A trope sometimes used by people who deny anthropogenic climate change is that “man’s activities can’t fundamentally change the environment.” Of course, educated people know this is completely false. History is replete with environmental disasters that are significantly or entirely man-made–examples include the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the great Russian famine of 1921, and some of the terrible droughts of the 1980s in North America. One particularly awful episode stands out in the list of human-caused environmental catastrophes, and it’s one that had profound effects on subsequent world events: the great famine in Somalia in 1991-92, which was caused almost entirely by war.

The story of this disaster is extremely complicated and is bound inextricably with the bizarre history that has made Somalia possibly the worst place on planet Earth for the last quarter-century. Today we think of Somalia as a blighted desert wasteland with little in the way of functioning government, a haven of bandits, terrorists and pirates, the very definition of a “failed state.” It has gotten better in recent years but this describes Somalia for much of the 1990s and 2000s. It wasn’t always like this, of course. Somalia came out of colonialism at least not significantly worse off than other countries in East Africa, but its government was unstable. In 1969 it was taken over by military dictator Siad Barre, and the roots of the disasters of the 1990s reach back to him.

This video (silent) contains archival footage showing the terrible effects of the 1991-92 drought in Somalia. The human cost of this disaster was staggering.

As an arid country inhabited by simple farmers and nomads, much of Somalia’s society is clan-based. Its politics under Barre reflected that. Barre was a member of the Darod clan, and in the 1970s after he got Somalia involved in a disastrous war, another clan called the Majeerteen decided to try to get rid of him. Barre cracked down with a paramilitary group called the Red Berets. Their weapon against the Majerteen was environmental: they destroyed the reservoirs their people depended on in the arid region where they lived. In 1979, thousands of them died of thirst. Then two more clans rose against Barre, especially after he was injured in an auto crash in 1986. By the 1980s Somalia was largely in a state of civil war with clans fighting each other and the government. In early 1991, after losing support of the United States, Barre went into exile after failing to retake the capital from Mohamed Farah Aidid, a warlord who emerged as the most powerful man in the country–though he had plenty of enemies.

By the summer of 1991 Somalia was a hopeless patchwork of conflicting armies, warlords, clan alliances and bandits. Although Barre was gone, the tactics he’d introduced in the 1970s were adopted by various factions fighting for control of the country. The armies of various warlords went around to villages destroying water sources, burning crops and killing livestock. In a county whose arid climate means it’s almost always teetering on the brink of bare subsistence, these activities were enough to trigger a disaster of incredible proportions. The country’s agricultural sector couldn’t bring in enough to eat during the harvest season of 1991. With less land under cultivation, desertification occurred rapidly. With no food and livestock destroyed, people in the countryside villages began starving. Over the next year, an incredible 300,000 people died, and Somalia became the desiccated wasteland, studded with dried-up wells and bleached skeletons, that many of us have seen in pictures from that time.


Somali women await the drop of grain from an Australian helicopter, 1992. Nearly 100,000 lives were saved by Western intervention, but at considerable cost.

During 1992 the famine began to attract world attention. The United Nations tried to help by sending personnel to distribute food aid. Unfortunately, warlords like Aidid were both able and willing to disrupt food shipments to prevent aid from reaching their enemies. UN aid could have saved many of the 300,000 who died, but warlord and clan armies often wouldn’t allow the food to reach the people in the interior who needed it, or they simply stole it as soon as it came to the distribution centers mostly in Mogadishu. UN observers are diplomats and humanitarians. It became clear that what was needed in Somalia were soldiers–a lot of them, to force Aidid and the others to let the aid supplies in.

This is where the first President George Bush comes into the story. In August 1992, as he was struggling for reelection against Democrat Bill Clinton, Bush authorized U.S. military transports to begin delivering food aid. The U.S. military could use planes and airlift supplies directly to stricken areas, as opposed to using truck convoys, which were easily stopped or raided by warlord armies. But even this wasn’t enough. Aidid arrogantly threatened to fire on U.N. personnel and claimed the humanitarian missions were a foreign invasion of his territory. Several peacekeeping troops were killed and convoys and planes shot at. With the death toll continuing to spiral and the warlords unwilling to see their own people helped by Western aid, the United Nations had to take further action. In December it passed Resolution 794 which asked member states to contribute troops to a unified task force that would create a secure environment for delivery of the food. This meant, in military/foreign policy parlance, “boots on the ground.”

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Troops from many countries, not just Americans, participated in the Somali rescue effort. These Saudi forces are awaiting deployment to guard food shipments.

American troops began to land in significant numbers on Somali shores on December 9, 1992. By this time Bush had been defeated by Bill Clinton who would soon inherit the mission as one of the earliest challenges of his new administration. Many people forget that this was actually a shooting war. U.S. Marines and other military personnel had to fight warlord armies to secure beaches, drop sites and other infrastructure. The United States had 43 troops killed in fighting between December 1992 and May 1993. Italy, Australia and three other countries also lost soldiers. The results of the operation were mixed. In the short term, food aid did get through, and observers estimated that 100,000 lives were saved. But the security situation in Somalia didn’t improve permanently. The civil war dragged on and Western intervention couldn’t stop it. By the spring of 1993 the famine was largely over, but now Western forces, especially the United States, were deeply involved on the ground. The restructuring of the U.N. military mission in May ultimately escalated the conflict; the “Black Hawk Down” incident of October 1993 eventually took place under this changed mission.

There have been many brutal famines in the world in the last 100 years. Some have been caused by purely environmental factors, but even these are almost always exacerbated by some sort of human action (or inaction). The Somali famine of the early 1990s was a sad example of an environmental catastrophe on a vast scale that was committed more or less intentionally. In a place like Somalia where life is very hard at the best of times, destroying a few reservoirs and burning a few fields has a tremendous effect, environmentally and in human terms. Unfortunately we probably haven’t seen the last of this sort of thing. Another terrible famine struck Somalia in 2011. As climate change increases the challenges facing developing societies, war and conflict–and their environmental consequences like droughts and famines–are ever more likely to result.

The photo at the top of this article was taken in 2011, not the 1990s, but is evocative of conditions in Somalia at that time. The photo is by Oxfam East Africa and used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. Other photos are public domain.