DOLOOW, Somalia — The rains began here just a few weeks ago and already the arid land has turned an unexpected verdant green. Yellow flowers blossom on thorn bushes, translucent blue butterflies flit between green-leafed acacia trees and there is birdsong in the air.
Doloow, in the western Gedo region, is tucked into a corner where Somalia meets its neighbors Ethiopia and Kenya.
It doesn’t look or feel like a place of suffering but this summer it was one of the main way-stations on what a leading humanitarian called “the roads of death,” the paths that thousands of Somali refugees took every day as they fled the famine zones for the food and security of the camps just on the other side of the borders.
Local residents of Doloow watched as the refugees trudged by and hosted thousands of their countrymen in the displacement camps around the town but they themselves did not suffer, despite the lack of rains that proved so damaging elsewhere in Somalia.
The reason, they said, are two-fold. First there is a modicum of stability and security here. The local administration — backed by Ethiopia and aligned to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Mogadishu — has, with the help of Ethiopian troops and a Sufi militia, kept Al Shabaab at bay. The Islamic extremist rebels are now at least 25 miles away.
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The second reason is the Jubba River, which begins in Doloow at the confluence of the Dawa and Ganale Dorya rivers and makes irrigated agriculture possible.
Standing on the riverside, Luca Alinovi, the head of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Somalia, looks over a 25 acre communal farm of plump onions, broad beans and reddening tomatoes.
The FAO paid people to clear the thick bush and dig irrigation channels. It bought a water pump and fuel, seeds and fertilizer. With food aid arriving in town there was no need to grow more cereals, so the farmers decided to grow cash crops, which they sell at markets across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.
They make money and spend it in Doloow town, stimulating the local economy and encouraging traders to bring in more supplies.
Alinovi shakes his head. “This should have happened across Somalia but didn’t because the international footprint has been very light for very many years,” he said.
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The irrigation scheme — one of more than 250 the FAO has funded in Somalia — began three seasons ago, and when the drought came farmers like Barre Hassan Arab, 62, were prepared. “We were weaker before the irrigation scheme began, we had a few animals and we did farming on the floodplain or when the rains came,” he explained.
“With the water pump and the river we have survived better than others,” he said.
“The drought was the same here, the lack of rain the same,” said Abdiwahab Mohamed, coordinator of a local charity called Advancement of Small Enterprise Program (ASEP). “But the river was here and they had the means to exploit it. With these crops they are able to make a business and also diversify their diet.”
The cost of setting up the scheme was less than $1,000 per hectare, but the thing that most impresses Alinovi was that the farmers no longer needed outside help. The reason the investment worked is that farmers like Arab had stability: they invested the time and energy in land they knew they would not be pushed from.
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“Stability is the key,” said Alinovi. “Whether that comes from the Shabaab or the TFG or something else doesn’t really matter, as long as people can stay at home they can survive the drought.”
Last month Kenya sent troops into Somalia in pursuit of the Shabaab and earlier this month Ethiopia followed suit, increasing the danger that ordinary people will be caught up in a fresh wave of conflict, and that worries Alinovi.
“Where there’s conflict people don’t invest in their land, or stay at home, or harvest. And when people run they don’t go home. In this situation there is not good or bad conflict, it is always a problem,” he said.
Late last week the UN announced that the famine in parts of southern Somalia had abated somewhat, thanks to the humanitarian response and the beginning of the rains. Somalia remains the world’s worst food emergency but famine levels of malnutrition are now only found in three parts of the country, down from six. Nevertheless, the UN says tens of thousands have already died and 250,000 people still face starvation.
Aid workers are anxious that people do not think the improvement means the job is done. “We are far from the end of the famine," said Alinovi, "but we are at the beginning of a time where we can see the end.”