Belet Uen, Somalia
Location: Eastern Africa, bordering the Gulf of Aden and
the Indian Ocean, east of Ethiopia
Geographic coordinates: 10 00 N, 49 00 E
Map references: Africa
total: 637,657 sq km
land: 627,337 sq km
water: 10,320 sq km
Area - comparative: slightly smaller than Texas
total: 2,366 km
border countries: Djibouti 58 km, Ethiopia 1,626 km, Kenya
Coastline: 3,025 km
territorial sea: 200 nm
Climate: principally desert; December to February - northeast
monsoon, moderate temperatures in north and very hot in south; May
to October - southwest monsoon, torrid in the north and hot in the
south, irregular rainfall, hot and humid periods (tangambili) between
Terrain: mostly flat to undulating plateau rising to hills
lowest point: Indian Ocean 0 m
highest point: Shimbiris 2,416 m
Natural resources: uranium and largely unexploited reserves
of iron ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt
arable land: 2%
permanent crops: 0%
permanent pastures: 69%
forests and woodland: 26%
other: 3% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 1,800 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: recurring droughts; frequent dust storms
over eastern plains in summer; floods during rainy season
Environment - current issues: famine; use of contaminated
water contributes to human health problems; deforestation; overgrazing;
soil erosion; desertification
Environment - international agreements:
party to: Endangered Species, Law of the Sea
signed, but not ratified: Marine Dumping, Nuclear Test Ban
Geography - note: strategic location on Horn of Africa along
southern approaches to Bab el Mandeb and route through Red Sea and
Size: Land area 637,540 square kilometers; coastline
3,025 kilometers; sovereignty claimed over territorial waters up
to 200 nautical miles.
Topography: Flat plateau surfaces and plains predominate;
principal exception rugged east-west ranges in far north that include
Shimbir Berris, highest point at 2,407 meters.
Climate and Hydrology: Continuously hot except
at higher elevations in north; two wet seasons bring erratic rainfall,
largely April to June and October and November, averaging under
500 millimeters in much of the country; droughts frequent; only
Jubba River in somewhat wetter southwest has permanent water flow.
Shabeelle River, also in southwest, flows about seven months of
Africa's easternmost country, Somalia has a land area of 637,540
square kilometers, slightly less than that of the state of Texas.
Somalia occupies the tip of a region commonly referred to as the
Horn of Africa--because of its resemblance on the map to a rhinoceros's
horn--that also includes Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Somalia's terrain consists mainly of plateaus, plains, and highlands.
In the far north, however, the rugged east-west ranges of the Karkaar
Mountains lie at varying distances from the Gulf of Aden coast .
The weather is hot throughout the year, except at the higher elevations
in the north. Rainfall is sparse, and most of Somalia has a semiarid-to-
arid environment suitable only for the nomadic pastoralism practiced
by well over half the population. Only in limited areas of moderate
rainfall in the northwest, and particularly in the southwest, where
the country's two perennial rivers are found, is agriculture practiced
to any extent.
The local geology suggests the presence of valuable mineral deposits.
As of 1992, however, only a few significant sites had been located,
and mineral extraction played a very minor role in the economy.
Somalia's long coastline (3,025 kilometers) has been of importance
chiefly in permitting trade with the Middle East and the rest of
East Africa. The exploitation of the shore and the continental shelf
for fishing and other purposes had barely begun by the early 1990s.
Sovereignty was claimed over territorial waters up to 200 nautical
Climate is the primary factor in much of Somali life. For the large
nomadic population, the timing and amount of rainfall are crucial
determinants of the adequacy of grazing and the prospects of relative
prosperity. During droughts such as occurred during 1974-75 and
1984-85, starvation can occur. There are some indications that the
climate has become drier in the last century and that the increase
in the number of people and animals has put a growing burden on
water and vegetation.
Somalis recognize four seasons, two rainy (gu and day)
and two dry (jiilaal and hagaa). The gu
rains begin in April and last until June, producing a fresh supply
of pasture and for a brief period turning the desert into a flowering
garden. Lush vegetation covers most of the land, especially the
central grazing plateau where grass grows tall. Milk and meat abound,
water is plentiful, and animals do not require much care. The clans,
reprieved from four months' drought, assemble to engage alternately
in banter and poetic exchange or in a new cycle of hereditary feuds.
