Families Fight Somalia's Drought with Jerry Cans and Buckets

Habiba Osman Abdi and her family haven’t had fresh drinking water in their village since March. The closest source of clean water is a nearly depleted well six hours’ walk away, where filling a five-gallon/20-liter jerry can costs 20 times what it did just a few months ago.

“[My son] Abdullahi is always crying because he’s thirsty,” said Ms. Abdi, a 25-year-old mother of five. “And the water is expensive, so sometimes we skip a meal to pay for it.”

Hard choices like these are common for Ms. Abdi and others around the Somali city of Beledweyne, where severe drought recently left 75 percent of the population without access to clean water.  

Relief International partnered with the community and other organizations so Ms. Abdi and others wouldn’t have to make those choices. The trouble began late last year, when the autumn rains, called the Deyr, failed to arrive. Diverted by one of the most powerful El Niño trends on record, the rains bypassed the Shebelle River, which provides most of the fresh water in Somalia’s Hiran province. 

Quick Action

RI supports four health clinics in the area, and RI staff have lived and worked in Hiran since 2013. They watched alongside the community as the river sank lower and lower. Knowing that drought lay ahead, the RI-Somalia team quickly completed a top-to-bottom assessment of the community’s water needs and applied for emergency funding from The START Fund, a British coalition of 24 leading international NGOs. Within a month of the Shebelle’s last trickle, the team had launched a 45-day program that ultimately delivered water and hygiene kits to 2,500 households.

RI distributed an average of 4 gallons/15 liters of water per person each day, enough to meet daily drinking, food preparation and hygiene needs. Mumino Halane Mohamed, whose husband is sick with tuberculosis, said she depended on these distributions to provide him and her six children with drinking water.

“Maybe once in two days I buy a jerry can,” Ms. Mohamed said. “But then I only give that water to the children. This [RI-distributed] water will only be used for drinking for the whole family.”

Water for Health

Water also was needed to keep diseases such as cholera at bay. In Beledweyne, nearly 200,000 people risked getting sick from the breeding ground for diseases left behind when the river began to dry up. The few remaining wells were contaminated, and the trickle left of the Shebelle River hosted bacteria and impurities from upstream. Contaminated water increased the incidence of acute watery diarrhea, which the World Health Organization identifies as the second leading cause of death in children under five.

To help families stay healthy, the RI team also distributed hygiene kits containing water purification tablets, buckets, jerry cans and soap to 2,500 households. The kits were provided by the Somalia WASH Cluster, a group of NGOs that work together on emergencies such as the one in Hiran.

Community Driven Solutions

Water distribution in Hiran was directed by the communities themselves. Community-based water management committees -- each made up of 10 women and 10 men selected by their neighbors and local leaders – were trained to reach the most vulnerable families. The water was sourced locally, with the committees and beneficiaries identifying appropriate village-level vendors. RI had the water trucked to distribution sites, where community members filled the jerry cans families had received with their hygiene kits.

“The water we received during this period was a matter of life and death,” said water management committee member Asha Mohamud Yalaxow. “People are in a huge water crisis – this isn’t just a drought. People come out [to the distributions] in masses, they are thirsty.”

The water distribution program went beyond a temporary solution. Drought is common in the region, as are floods like the ones that recently began. RI partnered with local leaders and community members through the water management committees, putting people in charge of their own recovery. People like Ms. Yalaxow say they feel more confident now that they have the skills to fight future droughts.

“I am an ordinary mother, but now I can use my knowledge and experience to manage water issues and help my community,” Ms. Yalaxow said.