By Laurie Goering
LONDON, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Prolonged drought in Somaliland has killed between 65 and 80 percent of the semi-autonomous region's livestock, creating conditions that are "the worst time in our lives" and could threaten regional security, says the region's environment minister.
With 70 percent of Somaliland's economy built around livestock, "you can imagine the desperation of the people, the desperation of the government," said Shukri Ismail Bandare, the minister of rural development and environment.
"Pastoralists say this is the worst we have seen, a kind of nightmare," she said. "They have 400 or 500 goats and then just 20 left. They have lost practically everything. I don't know how they are still sane."
Previous droughts have hit one area of Somaliland, but "now it's five regions of the country. We've never seen it before", she said in a telephone interview from Hargeisa, the capital, with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Across the Horn of Africa, millions have been hit by severe El Nino-related drought. In Somalia, 5.5 million people need assistance to survive over the next six months, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said earlier this month.
Somaliland, a northern region of Somalia that operates autonomously after declaring independence, says it faces a particularly difficult time as its political status – it is not recognised as an independent nation – makes accessing aid more difficult.
"We are not getting bilateral or multilateral funds because we are not recognised," Bandare said. "We are just working with the resources we have. It's a drop in the ocean."
Some "low" levels of international assistance are arriving, she said, but worsening drought has led to widespread migration in Somaliland, with herders flocking to the few remaining places with water.
Those villages and cities in turn are now overwhelmed by "thousands and thousands" of migrants, the minister said. "What they have is practically exhausted because of the pressure," she said.
Experts fear growing migration and other social and financial stresses in Somaliland could undermine its role in preventing the spread of Islamic militant groups in the Horn of Africa.
"The displacement and dislocation due to the drought is not only a humanitarian disaster but threatens the social fabric of society," said Michael Higgins of Independent Diplomat, a non-profit advisory group that works with Somaliland's government to improve its diplomatic efforts.
That "could in turn disrupt security in the entire Horn of Africa region where Somaliland is acting as a buffer and bulwark against Islamic militants such as al Shabaab," Higgins said.
Bandare said her government had little money to spend on emergency aid.
"Our resources are limited," the minister said. "We spend a lot of money on peace and security because there are so many dynamics surrounding this country."
Fortunately, "a lot of people understand the situation we are in, so we are optimistic" about receiving help, she said.
The drought already has forced Somaliland's government to use money it had allocated for infrastructure and development spend on relief food and water, Bandare said.
"We were in a development stage, doing all kinds of infrastructure and really taking the country forward," she said. "But now we are in an emergency."
NO WATER, NO GRAZING
Poor rains since last year have left much of the semi-arid region's grazing land barren. The country has virtually no irrigation, and no rivers or streams, Bandare said.
"The situation is getting worse by the day. It's affected thousands and thousands of people," she said. "And it affects our economy as a nation. The backbone of our economy was livestock."
She said that climate change means that "drought is now coming every other year or every three years" in the region. "You can imagine the weight it has on our economy," she said. "There's no time to recover."
Deforestation and widespread soil erosion have also contributed to the country's rainfall problems, she said, noting that rain often now comes either all at once – producing floods – or not at all.
Efforts to harvest and store rainwater in Somaliland, including through a new African Water Facility project, are still in early stages, Bandare said.
Traditionally, spring rains have arrived the last week of March, but in many recent years they have come in late April. With a growing number of families now without access to water or food, delayed rains could mean a surge in loss of life, she said.
"If it doesn't rain then we are in big, big trouble. Almost two million people are suffering now. Can you imagine if it affects the whole country" of 4.5 million, she asked.
(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Zoe Tabary; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)