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Sunday 14 July 2024

Opinion

The last leaves of Hargeisa’s fading beauty

14 May, 2024
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Historic building in downtown Hargeisa
Historic building in downtown Hargeisa.
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Hargeisa is sacrificing its sparse greenery on the mantle of fast development and urbanisation; but what we gain in infrastructural progress doesn’t make up for the loss of the plants which once adorned our streets and provided spaces for our community 

As I walk around Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, I'm struck by the contrast between its current appearance and its past. A combination of foreign direct investment from the diaspora, steady economic growth and peace have driven significant construction projects across the city. The streets, once lush and verdant, now bear little resemblance to their former identity. A glimpse at old photographs of the city show a picturesque and tranquil landscape, towering Schinus molle trees, locally known as miramiri, lining our roads and adorning its houses. 

For instance, our neighbourhood, Baddacas, nestled just a few meters away from one of the city’s main roads, used to be festooned with majestic trees that covered its skyline, red sand paths which turned muddy during the rainy season and a narrow stream meandered through its heart. According to local elders, the area was prone to subsidence because of its soft soil and proximity to the stream which traditionally made it unattractive to real estate developers. They now look upon the area differently though. 

As the city expanded, the neighbourhood came under pressure from urban expansion. The once lush, tree-lined streets were stripped bare, and the towering giants which may have been witness to decades of change in the city were uprooted to make way for more buildings. In their place, a proliferation of buildings, houses, and even hotels began to dot the landscape. Today, as far as the eye can see, bungalows line up one after the other, bearing a meagre likeness to what once defined this neighbourhood. The quaint stream that once flowed through the heart of our neighbourhood has been supplanted. As a result of the tree loss, today the neighbourhood is dominated by the pervasive tree known as Prosopis Juliflora, locally called garanwaa

There was a certain enchantment about these towering trees that stood sentinel in front of each home. Our parents often sought refuge from the scorching sun beneath the emerald shade of their leaves, while neighbours would gather beneath their thin foliage, sipping tea and exchanging stories and news. Edward Said cites the work of Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher who wrote about the “poetics of space”. The constituent parts of a space – its “corners, corridors, cellars, rooms” and other physical features – are less important than what it is “poetically endowed with, which is usually a quality with an imaginative or figurative value we can name and feel.” In simpler words, we impregnate our spaces with meaning as we associate our memories with them. “So, space acquires emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning for us here,” Said continues.  

In this sense, the city’s greenery wasn’t just a decorative artefact which accessorised its streets but were symbols of community; shared stations where we gathered and reinforced social bonds amid the frenzied energy of a fast-moving city. Regrettably, these once-idyllic scenes that once defined the city’s character now only exist in fading memories and archival snapshots, evoking a deep sense of mourning for their loss.  

In a piece for aeon on how the Marind people of West Papua cope with the loss of their plant life, Sophie Chao, a Franco-Chinese environmental anthropologist, lays out the ethical and ecological dilemmas we face as Hargeisa’s trees disappear, and city’s colour palette continues its shift from pockets of azure, to sunbaked ochre: “We [humans and plants] are not just together in the same world, we are tangled up in each other’s lives. Other species live on and in us, they change us, and we change them, too: we breed them, farm them, mutate their genomes, eat them, research them, love them, and kill them. Increasingly, human action is leading to their extinction. Should we not mourn them, too?”  

In this sense, the city’s greenery wasn’t just a decorative artefact which accessorised its streets but were symbols of community; shared stations where we gathered and reinforced social bonds 

Hargeisa’s cityscape has undergone a profound change, rendering it almost unrecognisable. A UN-backed report in 2019 which surveyed residents of the city found that the lack of green spaces was an important concern for responders. The once-thriving greenery has given way to a barren, concretising cityscape. Trees that once stood tall on street corners have been cut down, being replaced by pavements and new builds. The city’s rapid modernization and urbanisation have come at a steep cost: the loss of its natural beauty.  

To obscure Hargeisa’s loss of its green spaces, a new trend is gaining momentum, presenting a misleading narrative of the imperatives of modernization. Aerial videos showcase the city from a bird's-eye view, depicting a seemingly thriving metropolis characterised by burgeoning real estate and commercial developments. However, beneath this veneer lies a bleak reality of desertification. These meticulously edited clips create a deceptive pastiche of growth and development concealing the loss of the city’s fauna. 

The speed at which this transformation is taking place is dizzying, leaving many to wonder what the future holds for the city. As I walk through the streets, I wonder where our urban areas are headed and what the long-term consequences will be for the city’s residents and the environment. “Little we see in Nature that is ours”, lamented English poet William Wordsworth, expressing his despair about the lack of concern given to the loss of industrialising England’s ecological heritage. We’re similarly failing to appreciate what we might lose if we do not intentionally design our urban spaces with plants in mind.  

