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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 that – as 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.”
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.
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:
The next day, he sent me another message, with a much more dire tone:
A few days later, he posted this on Twitter:
I asked Liban what he hoped would happen next:
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.
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?
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?