Hydropolitics in the Horn: Somalia’s Looming Water Crisis


Historical Perspective
The alluvial plains of the Juba & Shabelle rivers have been the backbone of Somalia’s ‘breadbasket’. Since colonial times and especially during Somalia’s military rule, numerous productive irrigation projects have been implemented in these rich soils. Various crops such as sugarcane, rice, bananas and fruit trees have successfully been cultivated along the Shabelle below Jowhar and along the Juba near Jilib (Swalim, 2009).

Most of the Juba & Shabelle water runoff in Somalia originates in the highlands of neighbouring Ethiopia. Of the two countries, Somalia has historically been the major user of the waters of the two rivers. This lopsided water resource usage has been happening in a void with the lack of negligible Ethiopian consumptive use and, more importantly, without any agreement on water sharing rights between the two riparian neighbours. Strangely enough, during colonial times when the Italians were demarcating the Somalia-Ethiopia border, inexplicably no water-sharing arrangement on the transboundary river waters was sought.   

Figure 1: Map showing coverage of Juba and Shabelle and Lag Dera Basins
Source: FAO SWALIM, 2009

Any significant reduction in the availability of these water flows into Somalia will render the now fertile riverine ‘breadbasket’ a ‘dustbowl’. The country’s already harsh environment will turn even more desolate and inhospitable. The environmental impacts will be devastating and maybe irreversible, the economic tremors crippling, and social fragmentation inevitable.
The Riverine Plains: Breadbasket of Somalia

From colonial times and until state collapse in 1991, several economically significant irrigation projects were implemented along both the Juba & Shabelle within Somalia. The Shabelle was prioritized for development probably due to its ease of accessibility and proximity to urban centers. An advanced agricultural settlement was first founded in 1920 at the Villagio Duca degli Abruzzi  (Somalised as Jowhar in 1960) with the establishment of a sugar refinery and railway tracks connecting Afgoie-Mogadiscio-Villabruzzi .  In the 1920s, the Italians again established irrigated lush banana and fruit trees ‘aziendas’ in the vicinity of Janale close to the port of Merca. Much later in the 1970s, a huge off-stream water reservoir with a storage capacity of 200 Mm3 (Swalim, 2009), and a Chinese-funded rice plantation were established in the same area. 

Along the Juba in comparison, the forward-thinking military regime of 1969-1991, embarked on a massive agrarian developmental blueprint. Numerous large scale irrigation projects were implemented with the goal of making Somalia food self-sufficient. These grand projects included the Marerey Juba sugar project, the Mugambo rice project and the Arare banana project near Jamame. The only dam in Somalia - the Fanole - was constructed with the assistance of China from 1977- 1982 under grandiose fanfare and trumpeting. The construction of another much bigger dam at Bardhere for the generation of hydro-electric power, which Ethiopia strongly objected to at the time, was initiated but never implemented.  

Sadly, all these immensely valuable irrigation projects have failed due to Somalia’s statelessness. Likewise, all the irrigation structures – the barrages, the off-stream reservoir and the single dam - are no longer functional having fallen into disrepair due to lack of maintenance and misuse. Presently, there are concerted private and public efforts to revive the agricultural sector. The export of bananas, limes and sesame to the Arabian Gulf is already at full steam.  

Ethiopia’s Integrated Irrigation Master Plans

Even though Ethiopia is endowed with abundant water resources, it presently only uses about 1% and 1.5% of the flows of all its rivers for power generation and irrigation, respectively (Flintan and Tamrat, 2002). With a population of 90 million - roughly 10 times that of Somalia - Ethiopia is committed to embark on developing its agricultural sector in order to feed its fast growing populace. Numerous agricultural development projects are in the pipeline to improve Ethiopia’s utilization of its water and irrigable land resources especially along the upstream Juba & Shabelle basins.

According to Ethiopia’s three-phased river basin master plans from 2010 to 2035, the irrigation of over 200,000 ha is planned along the Shabelle consuming an estimated 2,566 Mm3 of water (Ministry of Water Resources, 2004). This projected water consumption far exceeds the 2,384 Mm3 water discharge at Beletweyne (FAO, 1989). Moreover, the Godey irrigation project with a 17-km canal transecting a bone-dry semi-desert environment causes the loss of 1,000 Mm3 of water (Mohamed, 2013). The combined consumptive use and water loss will greatly affect the downstream flows into Somalia.  

Future of an Agrarian Somalia

As Ethiopia forges ahead with its herculean water development strategies, the future of an agrarian Somalia truly hangs in the balance. The now lush Juba/Shabelle plains and its fragile swampy ecosystems are at risk of turning into a wasteland with catastrophic social and environmental impacts.

The rights and needs of both upstream (Ethiopia) and downstream (Somalia) riparian countries must be amicably identified and guaranteed to void any future water-related conflicts. Mechanisms for conflict resolution need to be incorporated into the water development proposals of each country including international agreements on shared water courses.  

The Somali federal government cannot any longer remain oblivious to the hydropolitics of the Juba & Shabelle. The stakes are too high to ignore. Anymore indecisions or indecisiveness maybe detrimental to Somalia’s existence as a state and as a nation.