Many factors are contributing indirectly to the loss of Hargeisa’s greenery. Urbanisation is one of the biggest challenges. The UN reports that Somaliland and Somalia have one of the “highest urbanisation rates across the region with 6.83 (45%) million out of 15.18 million” people settled in cities. That figure is expected to increase by 4 million by 2025. As more people move to the city in search of better job opportunities and a higher quality of life, the demand for housing and infrastructure will continue to increase. In response, real estate developers have constructed more buildings, as growing demand sends prices skyrocketing. A team of academics who studied this process said: “Such price rallies are driven by post-war urban reconstruction and an increase in housing investment from Somaliland’s large diaspora, wealthier residents, and private companies.” 

This often happens at the expense of green spaces which has led to a significant anti-tree campaign and a shortage of green areas, making it difficult for residents to access them and enjoy the many benefits they provide.  

Another factor exacerbating the decline of Hargeisa’s green spaces is the lack of effective city planning. Urban planning is a complex process that requires careful consideration of numerous factors, including population growth, infrastructure needs, allocation of resources, and environmental sustainability. Unfortunately, Hargeisa’s urban infrastructure and planning has been criticised for its inadequacy and ineffectiveness.  This failure to prioritise trees and green spaces in urban planning has resulted in trees being sacrificed for more “practical” uses of land, such as commercial developments and infrastructure projects.  

David Kilcullen’s criticism of the situation in Hargeisa’s infrastructure offers a sobering analysis of the city's economic and infrastructural challenges. He astutely observes the gap between the flourishing private sector and the struggling public sector. Kilcullen pinpoints the root cause as a deficiency in the tax base, leading to a shortfall in government resources for essential public goods. His assessment underlined the adverse effects on urban development and daily life, particularly evident in inadequate roads and poor infrastructure. Describing his experience, he wrote, “virtually every other paved street is potholed, and outside the business district, many roads are gravel or dirt.” 

Moreover, a lack of awareness about the importance of trees and green spaces in urban areas has also contributed to their demise. Many people, particularly profit-driven business oligarchs and the oblivious city council, fail to realise the myriad benefits that green spaces provide, including improved air quality, reduced noise pollution, investment value, and their vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change.  

Hargeisa’s current development trend is not sustainable in the long run. This must be reversed to ensure the city’s sustainability and a rejuvenation of its green spaces especially as concerns about climate change become more urgent. Achieving this goal requires a committed policy, far beyond the lazy rhetoric and false promises. 

It's noteworthy, despite the urgency of the environmental situation in the capital, and by extension, the rest of the country, there has not been enough attention from political parties, even amidst an ongoing election season. Discussions on the protection of green spaces and environmental issues have been relegated to the sidelines. It's as if the political playbook has been rewritten with a single, misguided mantra: ignore the obvious.  

Many people, particularly profit-driven business oligarchs and the oblivious city council, fail to realise the myriad benefits that green spaces provide, including improved air quality, reduced noise pollution, investment value, and their vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change. 

First and foremost, there must be a concerted effort to tree planting initiatives across the city, covering both established urban areas and newly developed zones, including roads and residential areas. In neighbouring Ethiopia we’ve seen one such campaign; Prime minister Abiy Ahmed has launched a “record-breaking feat of planting 500 million seedlings in a day” as part of the Green Legacy Initiative campaign across the country. The push has been hailed by Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, the director of the UN’s Africa environment office who said: “Afforestation is the most effective climate change solution to date… other African nations should move with speed and challenge the status quo.”  

We could study Ethiopia’s greening campaign and other countries and learn from what they did well and avoid their shortcomings. This initiative should emphasise not only the quantity but also the diversity of tree species to ensure better, sustainable, and resilient green landscapes throughout the city.  

Additionally, stringent policies need to be implemented to safeguard existing green spaces while mandating the creation of new ones. Zoning regulations should require a minimum percentage of green area in all construction projects, complemented by incentives for developers to incorporate sustainable features such as green roofs and spaces for trees.  

Public awareness campaigns are vital to engage citizens in the restoration process, highlighting the myriad benefits of green spaces for health, well-being, and environmental sustainability. These efforts can be further bolstered by initiatives such as tree adoption programs and community gardening projects.  

These recommendations are straightforward and are not difficult to implement; but are hampered by a new cultural ethos of development within our society. It’s a culture that prioritises possession and construction without adequately considering sustainability; we’ve come to equate progress – a slippery term – with the erection of sleek new building units. This issue must be addressed head-on, and the solution lies in building a capital city, a metropolitan Hargeisa, that champions sustainability and treasures its green spaces.  

Our capital is experiencing rapid development, and it is considered one of the fastest-growing cities in the region. It is imperative that the sustainability and greenery of the city are not ignored or destroyed at the expense of short-term development. We’re already mourning the loss of many of our green spaces, but if we are to halt this trend, we could do well to take note of how the Circia and the Marind of West Papua dealt with their own ecological loss. Mourning can “mobilise pain and grief,” writes Sophie Chao, “especially the grief that comes from witnessing profound ecological changes.” The ecologically triggered grief should similarly push us to transmute those feelings to mobilise us too, urging the city to prioritise sustainability by safeguarding and expanding its green spaces.