Somali pastoralists use risk-averting strategies to survive and measures to predict and adjust to ecological dynamics. Multi-species herding in different ecological zones, and splitting the herds into different grazing areas, are the most common strategies. They maximise their herd size and keep high proportions of female animals for rapid recovery from lean times. They have also developed water systems such as reservoirs lined with cement, concrete and stones (berked) in addition to more traditional forms of water catchment including earthwork dams, in order to prolong the availability of grazing and ground water. Pastoralists try to match suitable livestock numbers and types with the quantity of water in the berked, aware of the need to conserve shared resources.

Water is such a precious commodity for the pastoral household that its use is severely restricted. Women will use transport camels to collect one week’s to 10 days’ supply of water from the nearest source (which could be half a day’s walk away or more) and take it to the household. One 60-litre or two 30-litre containers of water will last the family a week. Water is used only for cooking, drinking, toilet ablutions and ritual cleaning after sexual intercourse. The family wash themselves only during the twice-yearly rains; if clothes are washed it will be because the household is camped near to the water source. Little water is actually drunk, as milk is preferred and usually plentiful. Teeth are kept clean and strong with a stick brush without the use of water.

Pastoralists have their own system of signals to warn of impending drought. Information networks enable families to find out where the best rains have fallen and whether a long dry season is coming. Groups of clans have their own signal, or code, known as baaq, which members use to recognise one another during times of conflict, or to bring people together during household and herd movements when individuals can be far apart driving stock through hostile terrain.

Women and men prepare in different ways to cope with disaster. Women’s role is to make food ready to store against drought. The first thing they do is to identify the animals strong enough to resist the drought and sell some of the weak ones, using the cash to buy food for the dry season. They also slaughter some animals and preserve the meat for the dry season either by smoking or by drying it in the sun and then frying it.

Early in the dry season women also dry milk from both camels and goats. Camel milk is fermented until the curd precipitates and the whey separates; it is then filtered through cloth and dried until it becomes like powered milk, to which water can later be added.

At this time men go off to look for better grazing and water. They also go to the towns to buy grain. Sheep and goats are readily marketed during the early stage of a drought. The price of goods from town increases while livestock prices sink.

Elders of each grazing area meet at this stage to exchange information and decide what to do next. Families split their stock into three: lactating sheep and goats go with the children, and lactating mothers and pregnant women are moved to nearby villages for closer access to water; the rest of the family and sheep and goats remain in the bush; and unmarried men and young boys move camels far away from the families.3

Livestock numbers and management vary according to topography, from the Haud, the Ogo plateau, the Gollis mountain range to the coastal area. A family in the east may commonly have as many as 1,000 sheep and goats which they keep for meat not milk, as well as camels, which would sustain all the family’s needs; towards the Haud in the west, the wealthiest family might have no more than 300 sheep and goats which they would milk, and would probably be engaged in some livestock trading or mixed farming.

Likewise, in times of stress there are variations in coping mechanisms, but a common practice would be to keep lactating animals with lactating human mothers and small children so as to maximise the children’s chances of survival. It is not unheard of for camel herds to be driven as far as Eritrea and even further southwards into Uganda in order to find grazing during severe drought.

Deaths of animals occur, and sometimes deaths of people. For pas – toralists the loss of transport camels is a crisis for they simply do not have the means to continue moving to better grazing areas. Families have few alternatives at this stage but to abandon the aqal and other possessions and trek to the nearest village or water point with their animals.

New situations often demand lifestyle changes. Destitute pastoral families (who have previously lost their livestock) will often try to return to the pastoral way of life if they can, rather than stay in towns and become dependent on others. But to return to a pastoral way of life the family needs the means to re-stock and to obtain at least one transport camel.

When conditions are bad, the male head of the family will look for employment or other means of providing a living. In times of severe crisis, like the drought of 1974, if he is unable to get a job he might abandon his family. His original decision to go to town to search for work will have been a joint one, made with his wife. But if he fails to find work the decision to leave his family will be made by him alone. He will base his decision on the knowledge that he can no longer contribute to his family’s needs and it is shameful for him to be around them at such a difficult time unless he can be useful. From this perspective, by leaving his family he is relieving them of having to provide for him. Many of the Somali men who migrated to ports such as Cardiff, Liverpool and Aden came to be seamen through such circumstances. During the drought of the 1970s pastoralists went to the Gulf countries as labourers; in the 1980s drought many from the north west joined the Somali National Movement (SNM).

A woman whose husband has left in this way would remain with her children overseen by his family’s household, and wait for his return, never remarrying unless news comes that he has died. With this news she is allowed to remarry and most commonly will wed one of his brothers, whose responsibility it is to take care of her. If her husband returns after many years (couples have been known to be apart for 15 years or more) and his wife is past child-bearing, he is likely to take another wife. Women in urban settlements on the other hand will tend to seek divorce and remarriage if difficult cir­cumstances mean their husband has abandoned them and he has not been in contact with them for more than three months.4

The impact of the war on the pastoral economy

More research is needed to assess the relative impact of the war on pastoral, settled agricultural and urban communities. What is already apparent from research conducted among the pastoral communities of Somaliland is that the pastoral economy has survived the war, probably better than the agricultural and urban economies, but with some major constraints and changes. These can be best understood from a gendered perspective.

Most of the fighting parties relied on pastoralists for personnel, equipment, logistical support and food. The war also restricted the movement of pastoralists, causing excessive grazing and the spread of livestock diseases. During the civil war young men left their pastoral responsibilities to join the opposition movements. Unknown numbers died in the war, others survived, kept their weapons and joined armed gangs or bandits (dey-dey).5 In Somaliland many were subsequently demobilised and transformed into the new army and police forces. Others remain unemployed war veterans for whom, as a result of qaad addiction (see opposite and below), the town remains more attractive than the harsh life of a pastoralist.

Thus the years of the civil war have left women, the elderly and very young to the traditionally male tasks of camel castration, herding, milking, camel training and scouting for new grazing. Without the men, less movement of the herd will be possible and so the mobility of the household is restricted. There is evidence6 of a post-war shift from a nomadic way of life to a more sedentary one and that this is having a dramatic impact on the environment. For example, impoverished pastoral families who have lost their animals are increasingly fencing off land and turning to agriculture, which is creating new restrictions on remaining herd movements as well as potential for conflict. Once fencing of land for planting becomes established for some families, it is only a matter of time before others follow suit in order to protect their staple food supplies.

Traditionally the father in the pastoral family is constantly on the move for the benefit of the family and clan – travelling to town to sell stock and buy dry supplies, scouting out better grazing areas, checking up on the herd, gathering information on which clans are moving where, participating in clan and sub-clan meetings. Nowadays men are always seen in villages or towns and it is not for the benefit of the family. One reason they are in towns is that during the civil war urban relatives with whom the pastoralists came into contact introduced qaad chewing to clan meetings. Many men have now become qaad addicts and need access to towns and villages where daily fresh supplies are sold. Qaad chewing is both time – and money-consuming and is a new and destructive phenomenon in the pastoral economy.