Somalia's perfect storm

We are in a climate emergency. And you were born at just the right moment to help change everything.

Subscribe to The Phoenix to support independent climate journalism at a critical moment in history.

In late November, Cyclone Gati hit Somalia with unparalleled force.

Gati was the most powerful cyclone to ever strike East Africa, producing sustained winds of 100mph (170kph) and more than two years worth of rain in just two days.

And when I say “unparalleled”, I mean it: Nothing like this has ever happened before.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, “There is no historical record of a hurricane-strength system making landfall in Somalia.” What’s worse, Gati did so with only a few hours warning after rapidly strengthening at the fastest pace in the recorded history of the Indian Ocean.

No one saw it coming. No one could have seen it coming.

Simply put: Gati was a perfect storm. A life-changing disaster for a group of people who have endured more than their fair share of life-changing disasters.

Somalia, in contrast, is a place that everyone thinks they know about. It is a failed state. There’s no hope. It’s a wasteland.

Here in Minnesota, Somalis are our friends and neighbors. My recent conversation with Rep. Ilhan Omar shows that as Minnesotans, our identity, and our drive for climate justice, is deeply rooted in our understanding that every single person deserves the basics of human rights. And that means pushing back hard on the erasure that happens during times of disaster and struggle.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with people in Somalia who fear the cyclone has triggered a cascading catastrophe – but who also believe that transformational change is underway. Despite all the problems Somalia faces at this exact moment – a resurgence of desert locusts, waterborne disease, one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Africa, further displacement of IDPs and refugees, the potential for escalating conflict – there are just as many reasons for hope.

In this post, I’ve written a lot about Somalia, mostly because I just can’t get it out of my head that disasters like this happen and the rest of the world just moves on. Or that there are any places or people who deserve to be written off.

Cyclone Gati is what climate injustice looks like – an unnatural disaster that requires systematic and structural change to repair.

Deep in this story of unimaginable loss and catastrophe is a glimpse of a hopeful Somalia that could exist in the relatively near future and that countless people are already working to make a reality.

Cyclone Gati is a perfect example of climate injustice

Somalia has emitted just 0.002% of historical global greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution – 12,500 *times* less than the United States – yet people there are bearing the brunt of the climate emergency.

People in places like Somalia, Bangladesh, and Haiti – President Trump’s “shithole countries” – are routinely written off as unavoidable casualties of poverty, disaster and war. Somalia is so forgotten it’s often literally erased from international climate change analysis, considered “too politically unstable” or a “failed state”. A recent analysis found that Somalia is the country least likely to survive the imminent threats of climate change.

None of this is inevitable.

The reality, of course, is that Somalia’s struggles are because of a history of colonialism and racial injustice. This isn’t something that just happened on its own. It’s no accident that countries in Scandinavia are considered “safe” while countries in Africa and Central America are considered “unsafe”. Centuries of exploitation have seen Somalia’s wealth fractured and its people turned on each other. Extractivism and imperialism created Somalia’s vulnerability, not the other way around. And it’s no coincidence that those are exactly the same factors that are driving the climate emergency.

With climate change, we're seeing warmer ocean temperatures and a more moist atmosphere that's leading to a greater chance of rapid intensification for tropical cyclones like Gati. Northern Somalia usually gets about 4 inches of rain per year, and Gati brought much more than thatas much as 16 inches of rain in just two days.

These are the same forces that made this year’s Atlantic hurricane so tragic, with people in Honduras and Nicaragua enduring back-to-back landfalls of Eta and Iota, two of the strongest hurricanes in history.

Somalia’s contribution to the Paris climate accord makes it clear: “The combination of the disasters Somalia is prone to and the disasters occurrence predictions from scientists clearly show that the worst is yet to come. At this era, Somalia cannot afford to lose so many lives again.”

In Somalia, ongoing massive debt forgiveness and a future plan of climate reparations could mean guaranteed universal access to food, water, and shelter – and a better future.

An escalating humanitarian crisis

As a result of the overlapping pandemic, economic recession, and climate emergency, the UN is now warning of a global humanitarian crisis in 2021 on a scale unseen in the past 75 years.

