an urgent shift from the pastoral way of life. ‘We have to diversify our economy,’ says Bandare. ‘But that takes knowledge and time.’
To the sea
Some Somalilanders are already seeking out new horizons, setting their sights on their country’s vast, 850-kilometre coastline. It’s made up of diverse marine ecological zones from mangroves and coral reefs to seaweed colonies, which provide habitat and breeding grounds to an abundant multitude of fish: tuna (yellowfin, skipjack, long tail and kawakawa), mackerel, jack fish, emperor breams, snappers and billfish.
Yet there are only a dozen permanent settlements along the coast where people practise artisanal fishing. Traditionally, fish has long been an underutilized resource, representing only two per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But this is starting to change.
In the historic coastal town of Berbera, along the pristine golden sand dunes overlooking the Gulf of Aden, young people like to gather to listen to music on small portable radios. Girls bathe in the sea, their colourful dresses, known as baati, submerged in water. Pods of dolphins make regular appearances.
Derie Musa, a young man in his thirties, came here in 2017 after the drought wreaked havoc on his livestock. Like many Somalis, he used to fear the sea. ‘Fish was something I knew nothing about,’ he says. He started a year-long training programme, funded by a small Somali-Danish NGO called Fair Fishing, that taught swimming, fishing, safety precautions and emergency lifesaving.
‘It was difficult in the beginning but eventually I became accustomed,’ he says.
‘It’s very strange for Somalis to work in the sea,’ explains Fair Fishing trainer Eid Saleban Ahmed. ‘Many arrive with huge misconceptions. But once they start working, they enjoy the experience. People came – and the word spread.’
Berbera’s population of 50,000 is creeping up. To date, most locals have been welcoming of new arrivals. Abdikareem, who runs a fishing business, points out that all Somalis originate from rural areas. ‘It doesn’t matter where people come from, if they’re good at the job, that’s all that matters,’ he says.
At the heart of the harbour, freshly caught tuna gets laid out carefully in boxes inside a refrigerated local fishing station and packed in ice. The fish is loaded into vans ready to drive to Hargeisa, 160 kilometres inland. Most of the fish here will feed Somalilanders. Only two per cent of the fish caught is being exported out to neighbouring Djibouti.
The local fishing industry – previously largely untapped – is growing. Fair Fish estimates that 3,000 jobs were created along the value chain in the five years to 2019; landings of fish increased by 500 per cent in the same period. Somalilanders have been given a taste of hope.
On a mission
In Berbera, small restaurants are covered in colourful murals of sea creatures. As hungry cats roam, the men sitting outside in the shade are served spiced fish with rice. Though highly nutritious, fish has not traditionally been a prized part of the diet in Somaliland, where meat has always been favoured.
Two women are on a mission to change this. They are Yasmin Nur and Barwaqo Abdillahi, nicknamed BK, who arrive on our WhatsApp call full of energy. Close friends, they are enthused to hear each other’s voices. ‘Yasmin, how are you, darling?’ exclaims BK, whose profile picture on WhatsApp is a fierce-looking mackerel. Formerly a chef in the city of New Orleans in the United States, she has made it her mission to spread her love of seafood alongside Yasmin, who came to Somaliland in 2016 after 30 years living in the UK.
Money sent home from the Somaliland diaspora is a hugely important source of government income. In 2018, remittances amounted to $1.4 billion – around 50 per cent of GDP. The experience and energy of those who return home is also an important resource. Yasmin and BK are based in Hargeisa and Burao, but also work in Berbera training chefs and fishmongers, introducing tasty and healthy recipes for fish, which was traditionally fried to excess.
‘Chefs didn’t know how to fillet. They were using axes instead of filleting knives,’ explains Yasmin. ‘For women, fish was something smelly and dirty but we brought them fresh fish. They were really surprised how pleasant it was.’ The women taught by Yasmin and BK have helped spread the word to their peers by filming themselves cooking fish. The videos have been widely shared across WhatsApp.
