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UNHCR to provide shelter in tsunami-struck Somalia

UNHCR to provide shelter in tsunami-struck Somalia

The tsunami that devastated large parts of south-east Asia on Dec. 26 was so powerful it travelled some 7,000 kilometres to the east coast of Africa. In Somalia, the worst-hit African country, the United Nations refugee agency is working to provide shelter for thousands of families that have lost their homes.
5 January 2005
In Somalia's north-east, the Dec. 26 tsunami sent the Indian Ocean crashing hundreds of metres inland, leaving tents and cars in the middle of "lakes" of sea water. Photo courtesy of and

NAIROBI, Jan 5 (UNHCR) - No one knows for certain how many people were swept away by the massive wave that hit Somalia's coastline the day after Christmas.

It is estimated that between 150 and 200 Somalis died, but in a country devastated by nearly fifteen years of civil unrest, there is no reliable system to record the number of deaths. Nor is there proper infrastructure to deal with the destruction wrought by the tsunami, blamed for more than 155,000 deaths so far in a dozen countries across the Indian Ocean.

A joint United Nations mission to north-eastern Somalia last week found that large parts of the coastline in the Puntland region have been badly affected, especially between Hafun and Garacad. Along this stretch of some 650 kilometres, houses were swept away, and what little infrastructure there was collapsed when the gigantic wave hit coastal villages. In addition, fishing equipment and hundreds of small boats were lost, a disastrous setback in an area where fishing is the sole livelihood of a great many people.

"The damage the tsunami caused in Somalia was not as great as in parts of Asia," said Ivana Unluova, acting head UNHCR Somalia. "But the catastrophe came on top of several years of drought, flooding earlier this year, and the abject poverty that prevails throughout the country. When people have so very little, such a disaster can have devastating long-term consequences. We need to act fast."

U.N. agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already working in Somalia mobilised within days of the earthquake to distribute immediate assistance to the local population.

Following its assessment mission, the United Nations is now launching a "Flash Appeal" to raise funds for some 54,000 people in north-eastern Somalia (Puntland) who are in need of immediate life-saving aid. The most pressing needs are drinking water, food, medication and shelter.

The refugee agency has taken charge of the shelter part of the operation - targeting 18,000 Somalis - marking the first time in its 54-year history that UNHCR has taken such a leading role in natural disaster response.

The agency's mandate is to protect, assist and find solutions for refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. But the tsunami crisis is so enormous and the needs so great that the High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, took the exceptional decision to do everything possible to help affected populations in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia.

Inside Somalia, UNHCR normally runs programmes to help returning refugees reintegrate into the community in both north-east Puntland and north-west Somaliland. UNHCR staff from these regions are now working to make an initial distribution of plastic sheeting, mattresses, blankets, jerry cans and kitchen utensils to some 5,000 households along the coastline in areas worst hit by the tsunami.

The operation presents enormous challenges, including the remoteness of many coastal communities, a road network that was in poor condition even before the tsunami hit, and the limited presence of aid workers because of security concerns.

Families along Somalia's Puntland coast survey their household possessions rescued from tsunami damage.

"Somalia remains a very difficult country to operate in, and yet the needs are enormous," said Neimah Warsame, Head of UNHCR's East and Horn of Africa Desk in Geneva. "For almost fifteen years now, Somalia has lacked everything - peace, security, infrastructure, food - and yet it has been very difficult to get funding for our programmes there. The reconstruction effort will be a tremendous job, but it is also essential that it is done in order to ensure that all chances of progress are not destroyed in the aftermath of this tragedy."

The extent of the disaster remains unclear. Last week's U.N. mission was only able to make a partial assessment of needs because it was not able to reach the south of the country. That area remains off limits for international aid workers because of continuing lawlessness, but informal reports already indicate great destruction in many parts of southern Somalia.

In 2004, UNHCR facilitated the repatriation of more than 17,000 Somali refugees to relatively stable Somaliland, a region with its own functioning government. The refugee agency and its partners run shelter-building and income-generating projects to help those who come back make a new start in their homeland.