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Telegraph.co.uk: Shortages of food, water and electricity: how Djibouti has been destroyed by climate change

Posted by: Berhane.Habtemariam59@web.de

Date: Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Fantahero Beach Djibouti
Djibouti's problem is the lack of water – it has dried up Credit: Susan Schulman

Few places have been as transformed by climate change as the tiny country of Djibouti.

Sandwiched between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia at the strategic point on the Horn of Africa, the former French colony is one of the hottest and driest on earth.

It relies on food imported from Ethiopia to feed its population of  one million, there is barely any water and electricity comes from abroad.

Yet it wasn’t always like this.

When Djibouti obtained independence from France in 1977, its ambitions were not only for political independence, the new nation was also going to rebuild and make its mark on the world.

Djibouti’s leaders turned their eye to the lush and fertile area south of today’s airport, an area named after the famed Ambouli river which bisected the district.

Farmers from Yemen were encouraged to settle here. They would, it was hoped, produce enough food to feed the entire nation – and brighten the country with the flowers they would grow.

Fifty years later it is impossible to see how this was ever thought plausible.

The once nomadic Afar tribe has been forced by climate change to move out of the mountains and discontinue their nomadic lifestyles which became unsustainable as water sources dried up
The once nomadic Afar tribe has been forced by climate change to move out of the mountains and discontinue their nomadic lifestyles which became unsustainable as water sources dried up Credit: Susan Schulman

Amidst a vast area of desiccated, abandoned acres, a small patch of vegetables is struggling through the hardened earth.

A water reservoir is empty and another contains only a metre of dirty water – fit for animals only. A man on a motorbike rides across the breadth of the now dried Ambouli river bed, which as recently as the 1990s flowed fast and deep.

"We used to swim here – this was our natural swimming pool year around," sighs Abdi Dirieh." Just 10 years ago it really was different. Everyone around here came to swim."

Abdi is chewing the herbal drug khat with two friends in the sparse shade of the leaf-less branches of a solitary tree, the green leaves of the khat spread before them, vivid in the monochromatic surround.

"Thousands of people lived here who cultivated produce and sold fruit and vegetables and raised livestock," he continues, a ball of khat bulging in this cheek. "People lived so well here – the first colour television in Djibouti was owned here but they have all left now. It is finished."

Adam Ibrahim, 52, agrees. He and his wife, Fusia Muhammed Diriye, have been caretakers of a parcel of land just beyond where Abdi and his friends sit since they arrived from Somalia as refugees in 1990.

Fusia Muhammed Diriyie and her family are caretakers of a garden owned by a minister
Fusia Muhammed Diriyie and her family are caretakers of a garden owned by a minister Credit: Susan Schulman

"It was paradise here before. There were mangoes, melons – everything. The produce from here would fill trucks. We’d export bananas, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables by the truck load. But now, everything is dead. Nothing grows here anymore."

The problem is the lack of water. It has dried up.

"Before, we could drink the water, no problem," says Ibrahim, pointing at a solitary well. "We had 100 boreholes – now there’s only one."

It is the same story throughout Djibouti.

"Water scarcity is the main issue,"explains Idris Bexi, policy advisor at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Djibouti.

Higher temperatures and decreased rainfall have dried out wells throughout the country. In coastal areas, rising sea levels have contaminated other water sources with salt.

Djibouti is one of a growing number of countries to have been hit hard by climate change.

The country has become just half a degree hotter in the last 30 years but already the impact has been devastating and there is more to come.

Sheep grazing next to a family's rudimentary home, next to a vacant lot used as a rubbish tip
Sheep grazing next to a family's rudimentary home, next to a vacant lot used as a rubbish tip Credit: Susan Schulman

A 2011 World Bank report projects that temperatures across Djibouti will increase between 0.6°C and 2.4°C by 2050. Sea levels – already up 20cms since 1990 – are also expected to continue rising.

The water supply can no longer meet the needs of the country. The small port town of Obock, once the country’s administrative capital, regularly goes without water for days on end and the capital only has enough water to meet half of its needs.

In economic terms, the impact has been dramatic.

Villages have been abandoned, people displaced and ancient ways of life changed forever. Plant species have disappeared, which in turn has impacted the country’s livestock. Cattle – once plentiful – are now scarce; camels – once ubiquitous – are now few. And goats have become the dominant livestock.

Inevitably, poverty has increased, diets degraded.

"People now have a nutritional deficit," says Hibo Mohamed, assistant to the UNDP’s ecological programme. "The health of the people has deteriorated."

Climate change is also transforming society. Men are now obliged to leave home to find daily work, transforming traditional roles. "Women have become the main providers," Hibo says. "With the new challenges, everything is changing. Now, everyone is just trying to survive. The traditional rules are no longer true."

Life now revolves around water points: collections of blue barrels lining the road. Villages form around these water points which are regularly replenished by the government. 

Sixteen kilometres south of Djibouti is the village of Damerjog, where single-storey concrete blocks house farming families displaced by climate change. Saharla Hussein, 35, was born in a village not far from here.

Back then, her family owned an impressive quantity of livestock and produce: camels, sheep and goats, along with a plentiful supply of vegetables grown in their back garden – with enough left over to sell.

“There was more than enough water for both animals and people,” she says. “We lacked for nothing."

One hundred and fifty kilometres north of Djibouti, the low-domed homes of the nomadic Afar radiate out from the blue barrels lining the road into the parched, rocky terrain in the village of Sagalou.

