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‘No one saw this level of devastation coming’: climate crisis worsens in Somalia

Mohamed Gabobe in Hobyo
Friday May 19, 2023

An aerial view shows flooding in Beledweyne, central Somalia, where the Shabelle River has burst its banks. Photograph: Nuur Mohamed

Jamal Ali Abdi has seen flooding in Beledweyne before but never on the scale witnessed earlier this month when the Shabelle River burst its banks, causing devastation to the central Somali town and displacing almost the entire population.

As water gushed through the streets, Ali’s home was soon surrounded by murky brown flood water.

“The water was up to my neck,” said Ali, 36. “Our entire family, including my six children, sought refuge in a relative’s home after our house was immersed. I was barely able to get my children to safety and grab a couple of items as we fled.

“We haven’t seen flooding on this scale in years,” he added. “No one saw this level of devastation coming.”

Nearly 250 million people have been forced to leave their homes after heavy rainfall in Somalia and the Ethiopian highlands led to flash floods in Beledweyne, the capital of the Hiran region. A week on from the start of the flooding the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called for urgent funding to scale up assistance, while the Somali Disaster Management Agency distributed aid to displaced families this week.

Somalia is suffering the effects of the worst drought in four decades, a result of the climate crisis. But OCHA Southern and Eastern Africa warned that the recent precipitation will not counter the devastation caused by years of below-average rainfall.

In 2019, local people built a defensive wall on the banks of the Shabelle, which has helped prevent flooding during previous heavy rains but could not withstand the force of the water this time.

Like many members of his community, Ali fled to a relative’s home, where he is sharing a room with two other displaced families.

“You don’t have to be here with us to know how difficult it is when you have three families sharing a single room, not knowing when you’ll return home and if the floods left anything behind,” he said.

But the house they escaped to is also surrounded by water, raising fears that they will have to move again. “Everyone is scared that the water will rise,” said Ali, speaking by phone from Beledweyne.

His fears are widely shared. Hassan Abdi fled with his wife and seven children from their home in the Bundooyinka neighbourhood of Beledweyne on the first day of the flooding. As the water began seeping under his front door, Abdi, 37, decided to take his children to an empty house owned by a friend.

“When I left with my children, I thought the flooding would be short lived,” he said. “We’ve endured many floods before. After resettling my family, I returned home to take whatever I could but it started getting close to dusk, so I made the decision to spend the night there.

“The water level was at my toes initially, but by the time I woke up the following morning, it was knee high. That’s when I knew things would be different this time. I’ve witnessed six floods since moving here in 1997 and this is the worst.

“My children are still very young. Sometimes I wonder if they understand that they’ve become displaced and that this empty home might become our permanent home,” added Abdi, who is unemployed and depends on remittances from siblings in the diaspora to support his family. “I don’t believe there’s anything my siblings can do for my family. There are certain things that money can’t fix and a natural disaster is one of them.”


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