This blog post is a part of a series of posts the author occasionally writes about the humanitarian situation in Somalia focusing on Somali #diaspora #humanitarianism, #complexcrises, #gender issues in Somalia. The author is a PhD candidate studying Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism at the University of Copenhagen/University of Nairobi, @Diaspora_Hum.
Introduction and background
One would expect that, after all the devastating episodes of natural disasters in Somalia such as recurring droughts and flash floods, a society would have at least learned a valuable lesson and be somewhat prepared for the next crisis episode.
Climate crisis in the world is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and the world doesn’t seem to be ready for it. While climate crisis has many factors that contribute to its exacerbation, there are some that warrant more attention than others. According to Earth.org, the 5 biggest environmental problems facing the world in 2020 were poor governance, food waste, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, deforestation, air pollution and agriculture. Somalia seems to be facing many of these problems all at the same time. Exactly a year ago, today, torrential rains and subsequent flash floods struck Qardho town causing massive wreckage including injuries, loss of life, extensive destruction of property and infrastructure, as well as massive displacement of people. A year later, I examine in this blog post what the impact of the floods has been on the community and how the community is recovering.
Monday April 27 2020 was the first day of Ramadan for the Muslim world. It was also the day that flash floods lashed at Qardho, a historic city in northeastern Somalia, located between Bossaso and Garowe. With a population of about 120,000 people, the people of Qardho had broken their fast and finished praying Taraweeh prayers on that fateful evening when at about 10pm news broke out about the disaster.
Breaking news on social media announced that the town’s only bridge had broken due to the heavy rains. Pictures and videos showed meters-high rainwater making their way through to people’s homes, carrying debris, waking up children and entire families. This led to power failure in the city making visibility even more difficult. Many of us started calling family and friends in Qardho to inquire about their welfare and wellbeing. Drawing on data obtained through interviews and consultations with the affected community in Qardho as well as through secondary data, this paper aims to illuminate the impact of the 2020 flash floods on the community in Qardho, and the response of Somalis in and out of the country in the mobilization and delivery of humanitarian relief support to Qardho during the flash floods of April 2020.
The impact of the floods
According to the community, the April floods had a major impact on all spheres of life. A young mother by the name of Nasra Xasan Ibrahim tragically lost all 3 of her kids after they were swept away by the floods. Eight other people lost their lives to the floods, while 10 were reported to be missing.
The floods impacted the livelihoods and main sources of income of many individuals and families in Qardho. Most families lost everything they had in their homes to the floods in the middle of the night, such as matrasses, blankets, and kitchenware. Business activities that generated food, shelter, WASH, and income to the community were hit by the floods.
According to Mama Hawa, all her possessions were lost in the floods as she explained; “We woke up to some loud distant sounds. It was around 10pm and we were fast asleep. By then the water was already at our feet and in our home.” In an interview, Mama Hawa also mentioned that she was given $250 USD as compensation, but that was not enough and she hasn’t fully recovered from the impact.
The floods had halted the traffic flow of goods and people within and outside the town. The damage and asset destruction was great. One of the victims interviewed explained that within her shop water levels had reached about 1.5 meters from the ground, which caused her to lose most of her goods worth 100s of USD. Another respondent shared that the floods was the worst she had ever experienced in Qardho. She had lost everything she owned and a year later was still not able to rebuild her life, her home, and her livelihood.
The floods also had an impact on a large part of the town’s commercial area making it impossible for activity to resume in the market areas. According to the Puntland Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management Agenda (HADMA) about 22,000 people (approximately 3,750 households) were displaced from their homes and more than 750 houses were destroyed. HADMA also established that over 67% of the affected households were male-headed, while 33% of the affected households were female-headed. Families lost assets such clothes, furniture, food, items shelter, utensils).
Almost all the shops in the area were affected, the floods destroyed everything the people were selling, (HADMA/IFRC Qardho Final Report, 2020). Around 2000 small businesses were affected, 80% of these were owned by women. The majority of these affected businesses were small businesses such as retail shops, meat and vegetable traders, milk vendors, kiosks, cloth sellers, and street forex. These businesses were everything these people had, they sustained more than 4000 households. The Mayor of Qardho estimated that about 80% of the shops and market areas in Qardho were significantly damaged by the floods.
