What if early warnings do not result in early action?

Exploring the nexus of climate action and sustainable development for drought in Somalia

December 5, 2022

Signs of drought in Somalia - November 2016

UNDP Somalia

This What If…? is part of an exploratory series released for COP27 as a collaboration between UNDP Crisis Bureau and the Regional Bureau for Asia Pacific Horizon Scanning initiative. The series places a spotlight on the signals of early signs of change in our climate and disaster futures, offering insights into our horizon scanning report: Anticipating Risks and Uncertainties for Asia and the Pacific.

By Giordano Margaglio, Disaster Risk Reduction Team for Building Resilience at UNDP Geneva.

After a two-year historic dry spell, Somalia is currently facing its worst drought in four decades. An estimated one million people have been displaced in Somalia, and the number of people facing food insecurity is growing. More than seven million people are currently facing crisis hunger levels, and a child is admitted for treatment of severe malnutrition every single minute.

This picture is not unfamiliar. Over a decade ago, similar conditions claimed more than a quarter of a million lives here, more than half of which lost their lives before the humanitarian crisis was officially recognized.

What makes a drought a disaster?

Droughts are prolonged periods of dry weather and can be a normal, recurring feature of climate variability. However, climate change is accelerating the occurrence of these dry periods in increasingly uncertain, cascading, and compounded ways. For Somalia, this means a fourth consecutive failed rainy season, with the fifth also projected to fail.

However, these conditions alone are not a disaster, it is pre-existing socio-economic factors and development choices that turn these into disaster. Unsustainable development can place pressures on water supplies in areas already vulnerable to drought, for instance, affecting both the quality and availability of water for people who need it.  This is worsened by increasing demand for water to use for food and energy production. In these circumstances, the unsustainable use of natural resources can worsen the impact of drought, or even be the cause of drought itself.

“The impact of a drought is not determined solely by the severity of the drought, but by the ability of communities and countries to anticipate and prepare for it”

UN Convention to Combat Desertification

In Somalia, where around 70% of the population is dependent on climate-sensitive agriculture and pastoralism, unstable rainfall patterns are eroding the livelihood of small-scale farmers. To support those farmers, sustainable water management systems are essential for ensuring that the available water is distributed to where it is needed most. Risk-informed land management and land rehabilitation are also essential in building resilience to drought conditions to ensure communities always have access to water where it is needed most.

A future of early action… or a future of inaction?

As droughts are processes that normally occur gradually over an extended period of time, they often provide extensive forewarning for a proactive and timely response for early action to take place. Yet, they are often underreported, overlooked in development planning, and their impact is underestimated.

Looking forward, we cannot afford inaction. Investment in long-term support for sustainable water-management systems, and climate action is urgently needed.

There are opportunities in the road ahead if we act now. For the sustainable water management systems already in place in Somalia, where solar panel systems are pumping water to those who need it, our Horizon Scanning Initiative detected a wealth of opportunities brought about by record-setting growth in the solar sector.

However, the future of early action for drought will not come without challenges. Our Horizon Scanning Initiative also identified a rise in slow-onset disasters and disaster losses for parts of the world, with additional threats posed to agriculture from increasing saltwater intrusion.

Leading the way to risk-informed adaptation

For people like Deqa Ahmed Jama – a mother of seven and the sole breadwinner for her family – drought meant that farming crops could not sustain her family anymore.

UNDP is supporting families like Deqa’s in breaking the cycle of fragility and getting ahead of the crisis curve. In theEnhancing Climate Resilience of Vulnerable Communities and Ecosystems in Somalia” project, training sessions on integrative farming techniques were delivered to the Qoyta community, which enabled them to diversify their crops andin Deqa’s scenariotriple her income.

Risk-informed sustainable development interventions like the ones implemented by UNDP in Somalia place resilience at the core of development and are key to preventing drought conditions from becoming disasters.


Women attend integrative farming training in Qoyta village

UNDP Somalia

Taking early action: A road to a resilient future

Warnings were issued earlier this year about the imminent drought risk and consequent potential famine in Somalia. Yet, only less than half of the humanitarian funding required to respond is currently in place.

We must act now before it is too late.

Following COP27, as nations reiterated their commitment to the Global Goal on Adaptation, urgent climate action must be coupled with sustainable and risk-informed development as we look ahead to a future where slow-onset risks and crises will become increasingly visible and impactful.

As spoken by Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at COP27:

Existing […] climate early warning systems are only useful where we can finance early effective action to mitigate and adapt quickly.”

Still curious to know more on the risks and uncertainties of our future? See our What If…? blog series for the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction 2022, where we explore what the future might hold for early warning and early action for all…