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Dying for water in Somalia’s drought

Villagers call it the "War of the Well," a battle that erupted between two clans over control of a watering hole in the dusty, drought-stricken trading town of Rabdore, Somalia.
Men struggle to pull up water from a drying watering hole in Rabdore, Somalia, where a two-year war was recently fought over the resource.
Men struggle to pull up water from a drying watering hole in Rabdore, Somalia, where a two-year war was recently fought over the resource.Emily Wax / Washington Post
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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."

Worst harvest in 10 years
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.

An estimated 2.1 million Somalis are in need of emergency aid, including food and water for drinking, washing and cooking. But it is often hard to distribute food and water in treacherous areas of Somalia because aid convoys and water trucks are frequently attacked or forced to pay enormous tolls at checkpoints set up by militias.

On Tuesday, at least six people were killed and three injured when rival militias exchanged gunfire after a U.N. aid convoy was held up near Baidoa. The convoy was trying to deliver food to drought victims near the city when the militiamen began fighting over fees they assess for safe passage, according to the United Nations.

Even businessmen who have hired security guards for protection say working in Somalia is risky because of gang violence and a buildup of weapons in ordinary households.

"Before I go anywhere in Somalia, I pray. If someone is thirsty, they can shoot you for a glass of water. There's no police to come and no government to say anything," said Sheik Ibrahim Khail, 53, who operates a transport company for the World Food Program. "In other places they may just want to rob the driver or take the food and sell it. But here they want the water, too."

Long-term solutions to fighting drought include collecting what little rainwater that does fall, building modern irrigation systems and using new water exploration techniques, water experts said. But that kind of effort typically requires the coordination and enforcement of a central government, said Zlatan Milisic, the World Food Program's country director for Somalia.

"Somalia at heart is a water crisis that has turned into a food crisis," Milisic said. "The effects here are worse than anywhere else because there's no government, there's no stability. To me, this is the most unstable place in the world that is currently suffering a drought."

Fights over water break out even in places with a healthy supply.

In one such place, the town of Wajid, a 36-year-old man was executed after he killed a man in a fight over a well last month, according to town authorities.

Somalis who fled the drought and are living in makeshift shelters on the edge of town said the story of the death terrified them. They had come to Wajid to find water and hoped they could do so without being subjected to violence.

‘Wait for my paradise to come’
Isha Aden Hussein, 38, whose husband was killed in the War of the Well in Rabdore, walked more than 100 miles to reach this town. She and her husband once had a farm and spacious huts for their 10 children. Now she lives in a shelter made of thin, oily kitchen rags.

She described her life as "miserable" and said she just hoped to survive the drought. In the slightly cooler mornings and evenings, she collects firewood and tries to sell it. But the temperature rises to 115 degrees during the day, so she spends most of her time in her shelter.

"I just sit in there. I pray to God and wait for my paradise to come. In paradise, I'll be shading under a thick mango tree. I will be fat. My children will be dressed in smart uniforms for school. They will be reading me very nice stories," she said. "The most important is that they won't have thirst. Our mouths will always be wet. We'll drink in peace. "

Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.