Field Trip to Sekota and Tekeze River

(Region 3 - North Wello Zone)

Report on April 7-15 Assessment

by Dr Robert Shank and Ato Admassu H/Yesus


In response to reports of continuing drought, food shortages and deteriorating human and livestock health, a field assessment was undertaken with the goal of observing food shipments and distributions in the Sekota-Siska area, monitoring food security and nutritional status, and evaluating livestock health and terms of trade. As a part of the evaluation, a trip to several communities near the Tekeze River was undertaken to observe the effects of the drought on livestock and food supplies of the remote villages.

In addition to RRC/NGO ration distributions to 120,000 people between January and March in the Sekota and Zequala weredas, the RRC-Addis on instruction from the Prime Minister`s office dispatched a special shipment of 155,000 qt of grains for this area. Road conditions from Korem required off-loading the long-haul trucks and unhooking the trailers in Korem with only short-hauls proceeding to Sekota and Siska. Storage facilities are not available on-site so a three month distributions will be given at once. The majority of the people are Orthodox Christians who are fasting for Lent, so present consumption consists primarily of sorghum-teff injera with some shero watt (bean sauce) if affordable. No malnourished persons were observed either in the village or in the remote areas.

Grass and forbs are nonexistent so livestock condition varied from herd to herd probably based on the farmers supply of sorghum/teff fodder. Goats and sheep are not supplemented from forage but browse trees and shrubs. In areas with sparse vegetation these animals were thin and many skins were coming to market indicating death of animals. Some herders had taken stronger animals east to the Tirire River areas or northwest/ southwest to Gonder. The Tekeze River runs through a rock gorge but streams flowing into it support small irrigated maize fields for food and forage. Forage for livestock will be in short supply until after the Krempt rains begin and food will need to be supplied to the majority of the population until the Meher harvest in December.

Background and history of the Sekota-Zuquala area

The historic trade route before the Addis-Asmara road was built was the Axum-Sekota-Lalibela route. Also east-west trade and cattle drives came through the Tekeze gorge, up the Siska wash and passed Sekota. A stone carved church near Sekota predates those in Lalibela. The terrain is characterized by high rocky mountains, steep stony hillsides and undulating fields which grow sorghum and teff but abruptly drops off into gorges with small streams and streambed springs. Fields are commonly 60-90% stone covered and the soil is inherently low in fertility. Rainfall restricts crop production in 4 out of 5 years with only forage produced in 2 of those. This was the case in the 1993 Krempt season with little food harvested. There is no Belg season in the four most seriously affected weredas of North Wollo which are Sekota, Zuquala, Dehana and


A comprehensive food security and nutritional survey of North and South Wollo as well as Tigray was completed by SCF(UK) in late 1992 and updated in November, 1993. Complete failure of the cropping season in 1993 left 600,000 drought affected people (including 181,000 in Sekota and 70,000 in Zuquala weredas) requiring food assistance in the twelve weredas of North Wollo. Mean weight-for-length (WFL) data showed that under five year old children were just above the critical 90% level, with figures from the Northwest part of the region being the lowest. This indicates that partial preference may have being given to young children and/or that the full impact of the drought may not yet have affected consumption substantially. A special meeting of elders with administrators and government officials in the fall of 1993 appealed to the people to remain at home while food assistance was being organized.

NGO's distributed to 320,000 and RRC to 300,000 beneficiaries who were living in North Wollo during December-January but the number of affected rose to 880,000 as a result of failure of the Belg rains in other grazing and cropping areas. With instruction from the Prime Ministers office 15,500 tons of grains were transported by the EFTC to Korem for distribution in the Sekota and Zuquala weredas by RRB, Red Cross and Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The trip by pack mule was planned to assess the supposition of the authors that people would not be able to come back from Gonder and the Tekeze grazing areas to receive distributions in Sekota. There were reports of human health problems especially diphtheria, whooping cough and weight loss for children in the Tekeze valley and the cattle diseases Anthrax, Rinderpest, Sheep Pox and Blackleg were reported resulting from their weakened condition.