The response and recovery
The emergency response operation was led by the Puntland government. President Said A. Deni travelled to Qardho the following morning to weigh the magnitude of the impact of the floods and to attend the burial of some of the persons who succumbed to the floods. The President also tweeted about the disaster appealing for urgent humanitarian support for the affected community. He also called for a high-level disaster committee to be tasked with the supervision and coordination of the relief and recovery operations and the distribution of resources. The committee comprised of 24 members – 15 cabinet members, two civilians, two religious’ leaders, three commanders of the security forces, the Minister of Women and Family Affairs, and the Minister of Interior, who was also the chairman of the committee.
A rapid assessment led to an appeal to stakeholders to respond quickly, including local people from different cities in Somalia. The Somali federal government donated one million USD. Humanitarian agencies launched a one-month food assistance program to 15,000 beneficiaries, approximately 2,500 households. Support also came from the UN, Save The Children, DRC, NRC, and many others. The days following the flood, committee meetings came up with a Emergency Plan of Action (EPoA) for Qardho. Young people in and out of Somalia patriotically mobilized resources for Qardho. Somalis in Bossaso and other regions of Somalia as well as in the diaspora advocated for support for the community using the hashtag #PrayForQardho. This happened at a time when the hashtag #StayAtHome was also trending in Somalia.
From Laascanood to Bardheere, fundraising initiatives continued for Qardho. Somali men and women took to social media to livestream it all. The Somali diaspora played a major role in the humanitarian response. The Somali community in Norway donated 62 000 USD and the Somali diaspora community in Leicester 35 000 USD. The Somali community in Zambia donated 30 000 USD to the Qardho flood victims and individual Somalis in Zambia and in many other countries also sent their donations through the Xawala global money transfer system and through mobile money transfers. Many other individuals in the diaspora launched fundraising campaigns on different platforms. Somali celebrities from all over the world sent technical and financial support. Different Somali groups and individuals raised funds online via various platforms such as JustGiving and GoFundMe, with a total of 34 fundraising pages. The fundraising efforts for Qardho flood victims was one of the biggest I have seen in Somalia.
Somalis took to social media to inquire about transparency and about how much funds was raised for Qardho and how it was distributed. Questions were raised about the lack of fairness and some spoke of discrimination against some of the community in Qardho. Social media was full of these complaints within the first few weeks of the floods. Others inquired about the issue of accountability – had there been a published report detailing the quantity and quality of the financial and non-financial resources that may have reached the committee and the fate of the same? However, a flood response committee member explains in this video what the support received was, to whom it was given, how much, and why. In the same video, it is explained that two committees have been set up, one for mobilizing and collecting the funds and the other for food distribution.
A group of Somali women from the diaspora, led by Professor Dr Hodan Isse Guul, donated oxygen tanks to Qardho hospital.
The funds raised was reported to have been used for for the distribution of food items, renovation of collapsed houses and shops, as well as for water blockages in order to deviate rainwater passage to allow future rain to pass through. Moreover, some of the money was said also used to provide victims with emergency housing in schools and other huge open spaces. Four boreholes, which supplied water to the people were contaminated during the floods. This contaminated water was later purified using water purification tablets. Support for the flood victims of Qardho also came from non-Somalis. The students and staff of Newburyport High School and One World Strong Foundation in Massachusetts, United States, joined hands to also set up a GoFundMe Page and raised funds for the affected community. Newburyport High School is the sister school of Qardho and has a technology-based education program currently running in Qardho.
Vulnerability, floods and coronavirus risk exposure
At the time the floods occurred, Somalia was also grappling with the coronavirus pandemic with more than 14,000 cases officially confirmed to date. The Puntland government announced a few weeks before the floods hit Qardho town that Covid-19 pandemic restrictions would be put in place. Shortly after the floods, it was reported that some senior government and civil society officials who were part of the responding team tested positive for Covid-19. This had worsened the situation and made the coordination of the emergency response plan difficult. Despite these challenges, the government continued to provide support to the affected people.
The floods exposed the weak links in the health sector and in disaster preparedness in Somalia. The reported cases of Covid-19 increased during the Qardho floods due to high exposure and absence of social distancing. In the absence of accurate data, the high incidence of Covid-19 among the government officials can be used as a proxy indicator to illustrate the extent to which Covid-19 affected the local community. The community was at the time far less protected than the high-ranking officers of the government who were there.
