Somalia: Delivering clean water in a conflict-stricken country

by International Committee of the Red Cross | International Committee of the Red Cross
Monday, 14 April 2014 01:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Carooley, Nugaal, Puntland. A man plasters another layer of cement on the inside of a "berked". Water harvested by the berked during rainy seasons is then used in subsequent dry seasons. CC BY-NC-ND / ICRC / Phil Moore / so-e-00670

In 2013, nearly 375,000 people – and crucially also their livestock – had their access to water improved by the ICRC.

“The main reasons for water shortage in Somalia are the recurrent droughts and floods, the strain on the few available water supply points, and the absence of state services that would otherwise create and maintain water supplies,” said May Mousa, who is in charge of the ICRC’s water and habitat activities in Somalia.

“Somalis also find their access to water prevented by insecurity arising from the ongoing conflict. These problems demand a multifaceted response that combines meeting emergency needs with investing in the maintenance of existing water sources, or creating new ones,” she added.

Acute and chronic water needs 

Yaqbisharo, Lower Jubba. The ICRC redrills the Yaqbisharo borehole and others to provide access to safe water in the often drought and flood-stricken regions of Somalia.© ICRC / Aden Issak / so-e-00669

While major widespread droughts like those experienced across Somalia and the Horn of Africa in 2011 and 2012 draw a lot of global attention, localized serious droughts affect communities in Somalia every year. “Such was the case in the second half of 2013 in parts of Gedo region, in the south-west of the country, when the normal water sources dried up in some 50 villages between September and November,” explained Ms Mousa.

Major floods, too, disrupt access to clean water in most years, as regular sources become contaminated by heavily silted floodwater. This was the case in late 2013 in both Jowhar in the south, and Puntland in the north. Additionally, people forced from their homes due to conflict and insecurity may find themselves in very vulnerable conditions on the peripheries of towns and cities, where access to water is also limited.

“We respond to the most acute needs, when all other options are exhausted, by trucking water in tanks to communities,” said Ms Mousa. In Gedo, emergency water rations were provided for some 42,000 people and their livestock during the drought months. In Jowhar District in September 2013, 11,500 people displaced by fighting moved Jowhar town, where the ICRC has since been providing lifesaving water rations through trucking. At the same time, the organization has been rehabilitating a hand-dug well and constructing two rainwater catchments back in their home area, to which many of the displaced people hope to return in the coming months.

For water sources contaminated by floods, the ICRC helps decontaminate and clean them once the floodwaters have receded. In 2013, 10,000 people were forced to flee to different parts of Jowhar town when the Shabelle River burst its banks, making living conditions deplorable. “Shallow wells and other sources of water were contaminated, presenting a major health hazard,” recalled Ms Mousa. Of 19 hand-dug wells cleaned by the ICRC, 13 were also upgraded, enabling access to clean water for over 20,000 people.

In Puntland, a cyclone that struck in November 2013 left dozens of people dead and up to a million head of livestock wiped out by freak freezing temperatures, high winds and severe floods. In addition to providing food and essential household items, the ICRC also made available water and chlorine tablets, as well as the basins, jerrycans and bladder tanks needed to store and distribute water – benefiting more than 4,000 people.

Investing for the long term 

Yaqbisharo, Lower Jubba. The water points not only provide water for the people but also for their livestock through the construction of troughs at the water points. Livestock is vital to the livelihood of the primarily pastoralist Somali people.© ICRC / Aden Issak

The ICRC invests much of its resources into projects that promote long-term sustainability of water sources, and which also seek to maintain the number of access points to water. It does so by repairing and rehabilitating existing water sources, such as boreholes, hand-dug wells and pumps, and drinking-troughs for animals. For example, five boreholes that had been damaged in Galguduud, Mudug, Nugaal and Lower Juba regions were re-drilled, providing water to over 25,000 beneficiaries and their livestock.


A well is de-silted after the Beletweyn floods of 2012. Often flood water contaminates wells. The ICRC cleans the wells to ensure that people have access to clean water, reducing the spread of waterborne diseases. © ICRC

Around these and other existing boreholes and wells, the ICRC builds infrastructure such as elevated water tanks, generator houses, tap-stands and animal troughs to enhance access to water. The ICRC also helps local communities to upgrade their existing water sources by improving traditional rainwater harvesting techniques through the construction of berkeds (traditional Somali water cisterns) and rainwater catchments, and sometimes by drilling new boreholes.

Last year, over 90,000 people benefited from such actions. In Tuulo Ooman, Puntland for instance, the ICRC constructed a berked which now serves three villages. Water harvested by the berked during rainy seasons is then used in subsequent dry seasons. Traditionally, Somalis build berkeds in a rectangular shape – however, the ICRC encourages communities to build them in a circular form, which makes them stronger and more durable.