In Somalia, that looks like a food security emergency in the northern parts of the country that Cyclone Gati struck directly, worsened by one of the worst locust outbreaks in a generation, and with little help from its neighbors – Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yemen – the need for urgent humanitarian aid in Somalia is huge.

Last year, Somalia declared a national emergency after a series of disastrous floods coincided with the worst outbreak of locusts in a generation, a fight that has taken months of effort with few resources. Somalia has seen an escalating cycle of drought and flood in recent years, but the rains associated with Cyclone Gati have already spawned a resurgence in locusts and farmers are suffering.

India, Pakistan, and Iran have all but eradicated the locusts earlier this year – so eradication is possible in Somalia too.

On top of all this, Somalia’s struggles with COVID-19 have been compounded by a surge of refugees, conflict, and a sharp drop in remittances from abroad.

Somalia’s climate emergency, in person

Cyclone Gati made landfall in Hafun, in Puntland in northern Somalia, a port city that’s been at the center of the global spice and salt trade for thousands of years. In Bosaso, the largest city in the region, almost everything was underwater.

The day Gati hit, I spoke with Liban Mahamed, a livestock trader in Bosaso:

I’m in Bosaso as we speak. This is a video from an hour ago. Not the best quality but you can see how the rain has affected us so far.

Today has been surprising mainly due to the lack of warning from the local government. No one was informed of an upcoming cyclone and it caught all of us by surprise. Water in most parts of the city has already reached ankle high and the rainfall as of 10:52pm is still falling hard.

The next day, he sent me another message, with a much more dire tone:

The floods are getting worse. A lot of the homes are poorly build and are at risk of collapsing. Makeshift camps and IDP camps are also at risk.

Apparently there is a new set of locust swarms heading towards us from Ethiopia and central Somalia. The floods have cleared in Bosaso but has ruined the already fragile roads in the city.

A few days later, he posted this on Twitter:

I asked Liban what he hoped would happen next:

I’m an entrepreneur. I mainly export livestock to neighboring Gulf countries.

Floods could be minimized by developing a drainage or sewage system that could reduce floods. The infrastructure here is almost non existent especially in small villages and towns.

My vision for Somalia is for us to be more self-reliant so that we could react to situations quickly and efficiently. We can do this by investing in our infrastructure, building greenhouses, and educating our youth on the effects of climate change.

In Bosaso there has been extreme heat waves during the summer to the point where almost 80%(estimation) of the residents left for cooler towns and cities. The prices of vegetables also have increased and employment opportunities is at an all time low.

Bosaso is already a semi-desert climate where farms are nonexistent. I have heard from family members that the locusts have drastically diminished crops along with profits in other parts of Somalia.

The way forward: Decolonization

A recent headline in Foreign Policy magazine shared a stark photo essay with the caption: "Somalia's Land is Dying. The People Will Be Next."

These narratives of misery and collapse serve a purpose.

Somalia is “the new frontier” of oil companies and foreign influence, with the US, China, and the Gulf states vying for critical shipping lanes and the last gasp of fossil fuel wealth.

Two weeks ago, just days after Cyclone Gati’s landfall, Dubai Ports won the rights to build a lucrative port in Bosaso after misleading the government of the Puntland regional state in Somalia.

Talking about Somalia as a failed state – especially due to climate change, a problem almost entirely not of their making – creates an environment for predatory deals like this to be more likely.

The answer is to systematically remove foreign influence, to decolonize, to at last create space for Somalis to control their own fate with the global support of climate reparations.

Earlier this year, Somalia won a major debt relief package. Ongoing right now are the initial attempts at scaling up universal basic income funded in part with the help of the international community. The next step will be large scale climate reparations, a focal point of discussion in next year’s COP26 global climate talks in Scotland.

People are returning home to create a better Somalia for themselves and their families. But they need the rest of us to support them.

Bonus: A better Somalia is possible, a conversation with Adnan Hirad

Adnan Hirad is a Somali-American physician and scientist who lives in Rochester, NY and keeps in close contact with his mother, who still lives in Somalia. He’s an active member of the Somali diaspora, and earlier this year wrote a New York Times op-ed on Covid myths and misinformation. I spoke with him about his mother’s experience with Cyclone Gati, climate adaptation, the current locust disaster, and hope for a better future.

