13 June 2022

Climate and environmental justice in Somalia: Interview with Hassan Yasin

“We need young people from Somalia sitting at the decision-making tables of negotiations”, says Hassan Yasin, the co-founder of the Somali Greenpeace Association (SOGPA). Established in 2019, his non-profit organisation promotes climate and environmental justice in Somalia, a country disproportionately hit by the disastrous consequences of a combination of climate change and conflict. In an interview on June 2, 2022, he explained to PSI the underlying dynamics of the climate-security nexus in Somalia and how SOGPA works to strengthen Somalis’ resilience. 

Hassan Yasin

Somalia as a climate-security hotspot

Frequently exposed to climate extremes including flash floods and erratic rainfall, Somalia currently suffers from the worst drought in 40 years. The country is on the brink of famine with millions of people at risk of starvation. Somalia is ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Projections indicate a mean annual temperature increase of three degrees by the end of the century, as well as less regular and more intense rainfall. In particular, this threatens the 60 per cent of the population who follow a nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyle.

Somalia also faces a perilous security situation. Decades of conflict, including territorial disputes and continuing clashes between government forces and armed groups, are exacerbated by a largely dysfunctional political system. After a two-year-long electoral cycle that left the country in a state of political crisis, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected as the new president in May 2022. The incumbent government has vowed to be more committed to countering the terrorist organisation al-Shabaab. The group had thrived under the previous government, infiltrating the political system and economy. With the integrity of security institutions compromised and authority fragmented amongst multiple conflicting actors, insecurity is pervasive and disaster response lacking.

“We believe it’s our responsibility to take action so our new generations learn how to adapt to climate change” Mr. Yasin notes. The former biology teacher realized a need to raise awareness about climate change issues among Somali people, leading him to found SOGPA. The organisation of young activists from all over Somalia offers both theoretical training and practical activities. It has so far reached more than 1000 Somali youth who participated in trainings. SOGPA envisions “a national environment free from the threat of climate change with sustainable development, equity and justice for all”.

Amidst the ongoing drought, how are conditions for you and your team on the ground now?

We are doing our best to provide advocacy for voiceless people and report on the situation of the drought in Somalia. Apart from the drought, what is making things worse are increasing food prices. People are more stressed, because food items have tripled in price and imported foods have become more expensive. Additionally, energy prices and transportation costs have doubled. Vulnerable groups are now trying to work even harder to put food on their tables.

How does the drought affect people’s awareness and perception of climate change impacts?

The good news is that people – as well as local authorities – are finally coming to their senses. As a consequence of the drought, people will now answer that climate change has the biggest impact on their livelihoods. Pastoralists and farmers will tell you the same. They lose both their crops and animals, and they lose them both during drought and during flooding. Even the president, in a recent speech, said that the primary cause of internal displacement in Somalia is climate change, followed by other factors such as terrorism and socioeconomic reasons.

Also, if you ask people about the root cause of conflict, they will initially say that it’s about revenge. But when asking them about the reason behind this revenge, they will say it is conflict over water and pasture. Only recently, two girls were killed in the province of Jubaland, where two communities came together in search of water. Their competition over limited water resources, combined with existing conflicts caused the situation to escalate.

What makes Somalia such a specific case concerning the connection between climate change and security?

Our economy is primarily based on farming and pasture, which both depend on water. Over the last twenty years, climate change impacts have therefore led to a decline in economic development. Our agricultural sector is threatened by both reoccurring floods and droughts. When people from this sector have to migrate, competition over already scarce resources increases and conflict may arise. There are also conflicts between farmers and pastoralists over land and water. Additionally, farmers lack alternatives when they lose their crops, putting them at risk of being recruited by armed groups.

What is the role of terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab in the climate-security area?

Terrorist groups are making the lives of people worse. They might grab your land and animals. Sometimes they might even take your sons and daughters to fight for them. Somalia’s two major rivers are controlled by terrorist groups, which sell the water to people in these areas and don’t allow them to keep their own wells. The terrorists also ask farmers for taxes and a percentage of their harvest. In addition to government taxes, there is no reason for people to continue farming when they don’t make any profit.

The terrorists also control most of the charcoal trade in Somalia, which is bad for the climate and environment. They don’t concern themselves with climate change. After we are hit by climate change impacts, they mostly refuse foreign non-profit organisations to access their areas. It’s very difficult and you risk being kidnapped or killed. Most people migrate from those areas to settle in IDP camps.  

What does Somali civil society need to face climate, environmental and security risks?

We need to achieve climate change resilience in Somalia and the ability of communities to adapt. Most of our communities don’t have the necessary knowledge to address climate challenges. We believe it’s our responsibility to take action so our new generations learn how to adapt to climate change.

Somali civil society organisations working on climate change are mostly youth organisations, which need specific support from the international community. They need assistance in capacity-building, as well as technical support. Another major challenge is funding, since most organisations, including us, work on a volunteer basis. We need funding not only for projects but also for organisational development so that our organisations can sustain themselves. We also majorly struggle with visa issues and getting accreditation letters when trying to participate in international or regional forums. We need easier processes for that.

How does your organisation work to advance these goals?

We start by teaching people the basics of climate change using resources of UN CC: Learn, which recognised us as a 2020 Champion. The people that we train are now training other people in their areas. We also do tree-planting activities and bring together actors from civil society so they can cooperate. For example, we joined almost 20 civil society groups in April to unite their voices in a demand for climate justice for Somalia.

On the 22nd of May, when our new president was elected, we wrote an advocacy message that the new government should focus on climate and environmental issues. We also wrote an environmental position paper, urging the government to form a ministry directly focused on climate change and environmental issues. Currently, they only have an office under the prime minister, which is not accessible to civil society, but the new president has now announced to form the Ministry.

Which outcomes and impacts of your work could you already observe?

When we formed our organisation, there was no other youth organisation working and climate and environment – now there are almost 15. So far, we are the only civil society organisation that is accredited for the Convention on Biodiversity in Somalia. We are currently looking to be accredited for the UNEP and UNFCCC. We are also encouraging others to apply for those accreditations as well, so young people from Somalia can sit at the decision-making tables.

SOGPA has been invited to speak at the International Labour Organization and the Stockholm Forum. We were also part of the working group on the Plastic Ban Treaty, which was passed in UNEA 5.2 in Nairobi. Another important part of our work are cross-learning visits, for example to Kenya.

Furthermore, we can observe that people we have worked with are realising the importance of climate action. After doing awareness-raising on the importance of planting trees at a school, we promised them to come back and plant the trees for them. A while later they called us, saying that they had already planted the trees themselves and asked us for alternative support. This way we showed them how to protect those trees.

Which steps do you think are necessary to work towards making climate justice a reality for Somalia?

In Somalia, especially UN agencies are mostly focused on emergency scenarios. But what we need is for those bodies to focus on durable solutions and resilience development so our people can adapt to climate change. We need more financial resources that are managed efficiently to benefit the grassroots level. And we need a full compensation of loss and damages caused by climate change. People who lose their animals and crops are the vulnerable ones. If we don’t reinstate their livelihoods, no emergency help can ever recover what they have lost.

We initially started connecting civil society organisations to train them to get involved with the government, communicate our needs, and negotiate with them. Those organisations have to be able to negotiate effectively and they require data as a basis for their arguments. We don’t need a government that hires consultants that don’t know the reality on the ground. We can take examples of civil society working together with governments in neighbouring countries such as Kenya. We need our civil society and government to start working together to address our problems.


Photo credit: Yasin Yusuf/Unsplash