Dying for Water in Somalia's Drought

Men struggle to draw water from a drying well in Rabdore, Somalia, where rival clans fought a two-year war over the water supply.
Men struggle to draw water from a drying well in Rabdore, Somalia, where rival clans fought a two-year war over the water supply. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 14, 2006

RABDORE, Somalia -- Villagers call it the "War of the Well," a battle that erupted between two clans over control of a watering hole in this dusty, drought-stricken trading town.

By the time it ended two years later, 250 men were dead. Now there are well widows, well warlords and well warriors.

"We call them the 'warlords of water,' " Fatuma Ali Mahmood, 35, said in a raspy voice about the armed men who control access to water sources.

One day last year, Mahmood's husband went out in search of water. Two days later, he was found dead, she said as an infant on her back cried and nine other children tugged at her torn dress. He was shot when an angry crowd began fighting over the well, she said.

"His body was bloodied, swollen and just lying there with the other dead by the well, left in disgrace. The shame. We'd never seen conflict at this level of violence," she explained, shielding her eyes from a dust storm that was swirling in the heat under a blue sky. "Thirst forces men to this horror of war."

In Somalia, a well is as precious as a town bank, controlled by warlords and guarded with weapons. During the region's relentless three-year drought, water has become a resource worth fighting and dying over.

The drought has affected an estimated 11 million people across East Africa and killed large numbers of livestock, leaving carcasses of cows, goats and even hearty camels rotting in the sun. The governments of Kenya and Ethiopia have mediated dozens of conflicts over water in their countries, even sending in police and the army to quell disputes around wells.

The effects of the drought are most pronounced in Somalia, which has lacked an effective government and central planning, including irrigation projects, since the government of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991. Since then, a hodgepodge of warlords and their armies have taken control of informal taxation systems, crops, markets and access to water.

Amid the anarchy and water scarcity, most of the country's almost 9 million people scratch out a living.

The U.N. World Food Program hires heavily armed men to help protect villagers as they pick up water, cooking oil and sorghum. Still, gunmen sometimes force women to give up their water or food as they walk back to their villages.

"Even when local people are good and plan out water catchment systems, warlords just take it over. That's why we have so many people drinking horrible water with worms and dirt and getting very ill," said Abdul Rashid, a Somali nurse in Rabdore who works with the International Medical Corps, a nonprofit relief group. "It's like the start of the water wars right here in Somalia."

The drought has resulted in the worst harvest in 10 years, leading the United Nations to ask donor countries, including the United States, for $327 million to fund food aid and water trucking programs for Somalia. If the so-called Gu rains do not arrive in the April-June rainy season, thousands of Somalis could die each month without aid, according to U.N. officials.

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