The Juba and Shabelle Rivers and Their Importance to Somalia


The Juba and Shabelle rivers are the only perennial rivers in the country, but 90% of their flow originates from a neighbouring country - Ethiopia. The two rivers sustain agricultural production not only by providing much needed irrigation, but also through the very fertile flood plains where a variety of crops are grown for domestic and foreign markets.

The Juba River has three main tributaries in its upper catchment in Ethiopia, namely: the Dawa, the Genale and the Weyb, all of which flow south-eastwards. The Weyb and the Genale unite to form the Juba River just north of Doolow in Ethiopia; while the Dawa tributary joins the Juba River at Doolow Town, just after the Somalia-Ethiopia border (Figure 1). The total length of Juba River is 1,808 Km, with a catchment area of about 210,010 Km2. On average, 186 cubic meters (186,000 litres) of water flow every second down the Juba River at Luuq station.

The Shabelle River emerges on the eastern Ethiopian highlands at an altitude of about 4,230 Meters above Mean Sea Level (m.a.m.s.l). It has two main tributaries in the Ethiopian catchment: the Fanfan and the Shabelle. The flows of the Fanfan tributary are intermittent, and only join the Shabelle during high rainfall seasons. The river is 2,526 Km long, with a catchment area of 283,054 Km2. The average flow of the Shabelle River at Belet Weyne Station is 75 cubic meters (75,000  litres) per second. Figure 2 shows the annual flow of Juba and Shabelle rivers at different stations and in different seasons, based on the historical data.

The water flow along the Juba and Shabelle decreases as the rivers flow downstream through Somalia, due mainly to factors such as: the minimal contribution of tributaries from the Somali catchment areas, “bank full” spillage of flood water into the flood plains, natural and man-made flood relief channels, river diversions for irrigation - during both low and high flow periods - and natural losses due to evaporation and infiltration/recharge of the groundwater along the rivers.

The Economic Importance of Juba and Shabelle

The alluvial plains of the Juba and Shabelle have been described as the breadbasket of Somalia. For several decades irrigated agriculture has been practiced along the plains, producing food not only for local consumption but also for export. Available records indicate that before the collapse of the former Somali government in 1990, over 220,000 hectares of land along the flood plains were under either controlled irrigation or recession farming. Maize, sesame, fruits and vegetables were some of the crops grown for local market, while sugarcane and rice were grown for both local and foreign markets.

The story is different now. A recent study by SWALIM and Mott McDonald (2015) in Middle Shabelle identified that the irrigation infrastructure is in poor operational condition, a status which also applies to other regions along the rivers where irrigated agriculture was practiced. This has significantly affected the agricultural production in the region. The potential of the flood plains remains, however, and all that is required for their full exploitation is to restore the dilapidated infrastructure.

Water Resources Management and Monitoring Systems

Water resources management of the Juba and Shabelle Rivers involves the dual imperatives of managing floods and providing a steady supply of irrigation water. According to the traditional Somali custom, the right to use water depends on access to land along the rivers, and no approval was needed for one to extract water. During the former Somali government, water legislation institutionalized water management through laws that regulated the functioning of the institutions involved. An example is the Natural Water Resources Law of 1984, which governed the regulated access to and use of the Juba river waters. Water exploitation at the national and regional level was regulated through legal and institutional structures set up by the central government. Systems were also put in place for irrigation and flood management. In Middle Shabelle, for example, flood waters were diverted to a huge natural depression which could hold up to 200 million cubic meters of water (the Jowhar Off-Stream Storage Reservoir – JOSSR), thus controlling flooding downstream. During low river flows, the diverted water at the JOSSR would be re-directed back to the river, providing much needed water for downstream irrigation and contributing to much lower rates of drought during that period.

The gains made in flood and irrigation water control and management were quickly eroded with the collapse of the Somali government. The institutions put in place could no longer function and the installed flood and irrigation infrastructure collapsed due to vandalism and lack of maintenance. As a result, flooding again became a frequent problem in the riverine areas of Juba and Shabelle with consequent huge economic losses.

Over the last two decades, much has been done by different humanitarian and development agencies to restore the collapsed water systems in Somalia. Some gains have been made, but more needs to be done. FAO, through the SWALIM project, has supported the recovery process by providing partners with information crucial in designing intervention projects in Somalia.

Since its inception in 2002, SWALIM has recovered the available historical data and collected new data on water and land resources to support the sustainable management of the Juba and Shabelle basins. SWALIM has also set up a hydrometeorology monitoring network, comprising 7 river gauge stations at key locations along the Juba and Shabelle rivers and dozens of rain gauges. Data coming from these stations is used for flood and drought monitoring and early warning. Additionally, SWALIM has adopted new technology in remote sensing analysis to monitor river breakages and flooding along the Juba and Shabelle rivers and to support more timely action to avert disasters.  

Challenges and Opportunities

The development and management of the Juba and Shabelle basins is faced with many challenges, which if not adequately addressed could derail the ongoing efforts to revive the agricultural sector. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Insecurity and lack of access: many areas in South Somalia, through which the Juba and Shabelle Rivers pass, are not accessible to development agencies and their partners for intervention activities. There have been remarkable gains by the Somali authorities, international peacekeepers and regional partners in stabilizing the areas, but it may take a while to restore order and allow unlimited access by intervening agencies.
  • Sparse data / information and limited monitoring network: Data and other information required for the development and management of water resources in Somalia is sometimes missing, or where available may be scattered and outdated, in large part because of security issues. Many of the data collection networks collapsed with the central government in 1990 and are not yet restored to full operational status. SWALIM has done a lot to re-establish the monitoring network; but opportunities exist to further improve the data collection networks and make them sustainable.
  • Trans-boundary issues: the trans-boundary nature of the Juba and Shabelle drainage basins complicate proper planning, development and management of the water resources. More than two-thirds of the joint Somali-Ethiopian drainage basin lies in Ethiopia. Some is in Kenya. However, there is little information available in Somalia on weather, river flows and abstractions in the upper catchments in Ethiopia. In early 2016, the Shabelle River in Somalia became dry, which is very unusual for that time of year. This opened a lot of speculation into the cause of the dry river, but no information was forthcoming from the Ethiopian side. Information sharing between the two countries would go a long way towards overcoming this challenge.
  • Lack of resources: With the current state of irrigation and flood infrastructure along the Juba and Shabelle, significant resources are needed to bring them to their original operational status. This includes setting up relevant institutions for the management of the water resources. A recent study by FAO in Middle Shabelle, for example, estimated that over 100 million US Dollars is required for an integrated water resources management system in the region. The Somali Government, donors, the international community and local partners will all need to work together as a team and pool resources for this goal to be attained.

Moving Forward

There is huge potential for the development of water resources in the Juba and Shabelle basins. Such development should focus on better management of the water resources to address the problems of extremes - “too much” or “too little” water - and must involve infrastructure rehabilitation and the re-establishment of national and regional institutions for water management.

With respect to floods, an integrated flood management approach should be adopted for both the Juba and Shabelle rivers. The integrated flood management approach would reduce the effects of flooding while at the same time preserving the natural resources of the flood plain. Trans-boundary issues arising from the use of water from the two rivers should also be addressed through an integrated and holistic approach.

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