Food aid recipients and the special appeal

The numbers of drought affected persons and food aid distributed by RRC in N. Wollo through March are listed in Table 1. Table 2 shows NGO distributions to drought affected areas in N. Wello. The discussion in this report will center on the four weredas in the western part (Zuquala, Sekota, Dehana and Bugna) which were described by RRC-Dessie as the most seriously affected and the entire population was deemed eligible for food assistance. The Joint Relief Partnership in Dessie reported start of monthly distribution of wheat and oil to 15,000 in Hamoset and 32,000 people in Chila Meda even though the number of registered needy was recorded to be 11,000 (See map on p. 13). They have in stock only enough food for the April distribution but are hoping to get additional supplies to continue distributions until the end of the year. The list of recipients were selected by a committee formed by the RRB, however JRP is fearful that an increasing number of people will show up as the harvest is not expected until December.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cresent Societies is setting up to distribute to 49,000 people in Sekota and 20,000 in Siska, while the JRP is distributing to 28,000 beneficaries in Hamoset. Since the road has only recently been constructed to Siska, a Rubb Hall is being erected and the food is expected to arrive soon. Their concern is that the road will deteriorate during the rainy season and it will not be possible to bring in stocks for later distributions. Also Red Cross policies allow rations to a maximum of 4 per family and they fear ill feelings from their recipients since the RRC is allowing up to 8 per family.

The RRC made a recent distribution to 11,000 in Chilo Meda and 15,000 in Siska. Since there was no additional stocks available, the Prime Minister`s Office made special arrangements to meet the needs of the 6 affected weredas. Of the 155,925 Qt which the administration has committed, 65,728 are for Zuquala wereda consisting of 31,752 qt of maize, 24,860 qt of peas/beans and 9,116 qt of wheat. However since the bill of lading was for Korem, to date only 1220 qt of this has arrived in Siska and another 6,155 qt have been off-loaded in the Korem RRC store. The additional expense and responsibility of trucking from Korem to Siska remains to be worked out between RRC and the government since EFTC has no short-haul trucks.

From the appeal, 52,606 qt had arrived in Sekota to date. The RRC has no storage structures in either Siska or Sekota so the food is piled on high ground and some is covered with plastic but the sheets are not wide enough and rainfall will damage grain at the junction of the 3 meter wide sheets. Distributions are planned for three months at one time and will begin mid week (April 20). This would appear to cause problems for those in rural areas who do not have pack animals and could not carry home the 13.5 kg x 8 family members x 3 months qualling 324 kgs. However, it would be better than leaving the food piled in the open or not being able to reach the people when the rainy season blocks the roads. On reflection, one man said he will leave his ration with relatives and carry 20 kgs home at a time.

Three days after the present distribution in Sekota, a 5 liter tin of oil was selling for 32 birr and sorghum and tef for 225 birr and 325 birr per quintal, respectively. Large numbers of donkeys were coming to the market in Hamoset presumably to buy distributed grains for those not yet covered. It is expected that the pending distributions would reduce prices and be accompanied by secondary shuffling of commodities. However from the data in Table 3 it appears that prices for grains peaked in November-December and subsided somewhat with the coming of limited distributions. Also from Table 4 livestock prices seem to have recovered except for cows which are longterm investments not usually purchased for eating. It is interesting to note that sheep and large goat prices actually strengthened around Christmas and herders could have taken advantage of the known shortage of forage.

Remote area surveillance along the Tekeze River

A trip by pack mule was planned to investigate the nutritional condition of people and livestock in the remote areas prior to the distribution of relief stocks. Food supplies were low and some people were returning from a two-day walk to Belesa with purchased food. Small patches of irrigated maize along the river had been harvested for food and animal forage and were being replanted. No signs of malnutrition were evident and farmers reported no health problems other than malaria. Some cattle were emaciated but others appeared normal probably depending upon the owner's supply of sorghum forage. Goats and sheep which are not supplemented but required to browse were generally in poor condition and many skins were being brought to market for sale indicating death from the stressed condition and/or associated diseases.

Prospects and Problems for the Future

The People and the Land

The people of the area formerly called the Wag awraja, though now containing Tigrayan, Wollo and Amhara, are of Agew (pronounced A-go) tradition dating from before Axum and Lalibela. During our trip, they held a meeting of elders, local leaders and others from outside the community who are of Agew ancestry. They have formed a political base and united five weredas (Dehana, Sekota and Siska plus one from Tigrey and one from Gonder) into one Zone. Administrative posts have been filled and plans for rehabilitation and improvement projects are emerging.

The area, as described by one agriculturalist, is `over-populated and over-grazed with poor soil fertility, too many pests and prone to deficit rainfall'. Villages are small and widely spaced in the Sekota-Siska area so high population levels are in regard to food production potential. The small areas where sufficient soil occurs to support grass are largely farmed so livestock subside on crop residues and browse. The rock parent material is of a chemical composition that does not readily form soil so much of the farmland has shallow soils and is covered with up to 90% stone cover which is fortunate because the steep slopes and cloudburst thunderstorms would cause erosion to be even more severe than presently occurs. It is readily evident that seasonal shortages, erratic distribution within the season and spottiness of rainfall are all compensated for by farming larger areas of land. The arid nature and high temperatures contribute to the occurrence and proliferation of grasshoppers, aphids, bush crickets and sorghum stalk borers. In the short run, more use could be made of water harvesting with microdams and fruit tree/vegetable growing with manure fertilization of these small areas along rivers and streams, some of which are perennial. Present programs of vaccination and animal health will increase the numbers of livestock for consumption and sale though stocking rates should not be increased.

