UNDP-EUE: Situation of Displaced People in Afar Region Remains Sketchy, 03/99

Situation of displaced people in Afar Region remains sketchy

(Mission: 22 to 26 March 1999)

By Joachim D. Ahrens, Senior Field Officer, UNDP Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (EUE)


In February 1999, the government of the Regional State of Afar issued a "Contingency Plan for the Displaced People". The plan states that as a result of the armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea a total of 27,720 people were displaced (as of February) in the region. In case of a further escalation possibly affecting more areas along the border between the Ethiopian Afar Regional State and the adjacent Eritrean Danakil (Denkel) province along the Red Sea, the plan estimates that an additional 94,242 would be at risk ("war scenario").

While assistance provided so far was mainly focusing on food relief, the contingency plan presents a total budget summary of 98.5 million Birr (about US $12.3 million). This budget aims at providing relief support for already displaced people and people at risk combined (121,962 people) for six months and it comprises the following sectors: water supply and environmental sanitation; education; health and nutrition; transportation; food, shelter and household utensils; and, finally, basic veterinary services.

As part of the continuous monitoring efforts of the United Nations Country Team, UNDP-EUE fielded a mission to Afar Region (22 to 26 March) with two objectives: to obtain updated information from the regional authorities on the current humanitarian situation and to visit locations hosting displaced communities in order to get first hand impressions on existing living conditions and needs. Coinciding with the EUE mission, UNICEF was also visiting the regional capital Asayita to follow-up on the UNICEF Wereda Integrated Basic Services (WIBS) programmes and the conflict-related Action Plan of the UN Country Team. A representative of the Federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) joined both teams.

In Asayita the mission met with the regional authorities including the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau (DPPB). Further contacts included discussions with NGOs such as the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA - formerly Afar Relief Association, ARA), Médecins sans Frontières - France (MSF-F) and Médecins du Monde (MdM). A visit to displaced population groups did not take place as the regional security authorities advised the UN team "for safety reasons" not to visit Su'ula, the area with the highest concentrations of displaced.

Socio-economic background

The Afar Regional State, structured into 5 zones and 29 weredas, is located in the Northeast of Ethiopia, sharing international borders with Eritrea and Djibouti. As in Ethiopia's Afar Region, also in the adjacent areas of both neighboring countries the Afar people, organized in different clans and sub-clans, represent the majority of the population.

While the region has a number of perennial rivers (e.g. Awash, Mile) and freshwater lakes (Afambo, western part of Abe), most of the land lies at altitudes below 1,000 meters and is characterized by typical lowland climatic conditions. With the Danakil depression and its salt-lakes the region hosts one of the hottest areas on the planet, where temperatures can easily reach 45 centigrade and more. By and large the arid and semi-arid conditions are hostile to humans pursuing an average, sedentary lifestyle. From time immemorial the Afars have coped with this harsh environment by developing a lifestyle based on animal husbandry and nomadism. Also nowadays the majority of Afars pursue a pastoralist and semi-pastoralist life involving migration between dry-season and wet season pastures. Profiting from two rainy seasons (the main rainy season, "karma", is from July to September, and was fairly good last year; the secondary rainy season, "ugum", occurs between February and May) and to a certain extent (irrigation schemes are limited) from perennial water resources, agro-pastoralism is practiced by a minority of Afars. One such example represents the Kutubla clan, cultivating mainly maize along the Awash River between Asayita and Lake Afambo. Yet another minority of Afars can be considered as being urban-sedentary. The vast majority of the urban settlers are of non-Afar ethnic origin, predominantly Amharas, originating from Ethiopia's central highlands.

According to the 1996 census, the region had then a total population of 1.106 million (projection for mid 1999: 1.187 million). Overall, 92 per cent of the region's population are ethnic Afars (Zone 1 has the lowest percentage with 71 per cent, while the Zones 4 and 5 have the highest with 99 per cent). Of the total population, 96 percent are Muslims (including virtually all Afars) with the remaining 4 per cent being mainly of Orthodox Christian faith. The statistics indicate overall a rural population of 92 per cent.

