easternmost country, Somalia has a land
area of 637,540 square kilometers. 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' horn) that also includes Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.
Somalia's terrain consists mainly of plateaus
, and highland
. In the far north,
however, the rugged east-west ranges of the Karkaar Mountains lie at varying distances
from the Gulf of
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. Somalia's long coastline (3,025 kilometers) has been of
importance chiefly in permitting trade with the Middle East
and the rest of the Horn of
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. 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
Somalis recognize four seasons, two rainy (Du
) and two dry (Jiilaal
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 gu he or she has lived. The gu
season is followed by the hagaa
and the hagaa by the day rains (October-November). Next is
(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
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 by fog.
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
Topography of Somalia
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
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 livestock.
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
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.
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.
river enters the Indian Ocean at Eyl.
eastern area's population consists mainly of pastoral nomads eking
a living in a zone of low and erratic rainfall.
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.
under pressure from their World War II allies and to the dismay of
the Somalis, the British "returned" the Haud (an important Somali
grazing area that was presumably 'protected' by British treaties
with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia,
based on a an 1897
treaty in which the British ceded Somali territory to the
Ethiopian Emperor Menelik in exchange for
his help against plundering by Somali
Britain included the proviso
that the Somali nomads would retain their
autonomy, but Ethiopia immediately claimed sovereignty over them.
This prompted an unsuccessful bid by Britain in 1956 to buy back
the Somali lands it had turned over. The stretch of land has since
been a considerable source of regional strife.
Southwestern Somalia is dominated by the
country's only two permanent rivers, the Jubba and the
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.
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.
River enters the Indian Ocean at Kismaayo. Although the Shabeelle River at one time
apparently also reached the sea near Merca, its course
is thought to have changed in prehistoric times.
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
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 Euphorbia candelabrum
chandelier-type spiny plant) occur. In the more arid highlands of
the northeast, Boswellia
trees are sources,
respectively, of the frankincense
for which Somalia has been known since
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.
this area have been under cultivation since the 1930s, producing
the 1990s it constituted the only significant region of sedentary
cultivation outside southwestern Somalia.
The Haud south of Hargeysa is covered mostly by a semiarid woodland
of scattered trees, mainly acacias
by grasses that include species especially favored by livestock as
forage. There vegetation forms spatially periodic patterns
reminiscent of a tiger skin when viewed from above and therefore
knowns as "Tiger bush
". 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
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.
Indian Ocean from Mereeg, about 150
kilometers northeast of Mogadishu, southwestward to near Kismaayo lies a stretch of coastal sand dunes.
area is covered with scattered scrub and grass clumps where
rainfall is sufficient. Overgrazing, particularly in the area
between Mogadishu and Kismaayo, 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 Kismaayo 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
Location:East Africa, bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, east of Ethiopia
Area - comparative:
slightly smaller than
Djibouti 58 km, Ethiopia 1,626 km, Kenya 682
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 monsoons
mostly flat to undulating plateau rising
to hills in north
Indian Ocean 0 m
Shimbiris 2,416 m
uranium and largely unexploited
reserves of iron ore, tin, gypsum, bauxite, copper, salt
forests and woodland:
3% (1993 est.)
1,800 km² (1993 est.)
recurring droughts; frequent dust
storms over eastern plains in summer; floods during rainy
Environment - current issues:
famine; use of
contaminated water contributes to human health problems;
deforestation; overgrazing; soil erosion; desertification
Environment - international agreements:
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
Mandeb and route through Red Sea and Suez