They also offer sacrifices to Allah and to the founding clan ancestors,
whose blessings they seek. Numerous social functions occur: marriages
are contracted, outstanding disputes are settled or exacerbated,
and a person's age is calculated in terms of the number of gus
he or she has lived. The gu season is followed by the hagaa
drought (July-September) and the hagaa by the day
rains (October-November). Next is jiilaal (December-March),
the harshest season for pastoralists and their herds.
Most of the country receives less than 500 millimeters of rain
annually, and a large area encompassing the northeast and much of
northern Somalia receives as little as 50 to 150 millimeters. Certain
higher areas in the north, however, record more than 500 millimeters
a year, as do some coastal sites. The southwest receives 330 to
500 millimeters. Generally, rainfall takes the form of showers or
localized torrential rains and is extremely variable.
Mean daily maximum temperatures throughout the country range from
30° C to 40° C, except at higher elevations and along the
Indian Ocean coast. Mean daily minimum temperatures vary from 20°
C to more than 30° C. Northern Somalia experiences the greatest
temperature extremes, with readings ranging from below freezing
in the highlands in December to more than 45° C in July in the
coastal plain skirting the Gulf of Aden. The north's relative humidity
ranges from about 40 percent in midafternoon to 85 percent at night,
varying somewhat with the season. During the colder months, December
to February, visibility at higher elevations is often restricted
Temperatures in the south are less extreme, ranging from about
20° C to 40° C. The hottest months are February through
April. Coastal readings are usually five to ten degrees cooler than
those inland. The coastal zone's relative humidity usually remains
about 70 percent even during the dry seasons.
Terrain, Vegetation, and Drainage
Physiographically, Somalia is a land of limited contrast. In the
north, a maritime plain parallels the Gulf of Aden coast, varying
in width from roughly twelve kilometers in the west to as little
as two kilometers in the east. Scrub-covered, semiarid, and generally
drab, this plain, known as the guban (scrub land), is crossed
by broad, shallow watercourses that are beds of dry sand except
in the rainy seasons. When the rains arrive, the vegetation, which
is a combination of low bushes and grass clumps, is quickly renewed,
and for a time the guban provides some grazing for nomad
Inland from the gulf coast, the plain rises to the precipitous
northward-facing cliffs of the dissected highlands. These form the
rugged Karkaar mountain ranges that extend from the northwestern
border with Ethiopia eastward to the tip of the Horn of Africa,
where they end in sheer cliffs at Caseyr. The general elevation
along the crest of these mountains averages about 1,800 meters above
sea level south of the port town of Berbera, and eastward from that
area it continues at 1,800 to 2,100 meters almost to Caseyr. The
country's highest point, Shimber Berris, which rises to 2,407 meters,
is located near the town of Erigavo.
Southward the mountains descend, often in scarped ledges, to an
elevated plateau devoid of perennial rivers. This region of broken
mountain terrain, shallow plateau valleys, and usually dry watercourses
is known to the Somalis as the Ogo.
In the Ogo's especially arid eastern part, the plateau-- broken
by several isolated mountain ranges--gradually slopes toward the
Indian Ocean and in central Somalia constitutes the Mudug Plain.
A major feature of this eastern section is the long and broad Nugaal
Valley, with its extensive network of intermittent seasonal watercourses.
The eastern area's population consists mainly of pastoral nomads.
In a zone of low and erratic rainfall, this region was a major disaster
area during the great drought of 1974 and early 1975.
The western part of the Ogo plateau region is crossed by numerous
shallow valleys and dry watercourses. Annual rainfall is greater
than in the east, and there are flat areas of arable land that provide
a home for dryland cultivators. Most important, the western area
has permanent wells to which the predominantly nomadic population
returns during the dry seasons. The western plateau slopes gently
southward and merges imperceptibly into an area known as the Haud,
a broad, undulating terrain that constitutes some of the best grazing
lands for Somali nomads, despite the lack of appreciable rainfall
more than half the year. Enhancing the value of the Haud are the
natural depressions that during periods of rain become temporary
lakes and ponds.
The Haud zone continues for more than sixty kilometers into Ethiopia,
and the vast Somali Plateau, which lies between the northern Somali
mountains and the highlands of southeast Ethiopia, extends south
and eastward through Ethiopia into central and southwest Somalia.