Both the census and more recent estimates by regional representatives suggest only two to three per cent of the Afari population live within the major urban centers. This is rather indicative: Be it Awash, Mile or Dubti (towns along the highway connecting Addis Ababa with Assab and Djibouti) or even the regional capital Asayita, they all reflect a highland culture and lifestyle, where Amharic serves as the lingua franca. This pattern represents one of the major differences in comparison with the - equally pastoralist - Somali Region of Ethiopia, where in urban areas ethnic Somalis today dominate the demographic picture.

Up until recently, infrastructure and development activities were mainly focusing on the urban areas along the highway. Another main road, linking eventually Serdo through Afdera with Mekele, is still under construction. Basic services are in the state of infancy and no planning departments have been set up yet at zonal level, Mohammed Sead Meki, the Secretary of the Afar Regional State Council, pointed out to the mission. Within the region, the Zones 2 and 4 appear to be the least developed.

In the Awash valley, state farms and lately also private entrepreneurs are producing irrigated crops of which cotton is one of the most important. According to the Afar State Agriculture Bureau (as reported by the "Ethiopian Herald" on 25 February 1999) some 2.85 million hectares of virgin land are suitable for agricultural activities. While most of this irrigable land is found along the Awash and other rivers, reportedly only 529,000 hectares have been cultivated so far of which 32,000 hectares are managed by the state. Afar State has, besides water, also other natural resources - for example salt, potash and geothermal energy. Exploitation of these resources is not yet developed and the benefit to the local population remains minimal at this stage. Only the salt trade, traditionally carried out by camel caravans from the Danakil depression in Afdera (Zone 2) to Mekele (Tigray Region), provides direct inputs to the economy of local Afars.

Compared to other regions, the Afar region's health and education systems leave still much to be done. However, lately the region received its first referral hospital (in Dubti) and in primary schools the Afar language started to become an instrument of teaching, eventually reducing the high rate of illiteracy (46 per cent in urban, 97 per cent in rural areas). According to the census conducted in 1996, school attendance has reached 3 per cent only. Whereas in the past non-Afar influence in the region was very dominant, some social changes started to take place over the last few years. As regular observers of the region say, more and more Afars are taking responsibilities in higher government positions and the private sector also seems to be showing increased participation of Afars.

The livelihood of Afars in Zones 1 and 2

The livelihood of the Afar pastoralist population is primarily based on livestock (small ruminants, cattle and camels), palm mats and, in Zone 2, salt.[1] Near urban areas and plantations waged labour might complement to a certain extent income possibilities. With milk being one of the staple foods, the animals represent not only a capital value, but contribute directly to household subsistence. The milk not consumed at household level is mainly made into clarified butter which, as a non-perishable product, can be transported over long distances to market places. Only Afars living near urban areas are able to market fresh milk directly (due to the perishable nature of milk). With the income achieved from milk-products and from the sale of animals, the second staple food - maize and to a lesser extent wheat - is purchased as well as other household necessities like cooking utensils and clothing. The daily diet of an average Afar household consists of milk, butter, maize bread ("ga'ambo") and maize porridge. Meat is consumed only occasionally, e.g. at special religious and social celebrations. Since the availability of milk, and milk products, is subject to climatic conditions - in times of drought and reduced access to water and pasture animals give less milk - Afar pastoralists usually supplement their income by marketing animals, though trying to maintain the reproductive capacity of their herds.