Relief and Rehabilitation

The shipping and distribution of food to the 180,000 people in these four weredas for the next three quarters of 1994 will be a monumental task. There are few NGOs and even with the present cooperation of MOA and the local administration, RRC will be stretched to keep the operation going. Additional on-site personnel for distributions and a fleet of short haul trucks with support staff will be required. Past records of this size of relief program show that experienced staff are required, from the off-loading point at Korem to the distribution hub at Sekota and the remote sites of Amde Werk, Chilo Medo and Siska. The northern location of Abergale is being serviced from Mekele through Adwa.

The road to Sekota is being repaired, the first 10 km being under construction with 90 km to go. With the recent heavy truck traffic, parts have deteriorated and will wash badly when rains come. The Siska road is newly constructed and areas with powder ruts will turn to mudholes. Also there are several streams and a riverbed to cross which may become impassable. The terrain is rugged, requiring seasoned drivers and trucks in good repair.

It is impossible to predict what crop production can be achieved from an average year since cropping conditions and yields fluctuate so widely. According to the MOA, seeds for planting wheat and sorghum have been exhausted and need to be resupplied. FAO has secured funds from the EEC and has purchased seeds for N. Wello; however, it remains for the RRC to arrange trucking to the wereda and for the administration to distribute the seeds. It is already too late to plant sorghum and maize, so seeds of these were not included. Even then, crop yields depend largely on rainfall which is unreliable and the prevalence of pests which are numerous. Armyworms have been widespread in the past 2 out of 3 years and are the responsibility of the Crop Protection Department of the MOA since armyworms are considered migratory. Last year, all totaled, 13,336 out of the needed 80,000 ha were sprayed with chemicals provided by the Crop Protection Department. Since funds for providing chemicals are no longer available, spraying is expected to diminish further.

As for the livestock, the experience of 1992 would indicate that livestock are weakened by reduced intake and weight loss. Therefore, when the rains do come and forage becomes available, the cold temperatures and high humidity will contribute to increased illness and livestock death. The farmers in the Sekota-Siska area sometimes contract to pasture cattle for highlanders during the Krempt, allowing them additional oxen to plow their fields and milk to drink but the newborn calves are retained by the owner.

The question that may be asked is will a famine occur? The answer is never certain because the future is not predictable. However, it appears from past history that it takes two consecutive years of drought and crop failure to be catastrophic. This is probably due to the multiple coping mechanisms of the people, reducing consumption, trade and hiring out for labor in the cities, moving cattle to other areas and most of all relying on relatives and fellow villagers. Nevertheless, the present and planned relief program will be needed not only to carry the people through the work of this growing season but will also improve their ability to recover.

Improvements in Production and Methods

Throughout the war years little agricultural extension activities reached the farmer in ways acceptable to them. Now vaccines are reaching the remote areas via MOA vaccinators and additional veterinary staff are being trained. Extension demonstrations and personnel are evident in the countryside even though priorities can be disputed and recommendations need to be practical for the farmer.

The Crop Protection Clinic in Dessie plans to demonstrate the much needed methods for control of the parasitic weed Striga on Sorghum. The plans include side-by-side, with and without treatments in 10 farmer's fields in North and South Wollo. However, the fertilizer recommendation of 100kg of DAP and 100kg of Urea per hectare are far beyond economic practicality much less agronomically unsound at the soil moisture levels likely for the area. Also, weekly hand pulling of Striga plants from August to December is unlikely since this is not practiced even in the much higher valued teff fields. The integration of 2,4-D herbicide will be included in the demonstration even though it is not readily available through AISCO (Agriculture Inputs Supply Corporation). Unfortunately, Striga thrives on tef as well leaving only beans/peas as alternative crops for rotations. Acceptable methods for control of Striga and alternatives to chemical control of pests along with extensive use of water resources and the continued development of animal health programs would contribute greatly to food security of this repeatedly deficit area.

