Following three consecutive rainy seasons that brought little rainfall, Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in decades, causing massive displacement. Even before the drought, Somalia faced significant humanitarian challenges due to years of conflict. Civil society is providing essential help but response is hampered by violence, corruption and dysfunctional politics. The lack of rain, coming on top of the shock of a global pandemic and now soaring food prices is putting millions of Somalians at risk. Civil society’s response must urgently be supported.

Somalia has experienced long periods of droughts before, but something is different this time. Three successive failed rainy seasons, which experts link to climate change, have led to the worst drought in decades. This comes on top of persistent conflict and political instability, the impacts of the pandemic and other shocks, including an infestation of desert locusts and rising food prices stoked by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Somalia’s drought crisis

As of May 2022, an estimated 6.1 million Somalis have been affected by drought, with 771,400 displaced from their homes in search of food, water and pasture. The figure is only expected to rise. People across the country have been pushed to the brink and many are at risk of starvation.

Somalia’s southern and central regions have faced particularly harsh conditions as wells and waterbodies have dried up. Water shortages have affected crops and livestock, resulting in huge economic losses for pastoral communities. The price of core commodities such as food, fuel, water and livestock fodder have also risen significantly. Disease outbreaks, including cholera, are on the rise due to contaminated water, stagnant waterbodies and lack of proper water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities.

The drought has particularly affected women, who often have extra responsibilities related to water collection and household care. These force them to travel long distances in search of water, which exposes them to greater risk. Children in 30 per cent of households have dropped out of school and young girls are being forced to marry at increasingly higher rates out of economic need. People with disabilities are facing higher levels of neglect as their caretakers go in search of food and water and older people are increasingly marginalised as traditional social structures break under the weight of the economic crisis.

Those leaving in search of better conditions often find additional challenges in the forms of eviction threats, lack of basic service provision and vulnerability to diseases. Displaced women are more vulnerable than men due to increased risks of sexual violence and harassment. Figures indicate that 80 per cent of people arriving in displacement camps are women and older people. Without urgent action in the most severely affected areas, the situation is expected to worsen.

The humanitarian response

International organisations are trying to meet the needs of drought-affected communities. In December 2021, the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Somalia, outlining a strategy for 2022 that included the release of US$17 million dollars from the Central Emergency Response Fund on top of the US$35 million contributed in 2021. These are in addition to the US$60 million provided by donors to the Somalia Humanitarian Fund, one of the UN’s country-based pooled funds. The HRP aims to provide life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable people, with particular attention on those at risk of hunger, malnutrition, abuse and violence.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is providing displaced families with cash support and helping build new water infrastructure, including boreholes and wells, to reduce displacement from rural drought-stricken communities.

International civil society is also playing a significant role. CARE Somalia currently operates in over 50 camps for displaced people, providing health, nutrition, education and other services. Another international civil society organisation (CSO), Mercy Corps, is assisting by providing direct cash transfers to families and supporting pastoral communities to help build resilience

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has issued an emergency appeal to support the Somalia Red Crescent Society to aid its response efforts for 500,000 people in the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland. It has also pledged to contribute the IFRC’s Pan-Africa Zero Hunger Initiative to tackle food insecurity and poverty in the region.

Organisations in other countries have joined the efforts. For instance, a Turkish CSO, the Aziz Mahmud Hudayi Foundation, has provided food assistance to 1,000 drought-affected families in the capital, Mogadishu, and the city of Baidoa, capital of South West state.

At the governmental level, national efforts are being led by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management (MoHADM) in coordination with other governmental agencies at the sub-national level.

Cooperation is key

Much of the response has taken a multi-organisational approach. One of the biggest cash transfer programmes, the Somalia Cash Consortium (SCC), is being implemented by six partner CSOs. The SCC offers unconditional cash transfers to vulnerable populations; in late February and early March it provided aid to households across five of Somalia’s 13 regions. Another cash programme is being led by the Somalia Cash Working Group, a platform that brings different organisations together.