In the border areas, particularly in the North of Zone 1 given the close vicinity to the Assab market, Eritrea used to provide livestock trading possibilities. After May 1998, for obvious reasons, mainly the Djibouti market was left. Near Lake Afambo the mission spoke to a number of Afars of the Kutubla Clan [2]. While depending in normal times as agro-pastoralists to a significant extent on their maize production, the interviewees pointed out that this year they suffered from crop failures due to the flooding of the Awash river. One man said: "Our most urgent need for development would be river bank fortification so that we contain the floods when it rains heavily in the highlands during the rainy season, and that we can irrigate our fields when it's dry here." Equally, they complain about the lack of agricultural extension programmes. The only benefit they appear to get from the recurrent floods in terms of direct food production is to collect the fruits of the wild water lilies (locally called "gereger") to complement their diet. To make ends meet, locals rely on the livestock trade with Djibouti either by off-take from their own herds or by buying animals at Asayita market. In three days they trek the animals to the Djiboutian market town of Dikhil, where goats, sheep and cattle fetch, compared to Ethiopian market sales, very good prices. Before Saudi Arabia imposed an import ban on livestock coming from the Horn of Africa countries in February 1998 due to suspected Rift Valley Fever, bulk sales to Djibouti were common, even involving directly Arabian traders using Djibouti port for livestock shipments to the peninsula. Now the Kutubla rely on Djibouti's domestic needs. "Although prices have dropped", they say, "we still make good business."

As agro-pastoralists, the Kutubla represent a rather exceptional clan. Many Afars, however, complement their income based on animal husbandry collecting palm leaves and/or making palm mats that they trade also between themselves. Wage labor opportunities in Zone 1 and the salt trade in Zone 2 provide (as mentioned above) additional income possibilities. The trade of firewood and charcoal and additionally - in the area South of Gewane (Zone 3) - the sale of reed mats is feasible only along the main highway.

Access to markets is relevant for all Afars. It would be misleading to assume that nomad pastoralists in remote areas are completely self-sufficient.

Regional update: 29,275 displaced

Though a good main rainy season was reported last year, according to a recent article in the official Ethiopian Herald newspaper (April 17, 1999) the DPPB has distributed 2,180 metric tonnes of relief food to a total of 130,000 drought affected people in Zone 2 and Zone 4. While the latest update on needs issued by the Federal DPPC[3] does not record any beneficiaries due to natural causes, the total number of people displaced by the conflict with Eritrea is given as 29,275. According to the regional DPPB in Asayita, the increase over the figure of 27,720 given in the February Afar Regional Contingency Plan[4] was due to an additional episode of displacement which took place in March. Reportedly, the new caseload consists entirely of non-Afar urban dwellers from Bure ("now completely evacuated") and Manda ("mostly evacuated"), joining 16,290 earlier displaced persons of Afar ethnicity in Su'ula, a locality on the main highway some 15 kilometers south of Manda and some 50 kilometers north of Eli Dar. The DPPB told the mission that the other groups of displaced people, "originating from both sides of the border" were to be found in Zone 2: Berhale (2,720), Afdera (3,710) and Dalol (5,000). Reportedly, some 290 people from Su'ula and 710 people from Afdera had moved in March to areas around Logia where possibly some of these 1,000 people might have used the so called "Soger-Camp", which served in earlier times as part of the transit facilities for returnees and expellees[5] coming from Eritrea (Assab).

Governmental relief intervention

According to bureau representatives, the DPPB has distributed 15 kg of wheat per person/per month to the displaced on a regular basis since August last year. While also "some" cooking oil, but no supplementary food has been distributed, the DPPB received just around the time of the mission's visit feeding and cooking utensils and furthermore unspecified quantities of blankets and plastic sheeting - the latter two items donated by the German government and channeled through the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA). While the distribution of these non-food relief items was still pending at the time of the mission, the DPPB, having no more food stock around the third dekade of March, was awaiting a further dispatch of relief food.

As secondary information indicates, most of the Afars were presumably displaced together with animals and household belongings. Being nomads, this allowed them the continuous use of traditional shelters ("ari" - Afar houses built with local materials of wood and palm-leaves, called "dibora"). Shortcomings in the shelter sector are reported from Su'ula, where people are said to have used volcanic rocks to erect walls, but were lacking appropriate materials to top the constructions with a roof. In some areas water needs remain unclear. A water tanker (starting from Mile) served roadside villages up to Manda until October. In Su'ula, a natural shallow well is available. However, the civilians in the area have to share the resource with the military. UNICEF is assisting the regional water bureau in water development programs.

