Remotely sensed data coupled with GIS application and hydrological modelling help drought-ridden Somaliland find more stable water sources

Somalilander Digging For Water In A Wadi

Somaliland’s best options for developing large-scale reliable water sources and water mobilization infrastructure are being mapped out as part of a Master Plan.

October 6, 2017
  • SDG: #6, #11
  • SECTORS: Water
  • COUNTRIES: Somaliland
  • CLIENT: African Water Facility / African Development Bank
  • CONTRACT VALUE: EUR 2,650,000
  • DURATION: January 2017 to December 2019

In 2015-2017, a severe prolonged drought once again hit Somaliland, which resulted in the death of an estimated one-third of the country's livestock – a devastating event for a rural economy, where people rely on their animals for food and income. Famine and related hardships swiftly followed.

A team of experts, assembled and led by NIRAS, assessed the water resources situation for the entire country to map the best options for building a more stable water supply combining groundwater with options for water harvesting schemes based on larger dams and reservoirs.

A water-stressed environment

Much of Somaliland is arid, receiving 50 to 250 mm of rainfall a year. There are no permanent surface water sources and the country relies heavily on groundwater. Moreover, salinity of the deep groundwater is a significant and growing problem, and more than 30% of the +400 boreholes are not functioning for a variety of reasons. Much of the rural and nomadic population presently rely on shallow wells, small earth dams, sand dams, smaller hafirs and berkads for their survival and the wellbeing of their livestock.

The water stress index for Somaliland is 360 m3/person/year making it one of the most water stressed countries in Africa (Djibouti is 433 and Namibia is 158).

Falkenmark index

Recurrent droughts add intense strain to an already highly water-stressed situation and have a serious impact on people’s health and their livestock. Compounding the stress, climate change impacts and related higher-intensity less-predictable rainfall events are more frequent, exacerbating soil degradation.

Somaliland covers an area of 176,120 km2, annual rainfall can be as low as 50 mm/year but some semi-arid areas can receive up to 500 mm/year
25 %

Water supply coverage in rural areas

50 %

Water supply coverage in urban areas

Developing a Master Plan

The first national water master planning exercise of its kind in Somaliland, the National Integrated Water Resources Management and Investment Plan, provides for a 30-year programme of investment in the water sector. Funded by a grant from the African Water Facility (AWF) under the African Development Bank (AfDB), a project to prepare this Plan was launched in early 2017 with the end goal of building resilience to climate change and reducing water stress in Somaliland.

NIRAS A/S Consultants of Denmark in partnership with WE Consult of Uganda were engaged to undertake the consultancy services. The project was extended for a year in 2018.

The Plan addresses water resources stewardship and development based on the principles of integrated water resources management (IWRM) and envisages three decade-long continuous phases of investment (2020-2030, 2030-2040, and 2040-2050). 

The overall purpose is to identify the major strategic opportunities to mobilise the country’s water resources in order to meet the long-term demands of the country – its people and economic development – and provide a strategic guide to overall investment through a coordinated and holistic approach. 

Covering the short-term planning horizon, the Plan presents conceptual designs of structural as well as non-structural projects and provides costing of a number of priority projects included in the investment program meant to be implemented within the Plan’s first decade. 

In the short- to medium-term, groundwater can be mobilised to meet growing urban demand but this will require investment to increase knowledge of the location, depth, quantity and quality of available aquifers

A robust technical analysis

From 126 to 535 Mm3/year

Expected increase in water demand (from 2020 to 2050) due to almost doubling of the population

In order to understand how the available water can be mobilised to meet the needs of the growing urban and rural populations as well as sectoral water demands, specifically water for irrigated agriculture, a significant amount of spatial data and remotely sensed information were amassed which was put onto a GIS platform and also utilized as input to a MIKE Basin software to model the hydrology of Somaliland, and to identify and design water resource mobilization options.

