Two months ago, Sheikh Noah thought this year would be different - possibly better - for thousands of villagers living near the Shabelle River in southern Somalia. The locals had quickly tried to re-establish their lives by rebuilding their homes and growing food and cash crops in the fertile valleys after the destruction wrought by the December 2006 floods.
"Initially there was a small canal, an irrigation off-take," said Noah, who is also the chief of Boodale village, about 30km south of the regional capital, Jowhar. "Then another canal was built nearby, and another. This created an area of weakness through which the river burst its banks."
That day, the river swept through villages and farmland, wrecking maize plants, banana and fruit trees, and grazing pastures.
About 55 days later, the villagers in Boodale, Daymo, Jillale Bacadley and Towfiq are still grappling with the inundation. While children play water games in the water pools in Boodale, the men of the village gather at the burst river bank to pile up bags of sand and metal in an attempt to stop the heavily silted water from pouring into their fields.
"We in Somalia are always in an emergency situation," Hussein Mohamed Dhere, deputy governor of Middle Shabelle, said. "That flood has affected farmlands and cut off the road – it is one problem after another. The bursting of the river bank causes poverty among our people."
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which is trying to help block the embankment and is providing boats to ferry aid workers and relief items up the river, about 430 families have been affected.
"All their farmland and harvests - which they store underground - were destroyed," said UNICEF's liaison officer in Jowhar, Mohammed Abdi Shaffie. "A total of 24 villages up to Balad have been affected and the main road to Mogadishu is cut off."
Eleven villages in Balad, 30km north of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, have been washed away, according to residents, leaving hundreds of people homeless and in desperate need of aid. The road to Jowhar was also impassable.
River levels high
According to experts, heavy ‘keremeti’ rains in the Ethiopian highlands have kept the river level high for the past three months, and raised fears that further flooding could occur downstream now that the Deyr rains have begun.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Somalia Water and Land Information Management project (SWALIM) predicted the Shabelle would rise further because the Deyr season starts in October.
There are already reports of localised flooding in Gode, Ethiopia, and the Shabelle normally floods during this season. Weak embankments will exacerbate the flooding further.
Memories of the widespread impact of the December floods have stocked up fear among the locals living along the river. "If it rains heavily in the Ethiopian highlands and in Hiran, it will affect us again," said the deputy governor. "We cannot afford it again."
Osman Haggi Abdullei, district commissioner of Jowhar, was equally apprehensive. "Last year’s floods killed two of my relatives who tried to go to Yemen. They died in a boat in the sea, fleeing the floods."
Aid workers in Jowhar say at least 100 villages close to the river could be affected if the rising waters burst the banks. Yet many of these people are still grappling with the effects of last year’s devastating floods.
"We used to grow our own food, but since the floods hit this area we have no food," said 25-year-old Khadija Maxid, as she waited in line to receive food rations from the UN World Food Programme at Dhaygawan village, just north of Jowhar, which is 90km north of Mogadishu. "It is so hard that now we get money by cutting grass and selling it in town. Yet the price of food has tripled."
The combination of floods, poor rainfall and conflict has made the humanitarian situation in the Shabelles dire. For example, the price of rice, the main food for most people in the region, has tripled.
"In the past, Jowhar was a market and the people had money to supplement their diets," said Christian Balslev-Olesen, UNICEF Somalia representative. "Not any more."
The fear that worse could happen soon has local experts worried. "Somebody has to regulate the water use for irrigation to minimise the risks from diverting the river," said Abdelraman Issack, a water officer in the region. "In a normal setting, an extension worker would monitor the river, but today there is nobody to do that."
Before 1991, when the government led by Siyad Barre fell, the sluice gates to control the flow of the river to the farmlands were still functional, providing a managed supply of adequate water to the Shabelle region.
The few international NGOs in the region, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, are helping to deliver aid to those affected, but should the river burst its banks again, many more people will be affected. And the bigger worry is that the Somali authorities have no capacity to help.
"The people in this country have become vulnerable because they have been neglected for long, partly because of fear due to the security situation," said Balslev-Olesen. "Fear is counter-productive both to the political process and to humanitarian interventions."
Since December, when the Union of Islamic Courts, which had managed to bring a semblance of relative peace to parts of Somalia, were routed by a combined Somali-Ethiopian force, insecurity has escalated, especially in Mogadishu. But local leaders say the resilience that has kept the Somali people going through 16 years of lawlessness will keep them hoping for the best – especially if the international community helps.
"We have a saying - if a dead body has a relative, it will not decay," said Osman Haggi, the district commissioner. "We have UNICEF and other partners, so we will not decay. This year, I am telling my people – we can survive."