Prolonged civil war and lack of functioning government since 1991 have seriously impacted the environment in Somalia.
Ecologically Somalia is rich in biodiversity and species endemism. Despite its dryness, it accommodates some three thousand species of vascular plants. Twenty per cent of them are endemic and habitat for diverse wildlife species.
Somalia has abundant grazing lands and nearly 70 per cent of the population is pastoralist and agro-pastoralist. Therefore, woody plants, woodlands and other vegetation constitute important sources of household income including essential goods and services, energy, employment and capital.
However, the prolonged war has through displacement and resettlement of human populations badly affected both the livelihoods of the people and the environment. This has caused deforestation, habitat fragmentation/destruction and desertification, resulting in further loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation.
Before the civil war it was possible to identify different groups, based on livelihood sources such as pastoralists/agro-pastoralists, settled farmers (along the riverine areas), merchants and fishing communities. Each group was living a dispersed way of life; for example, the camel herders used to live in isolated mountainous areas while the cattle herders lived in the lowland areas. That was the traditional land-use management system in Somalia.
Because of the civil war the traditional system became impractical. For defence and security reasons the members of each clan, regardless of their livelihood sources, now live closer to each other than they used to live. Large numbers of livestock and people gather together exceeding the carry capacity of the area, resulting in desertification and resources degradation.
As a consequence, coupled with frequent droughts, many pastoral communities lost their livestock, and ended up as refugees (IDP) within their country, with no government support or livelihood transformation. Moreover, since there is no rule of law, environmental awareness or public education, tree harvesting for charcoal production, firewood and construction of refugee camps became an available option for survival and coping.
The situation has resulted in an increase in resource-based conflicts and competition over resources among charcoal burners as well as different political groups, each trying to occupy the most productive area or harvest the most vagarious centenarian Acacia trees. For instance, the Low Juba valley region which is the richest region in the country in terms of water availability, vegetation and tree cover, became a hotspot for charcoal production and related resource-based conflicts.
The terrestrial ecosystems and the environment of Somalia are threatened by continuous deforestation, degradation and diminution, with far-reaching ecological, economic and social consequences. In most areas of the country woodlands have turned into scrub and the ground vegetation has disappeared from extensive areas.
The strong indicators emphasizing the seriousness of the problems are, among others, reduced agricultural productivity and food insecurity, dominance of less vegetative cover, and extinction of wildlife species. In short, the area could best be described as “an overgrazing endpoint where most of the grass and topsoil has already gone”.
In reaction to this appalling situation, some scholars, Community Based NGOs, and International NGOs have started to raise community awareness and initiate environmental projects. Among the organizations implementing environmental projects is the Finnish Somalia Network, which initiated the Sahansaho project, aiming to tackle desertification and other environmental problems through tree planting in three different districts – Adado, Buhodle and Galka’ayo in Central and Northern Somalia.
The Sahansaho project is funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland for years 2012–2015 and it was among the first initiatives in the country to combat deforestation.
By autumn 2013, the main construction work of the three centers including simple buildings, water reservoirs and tree nurseries have been finalized. Also, the planting of seedlings has started, by the seeds provided by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi as well as collected around the three project sites. The Viikki Tropical Resources Institute in Finland as an expert partner in the project has provided invaluable training for the project partners in Finland as well as other resources and contacts.
A central component of the project is training local partners and communities in Somalia, as environmental education in Somalia is almost non-existing and tree planting has not been a priority among projects implemented in Somalia so far. Therefore, training on, for example, how to take care of the seeds and tree nurseries, how to plant seedlings and harvest rain-water are amongst topics addressed in trainings provided once a year for the whole project team in joint meetings in Somalia.
The local project staff on their part is responsible for further raising awareness among and training the local communities. For example, seminars and school visits as well as engaging larger audiences by the media have been tools to achieve these goals.
The Sahansaho project is still taking its first footsteps and there are many challenges to overcome, but the enthusiasm among the local communities is visible. A joint project including collaboration between different areas, and the focus on environment, a shared concern for ordinary people, has been highly appreciated and welcomed. Sahansaho is hoped to pave way to an even larger environmental activity in the future.
Sahansaho project is implemented in collaboration by the Finnish Somalia Network; its three member organizations in Finland (Puntland Community; Somali Social Development Association; and Sool, Sanaag and Hawd Development Association); and three partners in Somalia (Homboboro Relief and Rehabilitation Organization; Nomadic Development Organization; and Tanaad Relief and Development Organization).
Badal Ahmed Hassan
The author is a project coordinator of the Sahansaho project and doctoral candidate at the Viikki Tropical Resources Institute in Finland (VITRI).