Echoes of ‘84 famine as drought then flood hit Ethiopia
|By Mike Pflanz in Gode, Telegraph |Nov. 16,2006
Ethiopia’s arid south is locked into a “crisis cycle” of deadly drought and floods not seen since the country’s worst ever famine in 1984, aid workers have said
A boy wades through floodwater in the village of Abiabo, near Lake Tana
More than 1,000 people have been killed and countless goats, cows and camels – the only wealth of the region – have been swept away since heavy rains broke in August and again this month.
The grim assessment by aid workers came as Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, addressed a climate change conference in Nairobi, Kenya. “Global climate change must take its place alongside those threats – conflict, poverty, the proliferation of deadly weapons – that have traditionally monopolised political attention,” he said.
Aid agencies working in Ethiopia estimate that 280,000 subsistence farmers have recently been forced to flee their villages for makeshift shelters on higher ground as seasonal rivers switched from dustbowls to speeding torrents overnight.
High-water indicators, marking record river levels, have been submerged under waves that burst over muddy banks and flooded more than 17,000 hectares of grazing and crop fields. The Wabe Shabelle river doubled in volume, rising 25ft in two days. “It’s exactly the same as happened in 1984, drought then floods a few months later hitting people when they are most vulnerable,” said Ahmed Abdi from the United Nations World Food Programme in Gode, 420 miles south-east of Addis Ababa. The British charity, Save The Children, last week called for donations to buy plastic sheeting, mosquito nets and water purification kits for 50,000 people.
Ethiopia’s government, the UN and scores of international organisations are running appeals to help the region, on the border with volatile Somalia, which has also been hit by the rising water levels. To the south, along Kenya’s coast, flash floods have killed 23 and displaced 60,000 people.
The devastation comes just eight months after the Horn of Africa was hit by a drought that destroyed livestock and left struggling governments appealing for aid.
“This time two years ago, I was a rich man,” said Kadiye Abdile, a 60-year-old elder of Elan village, eight miles outside Gode.
“I owned 120 cows. Then the drought took 100 of them, and now these floods have left me with only 15.”
Other headmen in this village of 40 thatched huts draped in orange plastic sheeting said the situation was worse than at any time since millions faced famine in the drought that prompted the first Live Aid.
“We are like beggars now. We have to chop firewood and take it to sell at market, that is the only money we get for food,” said Abdi Bile, 40.
“We have not seen anything like this for more than 20 years,” said Hussein Abdi, 65, who lost 12 relatives to the 1984 famine.
These marginal regions may seem remote and empty, but experts say there are too many people and animals for the environment to sustain.
This, combined with large-scale environmental degradation and changes in global weather patterns, is increasing the frequency of drought and floods in Africa.
But in the long term, rainwater holds “massive potential” to slake the thirst of Africans if it is properly harvested, stored and used, according to the UN. In the short term, the rains have at least brought precious moisture to these flat, arid plains.
“The situation is hard now, but I believe people can cope because they have a chance to plant and to build up the strength of their remaining livestock,” said Mr Abdi.