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Environmental Terrorism in Somalia

By Madhumita Suresh


As the world steps into the Anthropocene epoch, it becomes increasingly imperative to explore the broader implications of water weaponization and environmental terrorism on sustainable development. This article explores the impact of environmental terrorism and political underdevelopment in the water-stressed state of Somalia. 

Droughts and human-induced climate change have led to a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Somalia leaving its citizens to face the brunt of it. The crisis primarily stemmed from climate variability and poor allocation of water which was further aggravated by war and environmental terrorism, subsequently leading to national food and water scarcity, and inaccessibility.

Al-Shabaab, a militant group active in Somalia and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, are controlling Somali water supplies from cities as an act of exercising power. Malnourished children, forced displacement, livestock depletion, loss of livelihood and a significant drop in crop production are a few of the devastating impacts of the war and the continuing terrorism. While the state receives international humanitarian aid from various organizations and countries, the allocation of these funds remains a question. 

Children sit on water bottles waiting to be filled among tents in a displacement camp for people impacted by drought in Baidoa, Somalia.

1 Picture taken from The Guardian.

Located in the easternmost part of Africa, the Federal Republic of Somalia, with a population of 17 Million people, borders Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Gulf of Aden, and Kenya. The country’s GDP and HDI are ranked amongst the world’s lowest, with 69% of its population living below the poverty line. The northern part of the country has a warm desert climate, while the south of Somalia has a semi-arid climate. The country’s main sources of water are the Shabelle and Juba rivers, which flow from Ethiopia and are highly dependent on Ethiopia’s precipitation. Somalia is observed to be extremely vulnerable to climate change and has recently been exposed to severe weather conditions including drought, floods, uncertain rainfall, sandstorms, and cyclones

Reviewing water security in Somalia

Frequent droughts and multiple famines have been occurring since 1965. However, the 2011 drought is the most significant since it took the lives of 258,000 people and further affected 13 million people. To add to this, climate models have forecasted higher temperatures and an extreme drop in precipitation in regions of the Horn of Africa. The Somalia Drought Impact and Needs Assessment highlights the fragile state of the Shabelle river, which has extensively impacted water quality and supply, thereby increasing water-related risks. However, it must be noted that Somalia’s main issue isn’t water scarcity, but the lack of good water governance and management.  There is 0% water reuse, wastewater directly ends up in the sea and otherwise in uncontrolled septic tanks. Decreasing water tables along with water contamination have resulted in persistent water scarcity which is further exacerbated by flash-flood risks. Despite these risks, people are utilizing contaminated groundwater for agricultural and domestic uses which has led to the rise of water-borne diseases. The consequence of all these events is the reduction in crop production which has further led to acute hunger in 6.3 million Somali people. 

A story of Food Insecurity and Malnutrition 

As characterized by several scholars across the world, Food Security broadly comprises availability, accessibility and utilization, and in the context of Somalia, the country’s food security state is highly unstable given the rate of violence. However, as formal governance is gradually being established, the issues it currently deals with are more accessibility and utilization oriented than solely focusing on availability. Poor transport infrastructure, an increase in food prices due to the conflict, and a decline in pastoral production have profoundly affected the supply of domestic produce, making the country import-reliant and prone to unanticipated shocks.

Baby in a stabilization center receiving life-saving care

2 Picture taken from UNICEF.

These impacts were further multiplied by high global commodity prices and food shortages due to the Russia-Ukraine war, two countries which supplied almost 90% of Somalia’s wheat imports. Owing to starvation and water-borne diseases, 30% of livestock holdings were lost. Additionally, a United Nations report suggests 500,000 children in Somalia are at risk of starvation if urgent action isn’t taken.  

Al-Shabaab’s tactical weaponization

The situation is further worsened by political instability and violence which is predominantly due to the militant group – Al Shaabab. Apart from violent attacks and evictions, this militant group is known for its “hearts and minds” strategy, wherein it coerces support from the locals by supplying necessities and resources.

Keeping in mind the country’s humanitarian crisis, people residing in certain states such as Jubaland, Southwest and Hirshabelle are completely under the control of Al-Shabaab and therefore restricted from accessing international aid. Al-Shabaab desires to manage and tax humanitarian aid which has caused anxiety amongst NGOs working in these regions coordinating for international aid as they fear facing legal action for providing material assistance to terrorist groups, in case Al-Shabaab gains access to the funds.


Recently, Al-Shabaab is making an effort to take advantage of the drought and food insecurity by recruiting locals and increasing more fighters. The group’s attacks towards political leaders have  increased political uncertainty, leading to a situation where Al-Shabaab along with other militant groups have gained territory and resources, and are carrying out more attacks creatinga need for security.

Political Underdevelopment and Bad Governance

The government faces a lack of holding force in certain regions of Somalia compounded by the lack of resources and inter-clan rivalries. Inefficient and corrupt governance is the main reason behind the unstable state of Somalia. Despite funding from UNDP, WB, WVI, COOPI, FAO and SDRI, there is still a lack of transparency and accountability in the government’s utilization of international aid. Furthermore, there is a long way to go regarding trans-boundary issues present within Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. There is a need for better coordination among national, regional, and international forces to focus on the shared goals of security and development to combat the lawlessness and transnational nature of criminal and terrorist networks in Somalia.  

Many conflict studies scholars have argued that water stress is a motivation to violence which impacts environmental conditions and alters power dynamics, livelihood security and economic growth. However, in Africa the motivation for violence is due to inefficient water allocation and not because of water availability. Since the population predominantly relies on water for pastures and agriculture, Africa is extremely vulnerable to water stresses. Water weaponization can have a significant impact on their lives which can exacerbate existing poverty, governmental instability, demographic change, etc., these impacts can tremendously affect the larger goal of sustainable development. 

Somalia is facing another food crisis: here's why -- and what can be done  to stop the cycle

4 Picture taken from The Conversation.

Broader implications on Sustainable Development

It becomes highly challenging to foster sustainable development, which encompasses the nurturing of the economy, society, and the environment, when violence and terrorism persist. The environment is simply one component amongst several other variables and given the natural complexity behind social networks, it has been theorized that conflicts cannot solely be environmentally driven, it is more often a scenario where violence is induced environmentally and the risk of the conflict is further escalated by climate-related disasters. In this case, bad governance aggravated the situation leading to a humanitarian crisis. 

In recent years, the world has witnessed several conflicts which have had a profound impact on the environment, the global economy, and society such as the Russia-Ukraine war. With the ongoing climate change, natural resource depletion will create global instability. That being said, there needs to be a global collective effort in ensuring the successful implementation of SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions to foster sustainable development, especially concerning Global Health, Zero Hunger, Clean Water, Economic Growth and Gender Equality.   

About the Author

Madhumita Suresh is a third-year student at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Environmental Economics. Her interests include water policy, sustainable pathways, just transition, climate finance and natural hazards management.

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