Yusuf, almost two years old, has never felt rain. Droughts have devastated his birthplace in eastern Somaliland for decades, but none that anyone can remember has been as crippling as this.

Elders remember the Dabader, or long drought, of 1974. This one they call Lagamalito: the worst.

Exacerbated by climate change, it stretches across a swathe of east Africa, threatening famine, mass migration and an end to the traditional way of life for millions of people forced to leave their homes in search of water.

Sool, the worst-affected district, has been waiting for rain since before Yusuf was born. This breakaway region of northern Somalia may have avoided the conflicts tearing through its chaotic southern neighbour but the drought here is the worst in a hundred years.

The roads that cut through the desiccated landscape are littered with the skeletal carcasses of goats and camels, once the livelihood of its semi-nomadic people. Now human lives are imperilled, the youngest most of all.

A mobile clinic run by the Somali Red Crescent and funded by the British Red Cross was bouncing along these pitted roads last week when an emergency call came in: cholera had broken out in a makeshift camp of displaced herders forced to abandon their homes and go in search of water when their shallow wells dried up and their livestock died.

The water source they had trekked two hours to find was tainted. In 24 hours ten women and children had died. Other lives hung in the balance.

Yusuf lay on a soaked grass mat on the floor of the village school, the still centre of a chaotic whirl of medical staff and vomiting, crying children.

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Nuah Mohammed, the village elder, had ordered the school to be opened as a makeshift hospital for the visitors encamped nearby. The village name, Goljanno, means mountain of heaven. “It doesn’t feel like that any more,” Mr. Mohammed, whose children left years ago for London, said.

Abdul Kareem Mohammed, Yusuf’s father, hovered nearby, grief-stricken. He had brought his son to the school that morning, along with his pregnant wife, Zahara. She died before rehydration treatment could take effect. The couple had already lost two children shortly after birth. Yusuf was the only remaining son.

“I don’t know if he will live,” Mr. Mohammed said, his eyes brimming. “I have lost everything else, first my livestock, then my wife. I loved my wife, she was my life. She was everything.”

 

More than 25,000 people have contracted cholera across Greater Somalia since the start of the year, a figure set to double by the summer. The United Nations is racing to prevent a repeat of the 2011 famine that killed more than 260,000 Somalis, but funding falls far short of what is needed.

That much is apparent outside Goljanno, where cholera took only hours to tear through the huddle of dwellings fashioned from branches, cloth and tarpaulin. Similar encampments dot the bleak landscape, housing those who once considered themselves wealthy thanks to their herds of livestock. At Sihawele, 300 families have gathered from different areas along the Ethiopian border, close to the nearest well from which they can still draw water.

Amina Mohammed Abdi, 70, walked for a week to reach Sihawele with her family after they lost their 300 sheep and all but two of their 15 camels. “We were rich before, we had milk and meat to eat and sell,” she said. “But the land dried out and there is no longer anything for the animals to eat or drink.”

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They now rely on the generosity of relatives in other areas and food distributed by aid organisations. “But that is not how we want to live,” Mrs. Abdi said. “We want our independence back.”

The day before, Somaliland’s president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud Silanyo, had decreed a day of prayer for rain to end the drought. Having prayed for two years for rain themselves, the people in Sihawele now fear a downpour, worried that their fragile shelters will be washed away by the deluge.

The rains, even if they come, will not bring back their livestock, nor solve the longer-term question hanging over the sustainability of the pastoral life in this rapidly withering corner of Africa. Life in these remote, arid lands was never easy, aid officials acknowledge, but population growth and increased drought have made it harder than ever.

“It is easy to see why such a way of life can quickly reach a tipping point that turns a drought into a humanitarian crisis,” Alexander Matheou, director of programmes at British Red Cross, said.

Or as Mrs. Abdi, crouched inside her tiny shelter, put it: “If the rains come now, they will be too late. We have already lost everything.”

Not quite everything. Five days after Yusuf’s mother died, word came through that he had survived, thanks to live-saving treatment.

He remains at the clinic, being treated for malnutrition, one less loss for his father to bear.

The Times was travelling with the British Red Cross.

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