What we can learn from Somalia about anticipating climate disaster

Sponsored content: While pastoralists took steps to plan for this year’s drought, Covid added an extra layer of stress – and the humanitarian response lagged behind

A Somali woman drawing water from an artificial pond (Photo: UNDP Somalia)


If pastoralists, farmers and traders could better anticipate when an extreme weather event was coming, and how this would impact their farming, livestock rearing, trading, or other business activities, could they take action earlier, to protect their livelihoods?

Would such information help humanitarian agencies to provide assistance at the right time, to reduce the likelihood of a crisis developing and thus help avoid human suffering and economic losses from climate-related shocks?

Acting before disaster strikes

Anticipatory action – actions triggered before a crisis in order to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis, or even avoid crisis altogether – is increasingly attracting global attention as an approach to reducing the humanitarian impact of drought and other climate hazards. The UK government has recently articulated commitments to strengthening anticipatory action.

To ensure that such commitments are effective, there is a need to better understand what people are already doing to predict and prepare for crises. This understanding is essential for humanitarian and development actors to determine suitable options for supporting anticipatory action that can help protect livelihoods, as well as to identify the right timing for such assistance.

To fill in some of these knowledge gaps, the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) research programme is holding regular conversations with approximately 60 pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and farmers in three locations in Somalia over the course of a year.

Communities in this region face frequent weather extremes, often at the same time as other difficulties. SPARC is investigating how people are already planning ahead, and what information about the future they use to make decisions.

Anticipating what’s coming…

In early 2021, Somalia had already experienced a below average Deyr (October to December) rainfall season the previous year, and some forecasts indicated poor upcoming Gu (March to June) rains.

Conversations in February revealed how interviewees used a variety of information about potential future shocks  to make decisions about their livelihood activities.

This information includes people’s own observations of weather trends; and in some cases weather forecasts accessed via radio or the internet. Social networks – for instance farmers in different locations warning each other about locust swarm movements, or people living near rivers sharing information about upstream rainfall and river levels to anticipate local flooding – also play an important role.

…and taking action to prevent crisis…

At the time, with some forecasts pointing to an upcoming drought in February, pastoralists and farmers were taking a range of anticipatory actions.

These included different herd management strategies, with livestock keepers stocking up fodder or migrating to other areas and preventing female animals from becoming pregnant by separating them from the rest of the herd, or by castrating male animals, as pregnancy would increase the animals’ vulnerability to drought.

In communities along the Shabelle River, an area at high risk of flooding, residents were working together to shore up river banks in preparation for the rainy season.

 … in a challenging environment

Across all these locations, the forecast for low rainfall arrived when people were already facing a host of other difficulties. These included the economic and social impacts of Covid-related public health measures, such as reduced remittances, lower income from urban casual work, market closures and trade disruptions, and a drop in livestock prices caused by the cancellation of the 2020 Hajj, which is usually a major export market.

Desert locust attacks, livestock diseases, and political instability and insecurity in some locations posed further stress on people. This was on top of weather-related shocks including flooding along the Shebelle River, and drought accompanied by water and fodder shortages in other study areas.

Anticipatory action in Somalia – what we’ve learned so far

So far, SPARC’s work has highlighted three important points that can strengthen anticipatory action in Somalia:

  1. Anticipating weather-related shocks is not as simple as predicting rainfall, then looking at the agricultural seasonal calendar. People in many parts of Somalia have been faced with several overlapping shocks, with interconnected impacts, which limits their capacity to prepare.
  2. Livelihoods often combine activities across rural and urban settings, but early warning systems currently used to trigger anticipatory action tend to look at particular hazards such as drought, usually related to agriculture, and rely on a very narrow set of parameters. This mismatch makes it hard to use them to trigger the right support at the right time.
  3. Communities’ difficulties begin long before humanitarian timescales and systems for anticipatory action. Government and aid actors need to work hard to address climate risks on all time scales. This includes longer term support to risk reduction, adaptation and development as well as the short timeframes of anticipatory actions, especially because livelihoods are dynamic and so support must help people as they constantly adapt.

One of the most important things of all, though, is to give communities themselves greater voice in how external support to anticipatory action is deployed. As Dr. Ibrahim Ali Dagane, a livelihoods expert for the Horn of Africa commented at COP26: “[Humanitarians] want to know when is [the right time] to act, and that should not come from us as the [aid] providers, but the communities affected by those shocks should have something to say.”

SPARC is open to suggestions from a range of collaborators about how best to use any learning being generated in this process. For more information, or to explore opportunities for collaboration, contact Simon Levine, Lena Weingärtner or Alex Humphrey.

Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC) is a research programme which aims to generate evidence and address knowledge gaps to build the resilience of millions of pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and farmers in communities of Africa and the Middle East.

Lena Weingärtner is a Research Associate in ODI’s Global Risks and Resilience programme, working on disaster risk management and financing.

Josie Emanuel is a Senior Communications Officer focusing on ODI’s research spanning multiple sources of risk – including climate, socioeconomic, natural and technological threats.

This post was sponsored by Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises (SPARC). See our editorial guidelines for what this means.