If you drive north from the Somaliland village of Gargara – where women speak of their heartache at losing goats in this year’s drought – and ford the fractured beds of dry rivers, passing the sun-bleached bones of dead animals, you eventually arrive in Lughaya, where open-mouthed fish lie on the white sands by the Red Sea after a wave “like a mountain” smashed into the coast this month.
This is what a changing climate looks like.
Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in 1991 but is not recognised internationally, could be considered the canary in the mine of a world that is getting hotter, and where extreme weather is becoming more common.
Across this relatively peaceful corner of the Horn of Africa, where black-headed sheep scamper among the thorn bushes, dainty gerenuk balance on their hind legs to nibble from hardy shrubs, and skinny camels wearing rough-hewn bells lumber over rocky slopes, people long accustomed to a harsh environment find they cannot cope after years of below-average rainfall.
These pastoralists, who trek across rock and sand with their herds each day, have a vital stake in the UN climate talks taking place in Paris, which begin next week. For them, the changing climate is an immediate life-or-death challenge that has pushed their already tenuous existence to the very edge.
Droughts are common in this region of Africa, and famines not unknown – the last major famine to hit was in 2011.
But Mohamed Ali Ismail, a 70-year-old from the village of Bildhaaley, about three hours’ drive on bumpy tracks from the capital, Hargeisa, says things are steadily getting worse.
“I have lived here all my life. We were wealthy, and had lots of livestock. There were wild fruits on the trees, thick forests, good livestock and wild animals. We were not worrying about our life. But things got harder because the rain has failed, or is less frequent … In my 70 years, I have never seen an ostrich die without water, never seen a deer die without water, so when I see these wild animals dying, unlike at any time before, I don’t see the climate getting better … It is a critical situation.”
Ali Ismail does not know what to tell young villagers who wonder what the future holds.
“That’s the most crucial question. They become mature and they say, ‘We cannot live’ … They don’t know what to do so they cross the sea to seek a better life in Europe. We don’t have an answer.”
The drought is just one part of the climate puzzle in Somaliland. In Lughaya, Hassan Barre Gas raises his hand to the sky as he describes the wave that crashed into his home on 5 November.
This was the tail end of Cyclone Chapala, which battered nearby Yemen, killing 11 people on the island of Socotra. Yemen was hit by another cyclone just days later: the UN spoke of “unprecedented back-to-back tropical cyclones”.
On Somaliland’s coast, the first wave came at 8pm, and a second at 2am. Around 100 homes were destroyed, mostly in villages east of Lughaya. Many people lost their livestock, utensils, blankets and clothes, and the government sent rice, sugar and plastic sheeting to those in need.
“We heard a huge noise, and when we came out of our houses, we saw the sea rising up like mountains. Then as we were looking, it came to us,” says Barre Gas, 65, speaking through a translator.
“I’ve never seen the sea reach the size of hills or mountains. The house is gone. The camels, sheep and goats ran away. My two fishing nets are gone,” he says.
Barre Gas, his three wives and 12 children are also victims of the drought. The grey-bearded pastoralist had 200 head of livestock three years ago; now he has just 30 animals.
“Our livestock couldn’t move and were very thin. We were feeding the animals paper and cardboard, anything they could eat. The camels and small shoats [sheep and goats] sat close to the sea to feel cool … this is the first time I have experienced this rising sea, and the drought being so continuous, and the rains being so poor.”
More than 240,000 people do not have enough food in Somaliland because of this acute drought caused by poor Gu rains (the region’s main rainy season) from April to June this year, and in 2014. Save the Children, which takes water to vulnerable people, provides chlorination, and builds wells and berkads, or reservoirs, says malnutrition rates – especially for children under five – are alarming and likely to increase.
This region has also been hit by the El Niño phenomenon, which is expected to last until early 2016. The UN has saidthat food insecurity will worsen, with the number of people needing aid rising to around 32 million by early next year. Ethiopia is particularly vulnerable, while floods in southern Somalia have displaced tens of thousands.
Ibrahim Osman, Save the Children’s emergency officer, who is from Somaliland, recalls the horror of July, when desperate pastoralists – who make up around 55% of the population – trekked through the thorn-studded sand with their herds, seeking water and pasture.
“Because of the drought, there has been no rain coming down from the mountains to the coastal areas … [In recent weeks] rain has come but it’s not that much. The people know how the rain should be and they say it was not as good as had been expected.”
Outside the village of Kalawleh, the remains of a donkey and several goats lie together, not far from the borehole that supplies water – a cream tower that acted as a magnet for water-starved pastoralists from as far away as the border with Djibouti.
“We buried thousands [of animals] just two weeks ago,” Osman says, pointing to fresh mounds in the sand. Experts say that between 35-40% of livestock have died – a devastating loss in a country where livestock account for around 40% of gross domestic product and around 80% of foreign earnings.
“If you had seen the people – they could not even walk 20 metres without sitting down. It was a disaster,” says Osman.
He recalls the day he received a call from Ali Ismail, the elder from Bildhaaley.
“I was drinking water when he called and said, ‘I am dying.’ I wanted to do something. That night I didn’t sleep. My children have adequate water for showering and playing. It was painful,” said Osman.
Ali Ismail was among more than 19,000 people who received water since May from Save the Children – one of the many organisations in the action/2015 coalition campaigning for a deal at the Paris talks.
“When we were calling, we were crying,” Ali Ismail says, sitting on a low stone under a tree in Bildhaaley. “We were looking for any organisation to help us,” he said, pointing to a nearby mound that he said was the grave of a man who died at that time, after becoming dehydrated while herding his sheep.
Some rain fell a few weeks ago but the crisis is not over because the animals are still thin and underfed.
“The problem is you cannot slaughter to eat, you cannot get enough milk, and you cannot send the animals to market,” he said. He had 500 to 600 sheep, goats and camels before the drought began but now he has just 100.
In the village of Cabdi Geedi, Annab Ahmed Mohumed talks of how worried she was for her seven children during the drought. Her herd of 40 has now been whittled down to just four goats.
“I used to feed my children rice. I was worried when I couldn’t buy rice. They miss meat, butter and milk. They got weaker and stopped playing. I used to feed them a few times a day, then I only fed them once,” she said.
As she talks, her two-year-old daughter clings to her skirt, while Ibrahim, five, sits on a low stool, carefully writing out his name with a green pencil in a dog-eared copy book.
“When they would say, ‘Mother, why can’t we eat?’, I used to say, ‘It’s because of the drought. I cannot feed you. God will feed you,’” she says. She had to take four of her children out of school because she could not pay the fees.
Hawa Ahmed Yoonis, 40, moved to the village of Gargara five years ago because it had water and her village did not. Her elderly husband is sick, and curled up on a thin mattress on the dirt floor of a dark hut.
Yoonis once had 250 goats and sheep and 10 camels. She now has 10 goats. Three of her children have gone to Djibouti. She has not heard from them since.
“I am no longer thinking of being a pastoralist. Livestock are not useful. They die, so there is no point,” she says, rubbing her hands together. “I feel so much sadness and sorrow for how my life turned out. I was hoping it would be better.”