Overall, the DPPB expressed that the food needs of the war-displaced people were being adequately addressed. However, without being in the position to quantify the gaps, the bureau pointed to various shortfalls in other areas:

* The lack of grinding mills imposes difficulties on people who are given relief food in the form of grain.

* No supplementary food for children is available.

* Transportation costs have to be borne by the DPPB, which has insufficient funds.

* Generally the bureau suffers from a lack of transport (trucks and light vehicles).

* Relief items should include more blankets and household utensils.

* The virtual closure of markets in Zone 1 in the area between Serdo and the border is affecting the livelihood of pastoralists and sedentary people alike.

Asked if reliable data were available on the numbers of Afar and non-Afar displaced and on how many people were displaced empty handed and how many were displaced together with livestock and household belongings, the DPPB stated that this kind of "categorization was not available" and that this issue "needs re-assessment". The Head of the regional Bureau for Social Affairs, who is also presiding the inter-sectoral Committee for Displaced People, was not in the position to provide further details on the current humanitarian situation. Referring to the contingency plan, he told the mission: "all is described in the plan, there is nothing more to say".

Activities of NGOs

Not being in a position to visit areas directly impacted by displaced persons, the mission had to extrapolate from interviews and available third hand reports. Inevitably, it was possible to obtain only a rather sketchy picture of the present humanitarian situation. However, regional officials in Asayita were able to provide useful background information which was then further supplemented through information provided from three NGOs operational in the region: the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), Médecins du Monde (MdM) and Médecins sans Frontières - France (MSF-F).

Given the remoteness of much of the Afar region, NGO assistance to people displaced by the conflict, to date, has been directed to locations on or near the main Assab road, principally Su'ula. The details given below, provided by the NGOs, largely reflect this reality. The needs of groups said to be displaced around Berhale, Dalol and Afdera in Zone 2 have yet to be assessed.

In a recent "urgent joint statement[6]" issued both by the DPPB and APDA, it is stated that the Afar Region "continues to hold some 24,000 displaced Afar in total". This figure differs somewhat from the current official figure of 29,000. The statement went on to formulate a request for immediate assistance covering the sectors of shelter (2,500 palm mats and 300 blankets), food (supplementary food for 6,000 women and children), household goods (water containers and cooking utensils for 300 families) and medicines (for 20,000 people).

In Su'ula, APDA together with a local committee is reportedly distributing traditional mats, plastic sheeting and blankets donated by the German Government. APDA is also, together with DPPB, in the process of constructing a water storage facility in Su'ula. Concerning food, the agency did not ascertain signs of "current malnutrition" but anticipates the occurrence to be "inevitable without food distribution". For the time being, the agency has distributed live goats to some families in need. Overall, ADPA has 20 health workers operating in localities with displaced people, of which four are working in and around Su'ula, addressing problems mainly related to malaria and chest infections. Of concern is also a possible outbreak of diarrhea and contagious diseases, since Su'ula's population has increased considerably.

Generally, as APDA representatives in Asayita pointed out, local markets north of Serdo and Diciotto ( Haya) collapsed, affecting negatively the normal lifestyle of nomadic and sedentary people alike. This information has been confirmed also by Médecins du Monde (MdM) which has access to Su'ula on a fairly regular basis.

After having carried out a head count, MdM concluded that (as of March) some 5,000 destitute displaced people in need of relief support were living in Su'ula since late December, while possibly some 11,000 more were living in the surroundings. MdM does not know the needs of that larger group, although informal reports indicate that most of those people arrived there together with their animals, suffering mostly from the lack of market access.

While focusing mainly on medical support, MdM is also prepared to intervene with emergency food supplies. As a storage facility, the agency has erected a Rubbhall in Su'ula. Some 50 metric tonnes of wheat flour is to be distributed soon. Other relief items pending distribution were oil, Famix and cooking utensils. Further intervention plans include the construction of latrines and a small clinic.

