Nature and Biodiversity

How mobile phones can save the lives of Somali nomads facing the climate crisis

An internally displaced man looks at the carcasses of his goats and sheep in the outskirts of Dahar town of Puntland state in northeastern Somalia, December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Feisal Omar - RC1510A62970

An internally displaced man looks at the carcasses of his goats and sheep in the outskirts of Dahar town of Puntland state in northeastern Somalia. Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar

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Hit by droughts, then floods, Somalia's pastoralists face huge climate risks - but mobile phone warnings could help, backers say.

In central Somalia's Beledweyne district, families still reeling from food shortages and livestock deaths after another year of poor rains were surprised by a new disaster last month: brutal floods that completely submerged homes after the Shabelle River burst its banks.

Across the district, 230,000 people were driven from their homes, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR reported, some fleeing through neck-deep water.

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"The situation was devastating," Ahmed Omar Ibrahim, an aid worker with Save the Children, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the flood's aftermath, "all the people (were) out from the town, scattered."

But such disasters may soon no longer catch people unaware. A mobile phone alert system is set to roll out across Somalia, designed to text residents a warning before they are hit by droughts or floods.

Such warning systems are increasingly common around the world, but the Somali effort will mark the first time a nationwide mobile phone-based alert system has been set up in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The alert system is part of a $10 million project, launched last week by UNDP and the Somali government, to improve the conflict-hit East African nation's resilience to growing climate threats.

It includes efforts to educate pastoralists on better managing their resources and plans to build new weather stations, weather monitoring systems, and water storage dams.

Officials expert the mobile alert system to be fully operational in two to three years.

"This project is really looking into resiliency-building of the most vulnerable people," said Abdul Qadir Rafiq of UNDP Somalia.

Pastoralists at risk

Similar mobile-based systems have been tried out in drought-prone areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. A project led by Oxfam in 2013 trained local people to gather data on water levels and report their findings to the humanitarian organisation using mobile phones.

The UNDP alert system, by contrast, will rely on sophisticated data from new and existing monitoring stations and satellites, to alert people to danger directly through their mobiles.

The technology has already been used on a trial basis in parts of Somalia, where climate change is contributing to more frequent and severe droughts and floods.

In 2015, the Somalia Water and Land Information Management project developed an app to warn vulnerable river communities about impending heavy rain and to alert fishing vessels about December cyclones.

But those most at risk from severe weather are Somalia's nomadic pastoralists, who make up about 60% of the population, according to UNDP.

The herders keep a majority of their wealth in livestock. If the animals are killed by severe weather, "that's a huge economic loss," said Chris Funk, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and with the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked on drought forecasting in Somalia.

"Farmers can have a bad year that is damaging to those households, but they can recover more quickly than pastoralists," he said.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, providing pastoralists with early warning systems has historically been difficult, Funk said - but better access to mobile technology is changing that.

Somalia has good mobile phone coverage, UNDP specialist Rafiq and aid worker Ibrahim both said. A 2013 survey by analytics company Gallup and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a U.S. federal agency, found seven in 10 Somalis own a mobile phone.

The study did note regional differences, however, with those in major cities more likely to own one than those in rural areas.

Still, while "it is difficult to give exact numbers or percentages," Rafiq said, "at this stage it is safe to assume half of pastoralist communities are using mobile technologies."

From warning to action

Experts stress that even if pastoralists have access to the technology, the emerging alert system will be useless unless Somalis are capable to taking effective action on the warnings.

With this in mind, the new alert system has been designed to direct people towards the closest water resources as drought strengthens, for instance, so pastoralists can move their herds before they begin losing animals.

Alerts may also help communities decide where to move to avoid expected flooding.

The disaster resilience project includes funds to educate pastoralists on management techniques, such as reducing the size of their cattle herds before periods of drought.

Funk, the researcher, said he was pleased the project was focused on improving resilience to climate events, not just monitoring the changes.

"That's the real promise," he said.

The UNDP project is set to last four years. But in order to create lasting change, projects like this one will need long-term commitment, climate resilience experts said.

"The sustainability really is a big issue," said Rebecca Carter, deputy director of the World Resources Institute's climate resilience practice. "There's a real role for the private sector here."

Telecom companies are increasingly aware of how valuable their services are to customers in crisis, she said.

Since 2015, mobile operators in almost 30 African countries have signed up to the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, an initiative launched by trade body GSMA and funded by the UK Department for International Development.

It aims to create best practices for mobile operators responding to humanitarian disasters.

In 2016, charter member Vodacom installed the first 3G tower in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, with mobile operators Airtel, Halotel and Tigo soon moving in as well to offer refugees a choice of providers, according to the charter's 2017 annual report.

In Uganda, the report showed, mobile phone operators have used mobile money payment services to deliver cash aid from non-governmental groups to refugees.

"This is a great way (for telecom companies) to build their base of customers," Carter said. "Pastoralists recognise that it is worthwhile, with their scarce resources, for … someone in the community to have access to warnings."

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