They say the programme, which is backed by Fair Fishing, is enjoying significant success. Yasmin, who conducted small-scale surveys two years prior across three major towns, remembers that people ate fish once a week at the most. ‘But now people eat it two to three times a week.’ Another success Yasmin takes pride in is that people only used to know and eat three species of fish, which was bad for sustainability. ‘Now they eat almost 20!’
While it is men who go out to sea, women in Somaliland do all the food preparation and cooking. BK is preparing a course to teach women how to air-dry fish in an attempt to widen fish consumption across the country. ‘If fish is dried, it can be safely transported out to those who really need it in rural villages and IDP camps,’ she says.
BK has also started training women in how to make fish emulsion, an organic fertilizer derived from fish waste. Meanwhile, the two women helped set up a co-operative called TAWFA in October 2020, in a bid to ‘champion and advocate for the rights and prosperity of all women working in the fisheries sector of Somaliland’. Their first plan is to organize a bus trip to Berbera so as to negotiate better access for women to the fish landed in the harbour.
As the industry has developed and grown, the volume of catches has increased. The resulting price drop makes fish more readily available. In 2019, fish cost $6-7 per kilogram; today it’s $3-5 per kilo.
‘The demand for fish has grown a lot,’ explains Yusuf Abdilahi Gulled, Fair Fishing’s regional manager and all-round anchor for anyone looking for extra support. ‘In 2014, there were about 10 fishmongers in Buroa,’ a city which lies some 130 kilometres inland from Berbera. ‘Last time I counted there were 40. In Hargeisa there are now 150.’
Yusuf has also witnessed a deeper cultural shift. In the old days, fishmongers were often evicted as neighbours complained of the smell. Today, their shops are in the strategic parts of town. The perception of fish has changed. ‘It was seen as poor people’s food, but now people see the health benefits. Now people ask: “where’s the fish soup?”. Some find that it helps them recover from certain viral diseases.’
But the industry is held back by a lack of capacity. In Berbera, locals cannot fish all year round. Everything quietens down from late April to September, when the waves become too high for small boats to go out to their usual 5 to 10 nautical miles radius. Fishers point to the lack of infrastructure and the need for fridges and cooling apparatus.
The Somaliland government has said it is fully committed to developing its fisheries sector. ‘Livestock are dying. The only option people have is to shift their attention to the sea. This is vital!’ the Minister of Livestock and Fisheries, Said Sulub Mohamed, says by phone from Hargeisa.
With 1.6 million Somalilanders now suffering acute hunger, food security is a key government priority. Imports constitute the main source of food: all sugar, rice, wheat, cooking oil and dates come from abroad. No more than 20 per cent of the population actively grow stable food crops (mainly sorghum and maize) and the displaced rely on humanitarian assistance.
In 2019, Sa’ad Ali Shire, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (now Minister of Finance), announced that the government planned to settle two million people on the coast by 2030. But progress towards this ambitious plan is slow. ‘We hope to develop the fisheries sector, one of a number of plans to improve food and water security,’ explains Abdifatah Sultan Adam, Director of Co-ordination at Somaliland Ministry of Planning. ‘But sadly the government lacks capacity.’
Despite the scant resources – Somaliland has one of the lowest GDPs in the world – all ministries tell us that a special emphasis is being placed on supporting local fishers. In 2018, Said Sulub recounts, the government helped 1,400 families displaced by Cyclone Sagar to relocate to the coast. Forty boats were distributed, alongside training for both men and women. In January 2020, the government taught another 70 pastoralists how to fish but had to halt the programme in 2021 due to a lack of funds.
The Minister also cites projects like the construction of a jetty in the small coastal town of Maydh, due to be completed in February 2022. The project is set to benefit 10,000 local fishers and traders, with improved landing and mooring infrastructure. The work will be funded by the Somaliland Development Fund, which also carries out other infrastructural, water and agricultural projects, with contributions from the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands, which support the government’s National Development Plan.