The IOM joined with the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and other partners to launch the Minimum Response Package (MRP), a programme to provide cash, shelter, hygiene items and other urgent resources to over 100,000 displaced people. The MRP will also expand access to WASH services in identified communities.

One key partnership is between OCHA, the federal MoHADM and its state-level counterparts to scale up the response. Local and national collaborations, including national CSO partnerships such as the Nexus Platform, are also playing a vital role in ground-level response, with technical expertise being shared by international partners.

A total of 272 organisations currently operate as part of Somalia’s humanitarian response system, the largest and longest running in the world. But they face the enduring challenges of limited resources and difficult working conditions, not least due to the country’s ongoing conflict.

Conflict and drought

Prolonged conflict has exacerbated the impact of the drought and limited the ability of humanitarian groups to respond effectively. Insecurity hampers operations by restricting movement, disrupting domestic supply chains and cutting off access to people in need. Close to a million people live in territory controlled by al-Shabaab, an extremist and violent Islamic militant network, and cannot be reached by aid workers. People living in these areas are threatened with execution if they receive aid from international organisations.

Conflict affects the response in other ways as well. The government allocates a significant portion of its budget – US$163.9 million of US$671 million in 2021 – to defence and security, taking scarce resources away from social spending.

As a result of the conflict, Somalia is one of the countries most affected by landmines and other explosive devices. In conflict-ridden areas, people are deterred from routes they may need to access water, and humanitarian access can be blocked.

Crisis can in turn further fuel conflict. Desperation has driven hundreds into the hands of militant organisations as people make a pragmatic decision to join as their only available means of escape from hunger and hardship.

Poverty, intensified by conflict, makes the impacts of environmental crises more severe. Close to 70 per cent of Somalia’s population lives below the international poverty line and so are acutely vulnerable to further economic shocks. They are the people worst affected by the drought.

The drought has also disrupted economic growth, further impacting on the government’s ability to respond. The significant financial aid Somalia receives from the international community is no match for the scale of the crisis. Several organisations have called for increased funding, with the WFP asking for a further US$203 million and CARE requesting US$1.46 billion to support the 2022 HRP.

Political instability and corruption

Somalia’s political infrastructure also severely compromises crisis response and the prospect of ending conflict. Corruption is an issue at every level. Even in areas where the government rather than al-Shabaab is in charge, it often fails to provide basic services. The billions of dollars of international aid the country receives bring their own problems, with money diverted through corruption as well as going into overheads and salaries rather than to communities in most need.

Although a new government came to power in May 2022, it could end up bringing little change. The change of government came after more than a year’s delay as a result of a prolonged dispute between the president and prime minister, which saw the president’s term extended beyond its supposed end date of February 2021. Elections were repeatedly pushed back and promises to replace the indirect voting system with a direct one scrapped. As a result, the president continues to be chosen by parliamentarians, who are in turn selected by delegates picked by powerful clan leaders.

When the presidential election was held in May, parliamentarians voted in a fortified airport hangar due to the high risk of violence. Incumbent President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed was defeated by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. But this was hardly a break from the past: the new president previously held the office from 2012 to 2017. The dominance of the clan system leaves political power concentrated in the hands of a few gatekeepers, allowing little room for change.

Further help urgently needed

If humanitarian assistance is not scaled up, several millions more will face food insecurity in the coming months, with malnutrition and the risk of starvation expected to rise, not least as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine pushing up food prices. More people are expected to get waterborne illnesses due to water shortages and insufficient WASH facilities. Rain is not expected until October but La Niña forecasts predict below-average rainfall, which could extend the drought into 2023.

Civil society’s efforts must be supported and boosted through partnerships and proper funding to help overcome the inadequacies of government response. Otherwise the situation can only worsen.


  • Governments should inject more money into existing initiatives to enable CSOs and international organisations to scale up humanitarian response.
  • International organisations must ensure proper monitoring and oversight mechanisms are in place to prevent misappropriation and mismanagement of resources and ensure they reach people in need.
  • The Somali government should work with the international community to improve the capacity of public sector institutions to respond to the current crisis and future crises.

Cover photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images