Appendix I. Narrative of Trip by Pack Mule to the Tekeze River

Day 1

From the end of the road along the Siska `river', the village at Siska is high up on the mountainside barely visible. Lugging our baggage up the hill, I contemplated the difference between carrying water up there as opposed to contacting malaria. After sleeping in the open on the `veranda' we interview our host and the lady doing the cooking. The man of the house was a village leader and several groups of policeman or administration came to his house to meet for discussions. He spoke of how Siska had been home to him and the others for many years but now they were dependent on the food distributions because of the low rainfall. He did not want to live off the handouts but their existence would be dependent on the coming Meher rains which he suspected would not be good since the Belg had passed without any rainfall. He pointed out the lightening to the north at Mt. Dashen but said it doesn't come here anymore.

The lady cooking was about 30 years old and had one daughter of about 4. Two other children had died of the disease carried by lice. There is now a tent clinic in Siska and a primary school attended by 40 children who did not go out tending cattle (observed to be about half). The people of the village are primarily Orthodox Christians eating only sorghum/tef injera during the fasting season. She was obviously proud and happy to have had some onions from Sekota which she pounded in the wooden pestle and added pepper to prepare a watt. Although there was no livestock corral present, this was evidently one of the better off families, since they had two large grain storage baskets called goteras inside the house. The farmer explained `these were from the good times. Only once, in 1989, had they been filled since the drought of '84.'

When the pack mules could not be found and our departure seemed doomed, I wandered down the hill 1 km with the education representative for the wereda to see the MOA nursery demonstration by the river. New wheelbarrows, tools and watering cans were abundant as were newly constructed nursery beds with sun shades. Seedlings of Eucalyptus, Schinus mole and Olive trees were going to be started and distributed for planting windbreaks, fuelwood areas and trees for construction materials. Considering the small stature of the native Acacia thornbushes, I questioned the appropriateness of the choice of species and was told that it was the decision of higher offices. Just across the river an old man wanted to show me his lime (pronounced like lome) orchard of at least a dozen trees. My interpreter explained that it was the culture to nurture lime trees as this is a good source of ascorbic acid in a fruit/vegetable deficit area. The two handfuls of limes he gave us were envied whenever we shared food along the trek. Also along the river I saw tomatoes, duba and maize, all yellow from lack of fertility in the sandy, stony soil. I asked if they had considered bringing manure from the corrals but they had no experience with this.

Finally we got the mules and donkey loaded, departed in the PM and traveled until after dark stopping beside a dry wash.

Day 2

Up at daybreak and only a quick snack before hitting the trail, to take advantage of the cool before it becomes too hot for the animals. We passes four Tigrayan merchants who intended to buy some cheap oxen for resale. Also two herders who were bringing back to their villages skins of goats which had recently died. We reached the Tekeze in a total of 5 hours walking and turned up a main tributary toward the village of Cuscusa where we were to expect many herds of cows, sheep and goats. Along both sides of the gently winding stream were 1/10 to 1/4 hectare patches of maize in varying stages of maturity. After examining the fields and the piles of stalks from the previous crop, I decided that while the previous crop was grown for grain and forage, farmers were growing this one primarily for livestock forage since it was too dense a population to bear ears with seeds and weeds/grass were not being controlled. Later on we learned that cows and equine were being rationed 2 sorghum stalks/day. Goats and sheep have to browse tree and bush leaves. Even in the river and stream valley, the only grass was on the banks and sand bars. The 20 herds of cows and 40 herds of sheep/goats were in moderate flesh though even cows with new calves had little milk. An outbreak of sheep pox seemed to have been controlled by MOA vaccination of 500 sheep in the village and only a couple deaths had occurred since. Children along the river were well nourished and there were no health problems reported in the village even though MOH and Red Cross said children along the Tekeze are lighter in weight and prone to contact whooping cough and diphtheria. After early lunch on dried injera from our guides and some snacks from our Meals-Ready-to-Eat, the farmers went back to their fields, some watered by 3 meter high aqueducts.

We followed the Tekeze River going north until it turned west at the eastern tip of Gonder where a major gorge entered from the east. Our guide explained that NE Gonder was the most desperate since the land sloped steeply to the river and most gorges were dry without tillable land. Twelve people returning from a shopping trip to Belesa (two days walk) were bathing and drinking before starting up the dry canyon. We followed them up the gorge for 2 hours of twilight and 2 hours of darkness finally stopping at their village for the night. Tenting inside the corral, the women prepared coffee over the fire and slept on skins on one side of us while the equine minced sorghum stalks on the other. One woman who had carried her baby the entire trip, sipped coffee before lying down to nurse her fussy baby. One man had purchased a plastic washpan and a shovel while another had carried a klasnikov. Everyone talked lively into the night as we fell asleep.