Although the investment is small-scale, local fishers appreciate the state’s efforts. ‘We have a good relationship with the government,’ Abdirkarem, a Berbera fisher, says. Yasmin and BK, as representatives of TAWFA, hope the government might be able to do more in the future to encourage entrepreneurs.
‘Listening to the needs of the local community will be key,’ points out Ife Okafor-Yarwood from the University of St Andrews, who investigates how best to secure just spaces for small-scale fishers in the much-heralded ‘blue economy’.
Her research documents how many coastal African countries prioritize extractive projects for national economic gain over the needs of local small-scale fishers. Too often, ‘development of the fisheries sector’ has a negative impact on food security and depletes marine resources. In the Gambia, for example, the government allows foreign fishing vessels to fish in its seas, despite protests by local fishers and activists. But others have negotiated better deals, for example in Madagascar. As a new – if unrecognized – country with under-exploited resources, Somaliland is at a crossroads.
Some 1,290 kilometres away in Mogadishu, the capital of neighbouring Somalia, a historic deal has been making waves. In 2019, for the first time in 20 years, Somalia issued official fishing licences to foreign vessels, generating more than $1 million in much-needed foreign currency.
The government has said the revenue collected from the offshore licensing of 31 Chinese vessels will be used to improve the domestic fishing sector. But there have been concerns both in Somalia and Somaliland. ‘Overfishing by Chinese trawlers has cost thousands of jobs in West Africa… They will ruin the local fishers and destroy our waters,’ wrote Abdirahman Omar Hassan, a Mogadishu-based environmental activist and lawyer, at the time of the deal.
Somaliland’s disputed sovereignty also presents a challenge. Somalia considers Somaliland’s waters to be part of its Exclusive Economic Zone. But the Somaliland government rejected the Chinese fishing deal with the government in Mogadishu and has vowed to defend its territorial integrity from any ‘illegal fishers’.
The Somaliland coastguard has been patrolling its waters. However, fish migrate from the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden and so fishers in Somaliland have nevertheless been feeling the impact of the Somalia-Chinese deal on their catches. ‘Trawlers destroy marine life and take everything with them,’ Yusuf Abdilahi Gulled, Fair Fishing’s regional manager, explains. The corpses of fish are now commonly spotted at sea.
In Berbera all agree: illegal foreign fishing boats are common despite the government’s efforts to keep them out. Some boats are said to come from Yemen and Iran but French and German vessels have been spotted too. ‘When approached, they pretend to be patrolling the sea but we can see that they are in fact fishing,’ a source who works in the fishing sector in Berbera tells me.
The government has also issued some permits to foreign vessels – they come anyway with or without a permit, as a source close to government explained. But, I was told, the government does not yet feel it has the capacity to fully open up and regulate its waters.
Foreign interests are unlikely to go away. While catches across the tropics are expected to decline due to climate change, the Somaliland (and Somali) coast is, according to William Cheung, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Changing Ocean Research Unit, one of the few tropical areas expected to remain stable or experience an increase.
Local fishers in Berbera say they would not be happy if their government cut a similar deal with big foreign fishing vessels. ‘It’s better if we catch the fish for the domestic market. If there’s an excess, we can export it ourselves,’ one man suggests.
It’s clear to Yusuf that Somaliland needs its fish now and for generations to come. Many are calling on the Somaliland diaspora to come and invest in the sector. ‘No-one,’ he says, ‘will protect the ecosystem and Somaliland’s marine resources as well as the people of Somaliland themselves.’
Further reporting by Mohamed Rashid, Umalkhayr Ahmed and Bennett Collins.
Alice Rowsome is a Bafta-nominated documentary filmmaker and journalist focusing on climate justice, forced migration and poverty. She is currently making a documentary investigating a miscarriage of justice in the UK.
This article is part of the Food Justice files, which is funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme (a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).