To me, this conversation is a fascinating look at the relationship between a mother and her son, and the lengths that families are going through to thrive in the climate emergency after centuries of marginalization.

The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

My mother lives in Somaliland and is a farmer trying to help with food security in the region. The locusts have been ravaging the area the last couple of years and they had to resort to very unconventional methods to protect their crop and many farmers have lost all their crops. I also have family in the North East within the path of Cyclone Gati.

The cyclone came to my attention through my timeline at, I don't know, maybe 5:00 a.m. when I woke up. I saw something about a cyclone and I was like, "Whoa, what's going on?" It was barreling down towards exactly the regions that I'm very familiar with.

My mom is from the Somaliland region and my dad is from the border between Puntland and Somaliland. Family in Somalia is a lot more extended than nucleus family: your cousins, your third, fourth, fifth cousins and stuff is very involved.

And, although where my mom is right now is much more inland, I just thought to myself, "This is potentially going to affect them as well."

I was like, "All right, let me pick up the phone and call my mom." I called her and the first question I actually asked her was, "Is it cloudy around you," and she said yes. The reason why that is surprising is because it's the drought season in Northern Somalia. Usually, this time of the year, you really don't see much of any clouds or anything like that. She said, "Yeah, it is cloudy and it's been cold over the last couple of whatever, the last day or something like that." I said, "There's a thing called a hurricane."

I explained to her because there's no Somali language for exactly this sort of weather system, but I said, "The thing that used to hit America," because she would worry any time there was something coming towards the Gulf Coast. She would be like, "Are you guys okay?" I will say, "No, we're far away but it's a problem." So, I told her something along those lines, "It's coming through and you guys need to be careful." I said, "The family up west, out east, probably are also exposed."

So, while she was on the phone with me and I was sending her some clips from the tracking websites, she called up a couple of people. One person, I really don't know how all the families are tied together, but it's someone who is supposed to be a family member and she knew. That's the one person she worried about because he was going to go to a coastal region, and so she called him up and found him. He was in Bosaso. He said, "Well, we don't know anything about what are you talking about, but it will be God's will. Whatever happens happen, but thank you."

In the US, in the system we're both familiar with, we have tracking systems, people are prepared, there are emergency alarm systems, et cetera, et cetera, that track every aspect of the potential disasters, right? But over there, people are just exposed in ways they really can't do much about. I mean, probably the majority of the country will find out whoever gets hit will find out when they're about to get hit. There won't be some alert system that goes out and tells them what to expect. Maybe they're watching TV, and so potentially there are fishermen in the sea that have not been warned. There are families on the coastal regions that have not been warned and will find out the really hard way. All of these things are ... It was concerning.

She called up a couple of people, informed whoever she could but now, it's a wait and see situation because there's no organized governmental system to either evacuate or help with disasters or this and that.

And so, I dug a little deeper. It turns out this is one of the first, the only thing that has hit Somalia in the history of tracking of this. I was looking a little deeper and apparently there are other weather systems developing within that same Arabian peninsula, that region.

And so, the question is, is this going to be a new seasonal thing that Somalia experiences and that region experiences? Obviously, when the temperature patterns of our oceans changes, obviously, new weather systems will develop in areas we didn't know before or that didn't have them before.

And so, the question really is how far reaching and how lasting this is. Somalia, that region, Africa is an afterthought when it comes to climate change, obviously. And then the countries in the region, they don't really have a technical capacity to understand the climate in a fundamental way and the status changes and shifts in its seasonality and all of that stuff.

My mom is a farmer and she has decided she needs to shift gears. The food we eat comes from Ethiopia and faraway places in the region. She was like, "This is not sustainable and it's really not even predictable, that you will always have the prices in ranges people can afford".

So, she started a farm with all of these citrus trees and guavas and all of these things. She bought about 900 trees and instead of using cash crops to sustain the place, built a model where she was going to use the milk from camels, a staple food of that region, to pay for labor and all of the other costs of the farm.