Because investments are unlikely to prove sustainable without a stronger and more capable Ministry of Water Resources Development (MoWRD), the Plan also includes a range of technical support and capacity-building interventions (non-structural projects and programmes). In the longer-term, the MoWRD will have to implement a policy of decentralising government and shift its approach from “emergency response” to a mainstreamed development approach capable of routinely addressing a response through adaptation to droughts and climate change impacts.

In addition, Somaliland's current water law, policy, institutional and planning framework were examined – and this has resulted in a range of priority investment projects being identified to support the development of the administrative and operational capacity of the MoWRD as well as to provide for policy and regulatory developments.

In the "short-term"

Whilst groundwater development and the expansion of surface rainwater harvesting technologies (such as hafirs and small earth dams) will form the backbone of the approach between 2020 and 2030, it will become necessary to introduce some larger dams in the wetter parts of the country in order to fully address the future water demand since in many locations demand could outstrip the available groundwater. At the same time, significant work has to be done to improve borehole siting and construction techniques, test means to address groundwater salinity, carry forward with more efficient off-grid solar powered water supply systems, and build MoWRD’s capacity to act as a ‘true’ national custodian of the water resources on behalf of the people.

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A combination of approaches including boreholes, large hafirs, sand dams, and shallow wells are possible to serve smaller urban towns and district headquarters.

The Plan consists of four investment programmes

Reservoirs and groundwater

Traditionally, one of the ways Somalilanders have dealt with the dry season is by building small dams in streams called wadis. The water in wadis only flows occasionally, but in some wadis the water still flows underground even when the surface is dry. In this case, one can dig into the riverbed – but this exposes the water to pollution risks as well as increased evaporation.

One of the approaches in the project is to localise the wadis with a steady subsurface stream. The idea proposed is to build underground barriers across the wadi to make a subsurface reservoir, and then install shallow wells to get the water safely out of the wadi’s sand.

The team is also looking at the hilly areas of Somaliland, which have more rainfall than the lowlands, and assessing the possibility of building dams to create large reservoirs. Satellite imaging, GIS and hydrological models are used to identify sites with enough runoff from the associated water catchment areas to maintain a year-round supply. 

  • Regional Capitals Water Mobilisation: The infrastructure for long-term water supplies for the six regional capitals will be secured by bringing bulk water to “city limits” where its subsequent distribution would be taken up by private sector water utilities or public-private partnership (PPP) water agencies. In the first decade, existing and new aquifer systems will be fully developed. Two larger dams will be built during 2030 to 2040.

  • District Towns Water SupplyWater supplies for 32 towns will be developed. Using a variety of supply technologies, provision would also include storage and distribution infrastructure within the towns.
  • Rural Water MobilisationA range of technologies will be used to meet the rural populations domestic (as well as other) water needs, strategic boreholes for livestock watering will be constructed and specific consideration is given for an accelerated introduction of water supplies in one of the most water-stressed areas, the Hawd plateau. In addition three catchment protection projects and construction of larger dams for irrigation purposes are also part of the Investment Plan.
  • Technical Support and TrainingTechnical Assistance will be provided to enable the MoWRD to increase its administrative and operational capacity through provision of equipment, in-service training and coaching, and the delivery of a number of projects of national importance, including a national water resources assessment and monitoring database, and the establishment of water resources regulations with groundwater abstraction management as first priority. Also the establishment of a Water Sector Trust Fund has been looked into and its merits and requirements assessed.

Whilst the National Water Resources Management and Investment Plan provides a technically oriented basis for implementation, which looks at the whole of Somaliland’s water resources towards achieving SDG-6, target 1, and aims to meet the very different public and sectoral demands of the country some thirty years into the future – this should be seen as a desirable ‘finishing’ point.

But its use now is to provide a technically robust benchmark from which to start the considerable work needed to attract investment and to shape opportunities into viable beneficial interventions on the ground, which piece by piece contribute to improving the wellbeing of the people, environment and economy of Somaliland of the future.

Get in touch

Sven Jacobi

Sven Jacobi


København, Denmark

+45 4810 4310

Birger Chr. Blem

Birger Chr. Blem

Project Director

Allerød, Denmark

+45 4810 4272

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