Day 3

Up before light again with the rustling of our guides, we were on the trail in 20 minutes. Soon we caught up with 10 women carrying water from the spring in the bed of the gorge one hour away which means they were already walking 3 hours. Four of them quickened their pace to keep up with the riding strangers in spite of the 20 liters of water on their backs.

After leaving their village we soon mounted the top of the pass and could see Siska in the distance across the Siska gorge. A steady string of people and animals were coming from and going to the distribution site. We stopped once more in the Siska gorge for lunch under a large tree. One group of four men and six women with babies, shared a bowl of injera. Three young women, one with a baby just sat and watched us until I gave them some Kaliti biscuits. And a group of men with donkeys enjoyed the utility pack from the MRE, especially the `mastica'. Arriving back in the mid-afternoon heat I downed five glasses of water and three sodas before fully recovering.

Table 3. Prices of food grains in Sokota prior to (September-December and at the onset of the distributions (January-March).1/

Food Grain   Sept       Oct       Nov       Dec       Jan       Feb     Mar      
White Teff    165       175       208       195       170       170     170      
Mixed Teff    140       160       175       165       150       150     160      
Red    Teff   135       155       165       150       140       140     155      
White Wheat   150       150       140       130       125       125     125      
Mixed Wheat   110        110      115       120       115       115     115      
Barley        130       130       125       120       120       140     140      
Sorghum       110       110       104        96        96       100     110      
Pea           110       110       110       104       110       115     115      
Bean          140       140       140       136       120       130     135      
Lentils       180       175       175       160       190       190     160      

1/ N. Wello Zonal Ministry of Agriculture

Table 4. Prices in birr of livestock at Sekota as affected by drought, changes in grain prices and food distributions . 1/

             Sept      Oct       Nov       Dec       Jan       Feb       Mar       
Bull         700       700       700       565       550       670       650       
Cow          750       600       600       500       350       350       425       
Calf         600       500       500       450       400       650       616       
Heifer       600       450       450       470       420       600       600       
Sheep big    100       120       120       110       100        90       100       
Sheep         50        75        75        65        57        45        50       
Goat big      90       110       110       108       100       120        80       
Goat small    80        80        80        75        70        80       100       

1/ Source: N. Wello Zonal Ministry of Agriculture

Table 1. Food distributions by RRC in N. Wollo from January 9 to March 8, 1994. 1/

Wereda              Type and                                                             Total        
Type and                           
                    number of                                                                         
                    Drought      Displaced      Ex-Soldiers       Other     FFW                       
Grain         Supp       Oil       
Gusa Lafiv          13,179         9116           1037             510        16         23,857        
3,303           63       131      
Habre/Mersa          2,864          840            628              -         -           4,332          
594           -         22      
Sirinka              2,700           -              -               -         -           2,700          
364          24         16      
Kobo                78,506           -              -               -         -          78,506       
10,701         245        431      
Lalibela            64,011           -              -               -         -          64,011        
8,326          -         375      
Kobo                 8,000           -              -               -         -           8,000        
1,080          72         48      
Gidan/Muga          24,326           -              -               -         -          24,326        
3,284          -         145      
Tekolsh             22,461           -              -               -         -          22,461        
3,033          -         134      
Meket               12,985           -              -               -       1738         14,723        
2,655          -          55      
W. Dawni            17,718         9956           1665              -         -          20,118        
2,720          -         112      
Abergale            40,080           -              -               -         -          40,080        
5,411          -         204      
TOTAL               286829         19912          3330             510      1754         303114       
41,474         404       1695      

1/ Source: RRC Zonal Office in Woldiya

Table 2. Distribution of Food Assistance by NGO's in N. Wello from January to March, 1994. 1/

Wereda              Implementing       Total           Type and                                       
Distribution        Agency             Population      Quantity of                                                  
Center                                 Assisted        food in                                                      
                                                       Grain           Supp. Food       Oil                         
Kobo                Catholic Missions   97,865         12,233            978              911         
 "                    EECMY             68,272          8,534            658              614         
Zuquala                EOC              20,733          2,591            207              186         
Sekota                 EOC              11,163          1,395            111              100         
Gedan                  EOC              15,803          1,975            158              142         
Meket                  EOC               9,612          1,201             96               86         
Sekota/                EOC              15,000          1,875            150              135         
Dahana/                EOC              32,386            404            323              291         
Chilo Meda                                                                                                          
  "                   IFRC              47,296            591           1419              435         
TOTAL                                  318,130         39,764           4103             2902                       

1/ Source: RRB Zonal Office in Weldiya

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Editor: Ali B. Dinar, (aadinar@sas.upenn.edu)