Somali authorities need to urgently create a task force -- if they haven’t already done so -- to come up with policies and frameworks for resuscitating the country’s irrigable agricultural projects. Most importantly, the think-tank must also come up with recommendations and strategies to negotiate with Ethiopia on how best to share the transboundary waters for the benefit of both nations. Ethiopia’s commitment in revamping its agricultural sector is steadfast. By being the source of the headwaters of the Juba & Shabelle, the balance of power in the water usage has tilted towards Ethiopia.

The internationally-accepted principle of not to cause significant harm in sharing trans-boundary waters trumps Somalia’s case. However, Ethiopia may have already circumvented this principle by changing the reality on the ground by constructing dams and establishing irrigation projects in the upstream basins. Being at a stronger bargaining position by controlling the headwaters, Ethiopia may not budge to Somalia’s pleadings. Somalia should be prepared for tough negotiations and hard bargaining. International arbitration on the amicable sharing of the waters is inevitable if the two sides reach an impasse in negotiations.        

Somali authorities figuratively need to ‘smell the coffee’ and realize it can no longer remain the sole user of these waters since its neighbour is rightfully claiming its share. Somalia must rise to the challenges in sharing the river waters with its upstream neighbour. It must also make its consumption use more efficient for its agriculture to remain productive and meaningful into posterity.

Can the Conflict be a Harbinger for Regional Cooperation in the Horn?

Even though the Somalia-Ethiopia looming water conflict is challenging to resolve, it has a silver lining in that it offers a win-win opportunity in bilateral economic cooperation and integration between the two neighbouring states. Each country has what the other hugely lacks and desperately needs.

Ethiopia controls the headwater source of the Juba & Shabelle. As per international transboundary watercourse rights, Ethiopia needs to equally share the waters with Somalia. Generating abundant hydroelectric power, Ethiopia can also supply cheap electricity that Somalia greatly needs for developing its economy.

Ethiopia -- the largest and most populous country in the Horn -- has been a landlocked country since its separation from Eritrea in 1991. Almost exclusively (96%), Ethiopia’s external trade goes through the port of Djibouti (World Bank Group, 2015) due to historical ties and proximity. Ethiopia desperately needs another maritime access for strategic diversification. Somalia -- endowed with the longest coast in continental Africa -- can conveniently offer Ethiopia an outlet to the sea for its foreign trade transits and food aid imports. 

Somalia and Ethiopia’s interdependence is undeniable in a more globalized context. With the respective resources each country has that the other needs, it is convenient that they chart a new mutually beneficial relationship. Ethiopia’s economy has steadily been growing at an impressive rate of 10% on average for over a decade now. The country’s tourism earnings in 2015 were incredibly more than the combined tourist established Kenya and Tanzania (Afkinsider, 2016). The ‘marriage’ between the emerging economic powerhouse - Ethiopia - and the extraordinary entrepreneurship skills of Somalis can be the proverbial ‘Midas touch’ with immense opportunities for both countries in economic growth and job creation.

For the benefit of both states, Somalia and Ethiopia should cooperate together in forging a symbiotic economic and trade relationship. Pragmatism should override any historical animosity over the 1964 and 1977 wars and political acrimony in more contemporary times between the two neighbours.  They need each other for the sake of the prosperity of their respective citizenry.

It is essential that not only Somalia & Ethiopia but all the countries in the Horn form a trading block where regional trans-border formal trade gets unhindered and tariffs are eliminated. As one single unit and with a combined population of almost 250 million (World Bank Group, 2015), the countries in the block can negotiate for preferential treatments at world trade forums as there is strength in numbers.


  1. Afkinsider, 2016. Ethiopia’s Tourism Revenue Hits Record High In 2015, Beats Kenya And Tanzania Combined. http://afkinsider.com/129574/ethiopias-tourism-revenue-hits-record-high-beats-kenya-and-tanzania-combined/

    FAO. 1989. A Brief Description Major Drainage Basins Affecting Somalia. Prepared by D. Kammer. National Water Centre, Mogadishu. Project Field Document No. 14. SOM/85/008. 

  2. FAO Swalim, 2009. Hydraulic Analysis of Rivers Juba and Shabelle in Somalia. Somalia Water and Land Information Management, Nairobi, Kenya.

  3. Flintan, F.  and Tamrat, I. 2002. Spilling Blood over Water? The Case of Ethiopia Ministry of Water Resources, Ethiopia, 2004. Wabi Shebele river basin integrated development master plan study project. Volume I Main report p. 122.

  4. Mohamed, A.E, 2013. Managing shared river basins in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopian planned water projects on the Juba and Shabelle rivers and effects on downstream uses in Somalia. Department of Land and Water Resources Engineering, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.

  5. Wikipedia. Mogadishu–Villabruzzi Railway.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogadishu%E2%80%93Villabruzzi_Railway World Bank Group, 2015. Horn of Africa Initiative: Berbera Corridor Program Background Note. 

Mohamed Hussein Ali – Entrepreneur, Plant Scientist and Rural Planner

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