Climate, Fisheries, and Community Resilience in the Horn of Africa

Somalia lays half a world away from the tropical Pacific Ocean, but El Niño-driven changes in the Pacific affect marine fisheries in Somali waters.

Global environmental change – including anthropogenic climate change, natural climate events like the El Niño Southern Oscillation, and desertification – will be felt most acutely in communities that face challenges to resilience in multiple ways and at multiple scales. This is especially true for fragile and post-conflict countries that rely on agriculture and natural resources, like fisheries, for sustainable economic development.

The on-going drought in the greater Horn of Africa has affected more than 20 million people. Approximately 6.2 million Somalis – nearly half the population – are experiencing or at risk of famine. 338,000 children under five years of age are acutely malnourished. And over 1 million people have fled their homes in rural villages in search of food and water.

The causes of this drought are complex and difficult to disentangle: the global effects of El Niño and La Niña, the region’s persistent aridity, and changes in the Indian Ocean combine to create drought conditions that researchers work hard to understand and predict. Between 2014 and 2016, a strong El Niño event contributed to the hottest years on record, with global impacts. El Niño and La Niña events are changes in winds across the tropical Pacific Ocean that cause changes in ocean temperature (warmer during El Niño, colder during La Niña) and rainfall across the globe. In Somali waters, El Niño-La Niña events can be strengthened or lessened depending on the temperature patterns present in the Indian Ocean, known as the Indian Ocean Dipole. El Niño and La Niña activity is predicted to increase under anthropogenic climate change.

During the 2016 El Niño, higher than average rainfall in winter and spring caused massive flooding in parts of Somalia, ruining crop harvests and forcing people to relocate and abandon their livelihoods. The La Niña that followed in late 2016 may have caused or worsened drought conditions. Thus, the initial disruption to agriculture and community integrity from El Niño was exacerbated by the effects of drought from La Niña. These complex – and unpredictable – interactions underscore the importance of building community resilience to withstand consequences of global environmental change.

El Niño and Fisheries

somali fisherman

Somalia lays half a world away from the tropical Pacific Ocean, but El Niño-driven changes in the Pacific affect marine fisheries in Somali waters. The east coast of Somalia is the fifth most important upwelling system (see description below) in the world and supports highly productive fishing grounds. Fisheries are a new but growing part of the domestic marketplace: seafood is not a traditional staple of the Somali diet except in a handful of fishing villages. But investment in the Somali fishing sector is growing, and marine fisheries contribute nearly $135 million to the economy each year. For fisheries to remain a reliable source of domestic food and income, the sector must develop in ways that account for global environmental change.

The impacts of El Niño on fisheries include:

  1. Changes in coastal upwelling. Normal ocean currents bring cold water and dissolved nutrients to the sea surface (known as upwelling), providing abundant sources of food for fishes. El Niño events change those normal conditions, reducing upwelling and food for fish. But global climate models predict a significant strengthening of upwelling off the coast of Somalia despite more frequent El Niño events, which could increase local productivity and fish stocks. Thus, the long-term implications for upwelling are unclear.
  2. Coral bleaching. Healthy coral reefs provide habitat and food for important fish stocks. El Niño events degrade coral health through bleaching, reducing vital fish habitats. Indian Ocean coral reef health declined during the 1998 El Niño event as Indian Ocean water began to warm. Somali coral reefs are home to some of their most important domestic commercial fisheries, like emperors (gaxash) and groupers (summaan). Reef recovery typically takes more than 20 years, but reefs and their resident fish communities are unable to recover from bleaching when destructive fishing practices are widespread.
  3. Movement of fish populations. During El Niño, normal temperature conditions move deeper and farther off the coast as temperatures increase. Species shift their distributions to match the environments needed to survive. Fishers follow the fish. But in Somalia, following valuable fish like tuna will require larger, higher capacity fishing boats than those currently in use.

Building Community Resilience

In Somalia, the confluence of El Niño-La Niña events and long-term climate change can magnify national security issues. The Federal Government of Somalia is young and the existence of autonomous regions challenges its capacity to deliver famine interventions. Rebel groups, such as Al-Shabaab, can take advantage of these gaps in capacity, further limiting the government’s role. Community resilience can be improved through centralized government-based interventions aimed at sustainably developing the fishing sector including:

  1. Subsidies. Financial incentives to fishers can promote fishing effort. This may keep income and economic development stable for a period of time following a climate event. Subsidies can be a double-edged sword, however, if they support fishing beyond what is economically and ecologically sustainable. Organized data collection and reporting can inform subsidy support in a sustainable manner.
  2. Equipment provision. Not all fishers can transition into alternate forms of livelihood or shift where and how they fish. The federal government could provide artisanal fishers with the necessary equipment for fishing new stocks, which would increase their ability to withstand short-term changes in types or locations of fish stocks.
  3. Trainings. Training of more fishers could maintain catch levels by improving efficiency of catch. For example, technology for targeting fish schools means less fuel is spent searching for fish. Efficiencies in fishing effort improve time and funds available for fishers to develop alternate forms of income or livelihood.

Importantly, while fisheries can improve food security and both fisheries and drought are affected by climate, fisheries development must not trade-off with or replace drought relief. Droughts and famines require different responses since they are short, immediate events. Investing in fisheries is not an answer to famine and drought-related food insecurity, and fisheries management requires long-term strategies for sustainable use. Fisheries sector development can, however, provide the kind of community resilience that improves responses to drought in the long term. Ultimately, nations should pursue pathways to greater community resilience that will enable long-term survival beyond short-term shocks like droughts.

Author:  Brian Free