By Dr. Harry Verhoeven

beach scene with fishing boats in the distance
Jazeera beach, Mogadishu, Somalia

In November 2023, the Harvard Center for International Development (CID) announced the award recipients of the inaugural GEM Incubation Fund, designed to support research that strives to find solutions to pressing development challenges. The recipients of the 2023 GEM Incubation Fund are pursuing research around the theme of climate change and international development, in line with the theme of CID's annual Global Empowerment Meeting. The report below is the first in a series of updates from research teams funded through the 2023 GEM Incubation Fund. 

Heightened Vulnerability to Climate Change in Somalia

Few countries in Africa, or anywhere around the world, are as vulnerable to climatic changes as Somalia. Years of intensifying long droughts ended in 2023 when people in the south of the country were overwhelmed by flash floods - compounding a food crisis that has been threatening more than six million Somalis. The impacts of such hazards are increasing exponentially across the Somali territories. Scientists estimate that climate change made the 2020-2023 drought one hundred times more likely. Most Somali citizens live on less than US$1 per day and half of the population is at least periodically engaged in pastoralist activities which are disproportionately susceptible to shifts in precipitation, as migrating herds (and people) depend on access to water and green pastures.

Somalia is situated in the Horn of Africa, where annual mean temperatures haveSomali postage stamp showing man reaching down already risen, on average, by 1°C since the 1960s. Simultaneously, the Horn is also one of the most violent regions in the world where state legitimacy is fragile and conflict frequent. Somalia itself has been mired for decades in a brutal war that has displaced millions of people, destroyed infrastructure and harvests. The conflict continues to heavily constrain the operations of many international organizations and climate responses, whether by the state or by ordinary citizens.

Understanding Somali Adaptation to Climate Change 

To better understand how one of the world’s poorest countries is adapting to worsening climate change amidst political turmoil and a history of distrust between populations and government, our research project focuses on the role of climate knowledge. A key assumption underpinning our work is that climate knowledge is not only to be found in reports by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the UN Food and Agriculture Organization or in statistical data compiled by government meteorological departments.

We are intrigued by how ordinary Somalis understand what climate change is, by the environmental knowledge they have built up within communities, and how they can organize themselves in response to increasingly volatile water and food systems. Such climate knowledge is a critical but under-researched resource for societies to harness as livelihoods are threatened and populations move in search of security and greener pastures

We study how state officials and various societal groups think about changing climatic conditions in Somalia and how they to come to see some forms of data as authoritative and actionable, while perhaps downplaying other forms of knowledge. How both ordinary people and government officials articulate priorities for actionby themselves, by other Somalis, or by external actorsin accordance with different understandings of what climate knowledge is, how it circulates in society, and who the custodian of such knowledge is, is crucial for successful and inclusive adaptation.

Our Research Approach

These themes and issues are front and center of the work of our team of researchers as we engage key stakeholders in different geographies such as representatives from nomadic groups, farming communities, fishermen and health professionals. Through interviews, focus group discussions and policy incubation workshops, we seek to harness the insights and lived experiences from different climate-vulnerable Somali communities. This will help us to better understand how decades of war affect the interactions of state officials and a diverse range of Somali citizens around climate issues. Protracted conflict has further sharpened pre-existing inequities in how different people access information and data, and how their forms of knowledge are valued by others. By carrying out this research, we hope to contribute to the development and refinement of institutional mechanisms for government-society dialogue around climate knowledge that can begin to address existing inequities and legacies of distrust.

group of african people gathered in a circle sitting in colorful plastic chairs
Consultation session with local community members in Somalia.

We believe this project can help center the knowledge(s) of communities that have experienced the impacts of climate change through so-called “participatory action research approaches.” In doing so, our work provides a platform for the affected communities to provide direct input on future research priorities, testing innovative methodologies, and incubating their concrete recommendations for climate action by a variety of actors, in government, local civil society, international organizations and elsewhere. 

As we look to expand the project, we envisage not only broadening its geographic scope to different parts of Somalia, but also amplifying the contribution of diverse 'community' researchers, including women and those Somalis compelled to migrate, often repeatedly. This will lead to the recognition and production of new forms of climate knowledge that might provide more fruitful and inclusive responses to Somalia's unique challenges.

Harry Verhoeven headshot

Dr. Harry Verhoeven

Dr. Harry Verhoeven is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, focusing on the political economy of climate change, international relations and the linkages between water, energy and food security. His regional focus is on Africa, the Middle East and the Western Indian Ocean.

ASAL Consulting is collaborating with Dr. Harry Verhoeven from Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy on this research initiative. Asal is a leading professional services firm led and majority-owned by Somali women. Its primary focus is improving public governance, private sector development, and institutional strengthening in Somalia and Somali-speaking regions within the Horn of Africa. Established in 2016, Asal maintains a strong presence across the region. Asal supports Somalia’s adaptation to climate change through research and inclusive policy dialogues.

Applications are now open for the 2024 GEM Incubation Fund in support of innovative research to advance gender equity in developing countries. Proposals are due August 30, 2024.
Image Credits

Saacid Ahmed via Unsplash, featured image

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