Khadija Mohamed Al-Makhzoumi, Somalia’s first minister for climate change and the environment, is keen to emphasise that she’s doing her “homework”. At various times during our conversation, over more than an hour in her home in the Somali capital Mogadishu, she reiterates that she is learning everything she can. Part of that involves travelling around Somalia, a country she hasn’t lived in for decades.
I arrive at Al-Makhzoumi’s house in a bulletproof vehicle, alongside a security escort of men wielding guns – in keeping with advice given to foreigners when moving around Mogadishu. Government officials are a regular target for attacks by the al-Qaeda aligned Islamist militant group Al Shabaab, and Al-Makhzoumi’s house is heavily guarded. We pass through two security gates – the outer wall made up of blast-proof Hesco bastions – before reaching her door. Cows sit on the street outside.
Al-Makhzoumi’s house is beautiful and is decorated with art from countries including Pakistan, where she spent six years as Somalia’s ambassador. She lived alone in Pakistan apart from her security detail and she loved the country. In Iraq, before that, she was the only female African or Arab ambassador, she recalls.
Al-Makhzoumi was elected an MP in April this year and moved to Somalia in May. She became a minister in August. Her five children – the youngest aged 12 – live in the UK. (They would “complain” too much about being in Somalia; “they’re used to McDonald’s,” she laughs.)
She has spent most of her life living abroad. “I left very young when the civil war happened,” she explains, adding she was born in 1982. Al-Makhzoumi worked in real estate before getting involved with the Somali government, volunteering in a UK liaison office, then becoming a diplomat. There are many other members of the Somali diaspora returning with the aim of building their country back up, Al-Makhzoumi says. “In Somalia now, the young generation is coming back to the country and trying to do something.”
As we speak, she serves coffee, then coconut water in coconuts from the southern port city of Kismayo. She talks about the beauty of Somalia and how she hopes it will be a tourist destination in the future, once the war with Al Shabaab has ended.
Al-Makhzoumi’s new role is an important one. Somalia is in the middle of a devastating drought, its most severe in four decades. Five consecutive rainy seasons have failed, and a sixth is expected to. While Somalia has always known droughts, climate scientists say they are becoming more frequent, and the Horn of Africa country’s population of roughly 17 million is struggling.
Some 5.6 million people are said to be experiencing “crisis”, or worse, levels of food insecurity. Hundreds of thousands are living through famine-like conditions, and the UN says says child mortality has reached famine levels in two areas, including among displaced people in Mogadishu.
Neighbouring Kenya is already sheltering more than 280,000 Somali refugees, many of whom moved to camps there during previous droughts or conflicts and have never returned home. The latest drought has forced tens of thousands more across the border. Kenya – which is also affected by drought – has repeatedly threatened to close the camps.
In a written email before our meeting, Al-Makhzoumi answered various questions about her new role.
“Somalia is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change,” she said. “This vulnerability is complex, differentiated and multidimensional, being a function of several factors including high exposure to climate risks, continuing instability, weak governance, gender inequality, loss and damage to communities, increasing water scarcity and food insecurity and widespread poverty.”
She said the effects of climate change were more far-reaching than other domestic concerns, such as armed conflict, as they “can move millions of people in a very short period and put them in serious humanitarian conditions”.
“Climate change is increasingly becoming a major threat to Somalia, particularly [the] livelihood of rural communities whose economy is mainly based on water and grassland. Somalia has a climate-sensitive economy as the main traditional socio- economic activities are cultivation and animal husbanding,” she wrote.
In person, the minister is friendly, but keen to emphasise the varied nature of the challenges she faces. When asked about the future of pastoralism in Somalia, she pulls out her phone to display an email from a senior official in the US embassy asking her what they should do about storks that are disrupting activities on their property. She says she has a lot of unexpected demands put on her, and it is taking her a while to get to grips with them all.
When Mary Robinson talked about Somalia, that’s the time that all donors and all the world looked at Somalia ... again we need her ... we’d love if she came out here on the ground.— Khadija Mohamed Al-Makhzoumi
In November, the minister attended Cop27, the climate conference held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. She says it was a big learning curve. She brought 20 staff; a huge increase on the 3-4 Somali officials that used to attend. “I was there for two weeks so I’ve learned a lot,” she says. But they found it hectic and confusing, and did not manage to meet everyone they wanted to meet, she laments. “Somalia is in a bad situation at the moment. So many people didn’t know.”
Among those she missed was Mary Robinson, whom Al-Makhzoumi admires for her advocacy on behalf of Somalis when President of Ireland during the 1992 famine. “She came to Somalia and when she talked about Somalia, that’s the time that all donors and all the world looked at Somalia,” says Al-Makhzoumi. “Again we need her to raise [the voice of Somalis], and we’d love if she came out here on the ground.”
In her emailed answers, Al-Makhzoumi addressed the Cop27 loss and damage fund agreement, which should see countries responsible for high carbon emissions compensating more vulnerable countries that are suffering the effects of climate change.
“Somalia’s position is the same as the African Group, G77, plus China and [the] Least Developed Countries (LDC). Any resources from the loss and damage fund will be used to build the capacity of the state institutions and resilience of the rural communities. The resources will also be used to compensate the loss and damage that have been experienced by the local communities,” the minister wrote.
When it comes to taking steps to mitigate climate change in the future, Al-Makhzoumi says she wants to implement existing policies and come up with new ones to fill gaps, with projects in the areas of environmental management, climate change adaptation, pollution control and capacity building.
Resilience measures suggested by international aid agencies working in Somalia include improving water infrastructure by digging more boreholes, improving irrigation; vaccinating children against diseases such as measles; teaching communities to monitor malnutrition levels themselves so responses can be triggered when certain levels are reached; setting up financial savings groups, especially for women; looking into whether livestock insurance is possible; growing more drought-resistant crops; supporting re-greening; and improving roads between urban and rural areas.
Last October, Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud also launched a national tree-planting project, with the ambitious aim of planting 10 million trees.
The minister says Somali people are not conscious of what might lie behind extreme weather. “Everyone knows what’s happening on the ground but the awareness of the climate change is not here yet ... They’re interested to know now.”
Al-Makhzoumi is often accompanied by a film crew on her travels around Somalia. She shows me a social media video made in port city Hobyo. It is set to dramatic music and shows her walking around sand dunes, then standing in front of homes subsumed by sand, which she calls a clear example of the severe effects of deforestation.
“I wanted to see with my own eyes the situation and conditions,” she says in the video. “I am asking that we join hands and act quickly and as a nation.” It was posted on her social media accounts, which she hopes will get the attention of Somalis across the country. On Facebook, she has more than 45,000 followers; on Twitter, more than 23,000; and on Instagram, where her tagline reads “from Somalia to the world”, she has more than 13,000.
As a woman, Al-Makhzoumi says she also wants to highlight the gendered impacts of climate change. Girls walking long distances to get water can be attacked and raped on the way, she says. Among men, violence can also break out, as people “kill each other” to access water.
“As far as climate change adaptation is concerned, the future of Somalia is not in our hands, as the climate change is caused outside our political borders,” says Al-Makhzoumi. “However, we are trying our best to adapt with the climate change impacts and to address it as much as we can.”