Another French NGO in the area, Médecins sans Frontières - France (MSF-F), is based in Dubti, supporting mainly the local health system including the regional referral hospital. As an emergency preparedness measure, MSF-F has 250,000 Birr (31,000 US Dollar) worth surgical material and supplies at hand in Dubti. For the time being, however, no medical emergency intervention is considered. The agency would step in and respond "as the emergency develops", a spokesperson said. Should the surgical supplies not be needed in the current context, the items would be handed over to the regional authorities after the conflict resolution.


The mission acknowledges the difficulty of establishing precise numbers of displaced people. Given the socio-economic background of the predominantly nomadic Afar Region, this is clearly an exercise that is particularly difficult. Or as one informant the mission spoke to put it: "It is hard to differentiate between `normal' Afars and `displaced' Afars."

Although first hand information was limited, the mission did not get a sense of urgency regarding the current humanitarian situation, particularly since it appears that to a fair extent the most urgent food and non-food needs of displaced people around Su'ula have been effectively addressed to date. However, it is noted that according to official reports, upwards of an additional 11,500 displaced people are in other - more inaccessible - locations in Zone 2 of the region. As the present circumstances of these groups is not known, it is clearly important that in cooperation with the regional and federal authorities, a detailed and comprehensive re-assessment of the needs be undertaken to cover all areas where displaced people are concentrated.

The disruption of the pre-conflict economy along with the closure of markets crucial to sedentary and nomadic people alike appears to have had a serious negative impact on the livelihood of the affected population. To open up market alternatives seems to be difficult at this point. Besides addressing the impact of market inaccessibility, the mission believes it is important when assessing and addressing the humanitarian needs of displaced to differentiate between empty-handed displaced and people who moved with their livestock and household possessions. Obviously, the latter would not be needy to the same extent as completely destitute people. The importance of this differentiation is underlined by past experiences in the humanitarian context: Indiscriminate food distribution attracts also numbers of people who don't need it and creates dependency attitudes. Resources saved through proper targeting could rather be used to support sustainable development initiatives, which ideally would be appropriate to the local eco-environment. Oasis agriculture and the improvement of water management, for example, have been mentioned in the past as priority areas. A wider implementation of such initiatives would make the region and its people less vulnerable in times of stress - be it emergencies induced by nature or man-made.


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

12 April 1999

UNDP-EUE Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29

P.O. Box 5580, Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia e-mail: undp-eue@telecom.net.et

[1] Selected references to literature providing information on livelihood and socio-economic background:

* Matt Bryden: Situation report on Region 2 (Afar National Regional State). UNDP-EUE, January 1996.

* Matt Bryden: Report on mission to Zone 2 - Afar National Regional State. UNDP-EUE, June 1996.

* Ahmed Yusuf Farah: A general introduction to obscure society: The pastoral economy of the Ethiopian Afar herdsmen in disarray. Consultancy report for SCF/US, December 1992.

* Robert Shank and Denis Gérard: Draft proposal for research and development funding on Date palm propagation and Oasis Agriculture in Afar Region. UNDP-EUE, June 1996.

* Yebio Woldemariam: A report on the socio-economic conditions, production status and institutional strength of the Afars. (Prepared as a Background Information Document to the Comprehensive "Needs Assessment" Study). Submitted to the United Nations Development Program. September 1993.

* Alternative Strategies for Child Survival and Development in the Afar National Regional State. A Concept Paper for Discussion. MEDAC in collaboration wit UNDP-EUE / UNICEF. May 1996.

[2] See above, page 2.

[3] Emergency Relief Needs in Ethiopia - Inadequate Donors Response Against Increasing Needs. DPPC, April 8, 1999.

[4] Mentioned above in the "Introduction", page 1: Contingency Plan for the Displaced People. Regional State of Afar. Asayita, February 1999.

[5] For further details on returnees refer to:

Yves Guinand: UN Inter-Agency Fact-Finding Mission to Afar and South Welo on Ethiopian Nationals Returning from Eritrea. UNDP-EUE, October 1998.

[6] Crisis of Displacement resulting from current Ethiopia / Eritrea Conflict- Urgent joint Statement. Issued by DPPB Region II and Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) - former Afar Relief Association (ARA). Report No. 4; February 5, 1999.