The pandemic undermined the humanitarian coordination in this regard as it was reported that half of the coordination committee had contracted the virus. The virus spread on to the community at large due to the massive displacement. The Head of the Emergency response committee himself had also, unfortunately, succumbed to Covid-19. The implementation and proper coordination of the relief and recovery response plan left much to be desired because different actors were doing different activities such as own mobilization and distribution of resources. This translated into duplication and some people receiving more assistance several times while others received few or none.
Discussion and conclusion
Almost every year thousands of people are affected by floods in Puntland and in Somalia. Lives are lost and property is damaged. It is not only these disasters that destroy lives and livelihoods in Somalia. Losses accrued from a series of frequent floods and droughts can contribute to increased vulnerability.
These disasters don’t lead to major changes in terms of community preparedness and people are often left on their own to cope with the aftermath. How prepared are our communities, especially those in disaster-prone areas, for the next floods? As I write this, in this blessed month of Ramadan it has been raining heavily the past 6 days in Qardho and people are fearful of yet another flood. Also, it has been reported on the 29th April 2021, by Radio Ergo that flash floods had swept away more than 130 vegetable farms in Eldahir village in Bari region washing away the entire harvest. These ongoing events have drastic consequences for the people concerned as they are the most affected by these disasters. They are the ones who suffer the most from the consequences with poverty, poor health, nutrition and little access to education. Disasters are caused by the interaction of vulnerability and hazards that trigger events like these floods.
This and other points bring us to the question of whether the flash floods disaster was indeed entirely a natural disaster or if other factors had also contributed. From these facts, one may conclude that the Qardho flood disaster was to a certain extent, a man-made disaster. People had wrongly built homes on and along the natural water ways in the flood-borne valley surrounded by hills thereby obstructing the water to reach the dry rivers. To illustrate this, Figure 1 below shows how the town has changed in the span of just a few years. Since 2004 the settlements built around the unstable zones and flood-prone areas have increased in size.
The difference is striking, hence the conclusion that the disaster was partly, if not mainly, provoked by anthropic activity. Flooding in unplanned settlements in Puntland is recurrent, even in years of normal rainfall. Much discussion is needed about what actions could be taken when a flooding occurs, but as soon as the seasonal rains stop, the incidents are forgotten. Yet we all know that prevention is better than cure. We need to be proactive than reactive.
Most of the households affected by flooding are economically challenged and the flooding damages or destroys homes and belongings, which will take years to rebuild. The citizens of Qardho may be faulted for settling on sites that are at risk for flooding, but this is usually because they cannot find a better alternative. In addition, reducing flood risks in one settlement can increase flood risks in others. Furthermore, local authorities need to be vigilant about settlements located in unstable zones, and they need to increase awareness of the need for action in settlements that are built on flood-prone areas as can be seen in the before and after picture of Qardho.
In view of the above, what are the lessons learned? What has been documented in terms of earlier warning signs and earlier mitigation measures to contain disasters? What is the upcoming plan of action to mitigate future occurrences in Qardho? in Beletweeyne? For the rest of Somalia? Are there any resilience and recovery mechanism developed for Qardho? Are there any follow-up meetings planned? This doesn’t have to cost much. The social affairs department of local municipalities could, for example, easily perform this task and provide local communities the necessary information, knowledge and skills to deal with eventual crises thereby minimizing deaths, property loss and displacement. The can also educate the masses about climate change and its implications for the community.
In conclusion, new ways need to be sought to provide low-income households with alternatives to informal settlements. Technology could provide novel tools in solving today’s problems in preparedness for floods. For example, learning from the 2017 drought, Somali youth developed a digital crisis mapping application called abaaraha. Perhaps we can continue to make use of these apps in the future in the context of flash floods.
A picture tells a thousand stories. Below are a number of pictures and video clips from different sources that capture the floods well and that show the magnitude as well as the human face of the Qardho floods.
Below is a link to my monthly speech covering: Trips in Mudug & achiev., local govt, security & military sectors reform, & security coop b/w PL & GM, devt projects, Qardho flood flashing, courts reform, Dhusamareb 1/2/3, & trip to Mogadishu & exam results.