And so, I think it was a year in when the crops were really starting to develop – and then the locusts came. Then, she had sent me videos. I have the videos. I could forward them to you. [Note: Adnan sent me the videos, but asked me not to share them publicly.]

Basically, just imagine a storm of ... Just the whole sky is covered with this stuff. Literally, if they land on your trees and your farm, they will destroy everything within a day. Mind you, these trees are worth thousands of dollars with a lot of work, these trees take a couple years to get to fruition. There's no one coming to actually help them with any of this stuff. So, now you have these storms every couple of days or literally on a daily basis for five, six days.

What they resorted to was basically they would bring tires and put it on the far ends of the farm and burn them for smoke to ward off the locusts. They have to go to the corners of the farm and light up these tires and it creates smoke, and then somehow they discovered that one other way to fight them would be to bang pots and other metallic objects, so they would hire all of these day laborers in the region to bang it out and make sure that they drove those away.

She's like, "So, there were so many days that we were so exhausted that we just almost gave up and said, you know what, let them eat it. We just can't [go on like this]..." because it's basically a very manual labor. There's no tracking system of this stuff. You just watch and look for the storms coming through and then you bang. That was going on for five days and they were exhausted. They will start daybreak which is, around there, it's 5:00 a.m. or something like that and then they will finish by 6:00 p.m. There will be shifts of people cooking.

They got attacked twice. It was never addressed by any government or any agency.

There is no insurance or anything like that over there. There's no economic department to estimate what the cost of destruction are, but I'm pretty sure if you talk to these farmers, they'll tell you it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in a region that doesn't have much money and the jobs and all of that stuff lost.

They can't track it. They don't know when it's going to happen again. It's man versus nature. Man versus nature, especially when the disasters are, to some extent, contributed to, as you know, why consumption by people like us out here, the developed world's consumption is contributing to this change in the climate and to these once in a lifetime things that are happening. It's a problem.

Before, it used to be just rain that would worry you, but if locusts are also contributing to the de-vegetation that's happening during the dry season, then you really do have a problem.

What is your vision for a better future for Somalia? What do you think needs to change for people like your mom to have a little bit more security?

I mean, I must say, I mean, we are privileged. My mom technically doesn't need this to survive, to live. Just yesterday, she's always telling me about all of these people who are really in dire poverty. People who are better off are always helping, but they can't take care of millions of people who can be exposed to these disasters.

Mom now employs about, I don't know about 15, 16 people. But if the farm goes away, first of all, that's 16 people who will not have a job.

Now you have also the nomads that basically they will be exposed to the elements a lot more and now you have potentially more famine. And so, what can we do?

There's inequality of expertise in terms of access to actual data and information and reading, understanding how to deal with this stuff and making availability of experts in some of these fields is going to be one of the most important things.

How do you kill a locust? There are, obviously, specialists out there. It probably won't take a lot of resources if there was an organized effort to combat these disasters in these regions, provide the appropriate locust control, whatever, that's also environmentally friendly because we don't want to apply pesticides or whatever to these regions and then kill off and damage the little that is remaining there, but providing the technical know-how for these governments to fight it themselves and then the predictive capacity to deal with it.

The other main thing that really is needed in the region is water management systems. Right now, the only thing that they're using is they're tapping the aquifers. Obviously, that's not sustainable in the long run. These are fossil waters. In a dry region like that, the rainfall is not enough to replenish these aquifers, what happens in the long run we don't know. We already know what's happening in places like California where they have over-tapped the aquifers, so water management systems. You technically can catch the rain water and sustain the environment in a much predictable way.

That's what my mom decided to do. Instead of tapping the aquifer, they dug up two  dams that catch about 14,000 barrels a year. That allows them to water their plants.

I think if you help those two things, obviously, expertise on how to fight some of these things, water management, again, expertise. The third thing is expertise in farming because the land is very fertile. The arable land is huge, and per capita is way beyond what people actually will need over there.

Somalia, 2038

If folks in Somalia can have clear-eyed plans about transforming the future, than what’s stopping the rest of us?

Are you from Somalia? What is your vision for the future for your country? What are the specific goals and dreams you have for your family?