Muhammed Ahmed, 32, points at the handful of stunted palm trees dotting the nearby shore."There were thousands of date palms here," he explains. Turning in the opposite direction, he sweeps his arm across the horizon."There were lots of gardens there – and a real forest."

Today, there isn’t a tree or field in sight, only a tangle of grey dried shrubs stretching over rocky terrain as far as the eye can see – the consequence of the severe desertification which has ravaged the country – and the village’s original inhabitants.

The area just before the shore used to be thick with palm trees, but now the trees are dead and  the sea water encroaches ever nearer, salinating and blocking former water sources
The area just before the shore used to be thick with palm trees, but now the trees are dead and  the encroaching sea has blocked former water sources Credit: Susan Schulman

Most people here are Afar nomads, who themselves have been displaced, forced by lack of water from the mountains to roadside villages with water points and blue barrels. Here too, most are women, left alone with the children by men who have gone in search of work.

With little to offer by way of resources of its own – and dependent on imports for everything from food to water to electricity – Djibouti has exploited its location as a source of revenue.

It sits on the Horn of Africa, on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – or Gate of Tears – which, at its narrowest point, is a mere 18 miles to the coast of Yemen.

The strait is a gateway to both the Red Sea and Europe to the north, and the Indian Ocean and Asia to the south. Its strategic position is critical for shipping: an estimated 4.8 million barrels of crude and petroleum transit the strait every day. It has also become a key military point.

France, US, Italy, Japan and newcomer China – which arrived in 2017 – maintain permanent military bases here. Together, they generate more than $300 million dollars annually in revenue for Djibouti. And with Saudi Arabia given the green light to open its first overseas military base, this figure is expected to rise.

A billboard promoting Chinese investment in Djibouti
A billboard promoting Chinese investment in Djibouti Credit: Susan Schulman

For China, Djibouti is a critical link in its Belt and Road Initiative - a multi-million-dollar infrastructure and trade project that aims to link 65 nations and over four billion people – and it has found an eager partner as the country seeks to generate revenue and grow development.

China stumped up $590 million to finance the construction of the Doraleh Multipurpose Port and provided loans to build the port of Ghoubet, which exports potash from Ethiopia as well as millions of tons of salt which China is mining from Djibouti’s Lake Assal.

Additionally, in partnership with the Djibouti government, China has launched what will be Africa’s largest free trade zone. Connecting the Djibouti investment to the larger Belt and Road project is the new Chinese-built railway between Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopa, and Djibouti City from grandiose new train stations on the edge of both cities.

Arabian funds are coming too. Already a prominent donor to Djibouti’s social and public works sectors, Saudi Arabia has increased its role with investment projects.

In the four years since Beijing confirmed it would build its first permanent overseas military base, foreign investment has transformed Djibouti. Five new high-end hotels – including the Sheraton and Kempinski – have opened. The country’s GDP has skyrocketed, expanding 6.8 per cent in 2017 from 2016.

Poverty and unemployment belie the rapidly accelerating GDP of Djibouti
Poverty and unemployment belie the rapidly accelerating GDP of Djibouti Credit: Susan Schulman

From the hillside vantage point of the suburb of Balbala, residents eye the brand new ports, the train tracks and – the growing city with its new glass towers occasionally glinting in the sun, hoping to get a piece of the action.

So far, this has not happened. Unemployment hovers at 40 per cent – youth employment closer to 80 per cent. According to the US-based NGO the Borgen Project, 41 per cent of the population lives in poverty and 23 per cent in extreme poverty. So it is hardly surprising that anger is growing.

Muhammed Daher, 54, travelled to the capital with his family from Ali Sabieh – a village about 100 kilometres away – after drought claimed his livestock and fields, decimating his livelihood.

Like most, he had high hopes that investment in the country would help him and his family, creating new opportunities.

He was particularly optimistic when he learned the Chinese were coming to build and invest on a large scale.

But then he got a job working for them – employment which lasted only one week. Disgusted by the low pay (100 DJF – $0.56 a day) and, what he claims was, insulting treatment, he resigned.

"I told them, ‘keep your money, I am leaving’," he says. "I won’t work for the Chinese – because the Chinese see those who work on the roads as prisoners they don’t have to pay."

Poverty stricken neighbourhood, of Balbala overlooking rapid development and Doraleh container port in Djibouti
Poverty stricken neighbourhood, of Balbala overlooking rapid development and Doraleh container port in Djibouti Credit: Susan Schulman

He falls silent, surveying the city vista below, with its burgeoning development and tangle of construction, ports and upmarket hotels.

"All this development," he says defiantly. "No matter who comes, all of this belongs to [Djiboutiens]. It will stay here."

He pauses and takes a deep breath. Nearby, a goat picks at rubbish by the shacks of corrugated iron: home for Muhammed and others, like him, displaced by the ravages of climate change.

"But… will it benefit me and my children?"

He laughs dryly and turns away, shaking his head.

Underneath the rocketing GDP, a silent current of rage is building. Anger at unemployment and at a president who has violently stamped out opposition, keeps an iron watch on social media, has spies everywhere and is seen as deeply corrupt.  

"I thought the Chinese would come with valises of money," a 35-year-old taxi driver notes wryly. "They did – but they brought the valises straight to the president."

"There is massive anger," a man in the street confides in a whisper. "It won’t go on like this forever. It is going to explode."

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