The portion of the Haud lying within Ethiopia was the subject of
an agreement made during the colonial era permitting nomads from
British Somaliland to pasture their herds there. After Somali independence
in 1960, it became the subject of Somali claims and a source of
considerable regional strife (see Pan-Somalism
, ch. 1).
Southwestern Somalia is dominated by the country's only two permanent
rivers, the Jubba and the Shabeelle. With their sources in the Ethiopian
highlands, these rivers flow in a generally southerly direction,
cutting wide valleys in the Somali Plateau as it descends toward
the sea; the plateau's elevation falls off rapidly in this area.
The adjacent coastal zone, which includes the lower reaches of the
rivers and extends from the Mudug Plain to the Kenyan border, averages
180 meters above sea level.
The Jubba River enters the Indian Ocean at Chisimayu. Although
the Shabeelle River at one time apparently also reached the sea
near Merca, its course is thought to have changed in prehistoric
times. The Shabeelle now turns southwestward near Balcad (about
thirty kilometers north of Mogadishu) and parallels the coast for
more than eighty-five kilometers. The river is perennial only to
a point southwest of Mogadishu; thereafter it consists of swampy
areas and dry reaches and is finally lost in the sand east of Jilib,
not far from the Jubba River. During the flood seasons, the Shabeelle
River may fill its bed to a point near Jilib and occasionally may
even break through to the Jubba River farther south. Favorable rainfall
and soil conditions make the entire riverine region a fertile agricultural
area and the center of the country's largest sedentary population.
In most of northern, northeastern, and north-central Somalia, where
rainfall is low, the vegetation consists of scattered low trees,
including various acacias, and widely scattered patches of grass.
This vegetation gives way to a combination of low bushes and grass
clumps in the highly arid areas of the northeast and along the Gulf
As elevations and rainfall increase in the maritime ranges of the
north, the vegetation becomes denser. Aloes are common, and on the
higher plateau areas of the Ogo are woodlands. At a few places above
1,500 meters, the remnants of juniper forests (protected by the
state) and areas of candelabra euphorbia (a chandelier-type
cactus) occur. In the more arid highlands of the northeast, boswellia
and commiphora trees are sources, respectively, of the frankincense
and myrrh for which Somalia has been known since ancient times.
A broad plateau encompassing the northern city of Hargeysa, which
receives comparatively heavy rainfall, is covered naturally by woodland
(much of which has been degraded by overgrazing) and in places by
extensive grasslands. Parts of this area have been under cultivation
since the 1930s, producing sorghum and corn; in the 1990s it constituted
the only significant region of sedentary cultivation outside southwestern
The Haud south of Hargeysa is covered mostly by a semiarid woodland
of scattered trees, mainly acacias, underlain by grasses that include
species especially favored by livestock as forage. As the Haud merges
into the Mudug Plain in central Somalia, the aridity increases and
the vegetation takes on a subdesert character. Farther southward
the terrain gradually changes to semiarid woodlands and grasslands
as the annual precipitation increases.
The region encompassing the Shabeelle and Jubba rivers is relatively
well watered and constitutes the country's most arable zone. The
lowland between the rivers supports rich pasturage. It features
arid to subarid savanna, open woodland, and thickets that include
frequently abundant underlying grasses. There are areas of grassland,
and in the far southwest, near the Kenyan border, some dry evergreen
forests are found.
Along the Indian Ocean from Mereeg, about 150 kilometers northeast
of Mogadishu, southwestward to near Chisimayu lies a stretch of
coastal sand dunes. This area is covered with scattered scrub and
grass clumps where rainfall is sufficient. Overgrazing, particularly
in the area between Mogadishu and Chisimayu, has resulted in the
destruction of the protective vegetation cover and the gradual movement
of the once-stationary dunes inland. Beginning in the early 1970s,
efforts were made to stabilize these dunes by replanting.
Other vegetation includes plants and grasses found in the swamps
into which the Shabeelle River empties most of the year and in other
large swamps in the course of the lower Jubba River. Mangrove forests
are found at points along the coast, particularly from Chisimayu
to near the Kenyan border. Uncontrolled exploitation appears to
have caused some damage to forests in that area. Other mangrove
forests are located near Mogadishu and at a number of places along
the northeastern and northern coasts.