Somali’s bread basket has become a dust bowl as the life-giving waters of the mighty Shabelle river run dry amid intense drought in the war-torn country.

River-fed farmlands have become parched playgrounds for children who kick footballs beneath a cloudless sky, as one sign among many of the failed rains that the United Nations warns has put more than a million people at risk.

Elders in the Lower and Middle Shabelle regions, where most people rely on farming for survival, said it is the first time in decades they have seen such water shortages in the river.

Somali’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock told the media that Ethiopia does not have the right to wear water and violate international law, so called to release water from the river on a network.

Ethiopia insists the Grand Renaissance Dam and its 74 billion cubic meter reservoir at the headwaters of the Blue Nile will have no adverse effect on Egypt’s water share. It hopes the 6,000 megawatt hydroelectric project will lead to energy self-sufficiency and catapult the country out of grinding poverty.

“Somalia feels that the chapter providing equal and fair share of the natural resources of the Nile to all states ought to be reviewed in favor of South Somalia considering that it is a war-torn country whose lifeline is the Nile,” Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Somalia said.

The Juba and Shabelle rivers are the only perennial rivers in the country, but 90% of their flow originates from a neighbouring country – Ethiopia. The two rivers sustain agricultural production not only by providing much needed irrigation, but also through the very fertile flood plains where a variety of crops are grown for domestic and foreign markets.

The leader of Somali regional federal state of Ethiopia Abdi Mohamud Omar (Iley) said they have deliberately stopped the water flow into Shabelle rivers, the main resources of Somalis.

“We are storing Shabelle river water flow behind the walls for a dam purpose and irrigation of our own farming fields in Somali region of Ethiopia,” said Iley.

He said the move is more important for his people rather than the dying Somalis who are 80% dependent on the Shabelle river water, in terms of their cultivation of the farms.

The comments by the leader of Somali regional administration of Ethiopia come as Shabelle river water which come from Ethiopia and goes through southern Somalia has dried up, causing severe drought.

The development and management of the Juba and Shabelle basins is faced with many challenges, which if not adequately addressed could derail the ongoing efforts to revive the agricultural sector. These include, but are not limited to:

Insecurity and lack of access: many areas in South Somalia, through which the Juba and Shabelle Rivers pass, are not accessible to development agencies and their partners for intervention activities. There have been remarkable gains by the Somali authorities, international peacekeepers and regional partners in stabilizing the areas, but it may take a while to restore order and allow unlimited access by intervening agencies.

Trans-boundary issues: the trans-boundary nature of the Juba and Shabelle drainage basins complicate proper planning, development and management of the water resources. More than two-thirds of the joint Somali-Ethiopian drainage basin lies in Ethiopia. Some is in Kenya. However, there is little information available in Somalia on weather, river flows and abstractions in the upper catchments in Ethiopia. In early 2016, the Shabelle River in Somalia became dry, which is very unusual for that time of year. This opened a lot of speculation into the cause of the dry river, but no information was forthcoming from the Ethiopian side. Information sharing between the two countries would go a long way towards overcoming this challenge.

The water flow along the Juba and Shabelle decreases as the rivers flow downstream through Somalia, due mainly to factors such as: the minimal contribution of tributaries from the Somali catchment areas, “bank full” spillage of flood water into the flood plains, natural and man-made flood relief channels, river diversions for irrigation – during both low and high flow periods – and natural losses due to evaporation and infiltration/recharge of the groundwater along the rivers.

While the river is seasonal-flooding during intense rains, then nearly drying up in the dry season-residents say the levels are the lowest they have seen in recent memory.

“We are worried as there is serious water scarcity around villages, and many people are now trekking long distances every day to fetch water from wells,” said Ibrahim Adam.

Mohamoud Gooni

Freelance Journalist