UNDP-EUE: Ethiopia Humanitarian Brief 12.05.00

UNDP-EUE: Ethiopia Humanitarian Update

Issue Date: 12 May, 2000


The onset of heavy rain in many parts of Ethiopia and Somalia in the past two weeks has added a new dimension to the humanitarian situation in the region. In many respects, the long overdue rain has exacerbated an already fragile situation, complicating the delivery of assistance and raising fears of outbreaks of dysentery and malaria. In the mid-term, especially for the pastoral areas, the rain will help improve grazing and replenish water sources. The immediate impact of the rain, however, has been a dramatic increase in animal deaths and some disruption to the delivery of relief assistance by road and by air. In the highland cultivating areas of Ethiopia, while too late for the planting of normal belg (secondary season) crops, farmers are taking advantage of the current rains to begin planting for the main growing season. These crops may be vulnerable, however, if there is an extended dry spell in May-June as is often the case before the main season kiremt rains.


Rains begin but weather still unpredictable

Meteosat imagery and ground reports confirm a significant shift in the weather over the Horn of Africa from the middle of April onwards. This followed some very sparse light showers in the region which occurred from the end of March but were never sufficient to have any real impact on the drought. From the end of April, the rains which had been previously concentrated over the central, northern and western highlands of Ethiopia began to extend south and southeast to the pastoral lowlands of Ethiopia. The rains in these areas gradually became well established with extensive and locally heavy rainfall reported from much of the Somali region and northern parts of Borena.

Though Ethiopia has received substantial rainfall, meteorologists maintain that the current weather system over the Horn of Africa is unusual, making even short-term forecasting difficult. Unlike the situation earlier in April, the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is now positioned over the Horn of Africa in the configuration considered normal for the time of year. Continuation of the current rains, however, and the start of the main (kiremt) rains in June depend on an interaction of the ITCZ with high level easterly winds (jet stream) which have yet to be observed. According to a recent report issued recently by the Drought Monitoring Centre in Nairobi, weather over the Greater Horn of Africa for the coming five months will be influenced by the present El Niña (cool) episode in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niña episodes are associated historically with below normal and/or poorly distributed rainfall over the equatorial areas of Africa during the March to May season and above normal rainfall over the northern sector of the sub-region during the June to September season.

For Ethiopia, it is the normal pattern for there to be a break in the rains from May to the end of June, when the main season rains become established. According to meteorologists, there are two scenarios at present, both of which could further complicate the food security picture. Farmers are now planting crops for the main growing season. If there is an extended dry spell beyond the end of June, the young crops will be extremely vulnerable to the effects of moisture stress. Furthermore, such a dry spell, combined with young crops, raises the possibility of large-scale outbreaks of pests which, under similar circumstances in previous years, have had a devastating impact on food production in some areas.

If there is no break in the weather and the current rains bridge into the main kiremt season, farmers face the possibility of crop losses due to water-logging, hail, and storm damage. In the past this has been a significant problem in the high plateau areas of central and northern Ethiopia (North Shewa, Gondar, Welo, southern Tigray) where the soils are black-cotton and the weather often extreme.


Rains in the lowlands a mixed blessing

Substantial rainfall has been recorded for much of the Somali region of Ethiopia and some parts of Borena in the south of the country. Areas that have received good rain in the past ten days include Gode, Denan and Imi in Gode Zone, as well as Fik, Degehabur, Afder and Liben zones of the Somali region. Trucks carrying relief food and other supplies to remote areas in the region have experience very difficult driving conditions and convoys have been held up for several days on the main road from Degehabur to Gode and between Babile and Fik. In Afder Zone, some roads have been damaged by flash floods and NGOs operating in the area report delays in moving supplies by truck. Air operations have also been disrupted with many airstrips closed for periods due to flooding. The gravel airstrip serving the regional capital Jigjiga was unusable for a number of days and even the international standard tarmac runway at Gode was closed for some time as a result of local flooding. This has disrupted the delivery of emergency supplies and delayed the movement of relief workers. Some locations where local migrants have congregated seeking relief assistance have also become isolated due to the closure of roads. This includes Imi, where MSF France have for some days being trying to deploy a medical and relief team.

With heavy rainfall also in the hills of Haraghe and Bale, the Shebelle River has been steadily rising for some time. The river has now broken its banks downstream of Kelafo, inundating the wide flood plain between Kelafo and Mustahil. There are also reports of a similar situation around Belet Weyne just across the border in Somalia, as well as extensive flooding in the vicinity of Imi, some 100 kms upstream of Gode. This development is considered to have both good and bad aspects. On the positive side, these riverine areas are very fertile and intensively cultivated. Farmers expect and need the inundation if they are to grow a successful crop once the flood waters recede. On the negative side there will invariably be displacement of people and some damage to homes and property. A particular concern right now is to provide resource poor and destitute farmers with the means to take advantage of the rain in terms of seed and tools, an issue which is being addressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross and FAO and is expected to also attract the attention of NGOs operating in the area.

Though the rains have certainly helped to replenish depleted ground and surface water sources in the region and will enable the rapid regeneration of pastures, in the short-term reports from the field indicate there will be a negative impact on animal health. As the water tables rise and grasses begin to emerge, those animals that have survived the drought risk bloating and subsequent death from over-eating. Weakened animals have also drowned in numbers during the flash floods around Gode and other places. In Borena, where in places herders have perhaps lost between 50 and 80 percent of their cattle due to the drought, reports indicate increased mortality due to the onset of the rains may well be pushing these figures even higher. Furthermore, with the rain comes the concern that surviving animals will be even more susceptible to many endemic and opportunistic diseases. Endo- and ecto-parasites are already very common among the livestock populations in both the Somali region and Borena and without treatment heavy infestations will delay the recovery of animals and suppress milk production. With the sudden flush of vegetation and moist environmental conditions that will prevail after the rains there are also fears that the region will again suffer an upsurge in Rift Valley Fever.

With the coming of the rains in pastoral areas and as milk production recovers, people will begin to disperse, moving with their remaining animals away from the towns back to the normal wet season grazing areas. This can give the impression of a rapidly stabilizing humanitarian picture and to some degree this is true. However, in the Somali region and in Borena, people are now more vulnerable than at any time in the past decade or more. The livestock losses, especially of cattle have been so dramatic that it is going to take families several years before they can recover their herds and regain some measure of economic independence. Large numbers of people have lost everything and without appropriate assistance may have no choice but to swell the ranks of the urban poor.

The Borana people in southern Ethiopia have very strong cultural traditions that govern the re-distribution of wealth (i.e. cattle) following periods of drought. This year there are suggestions that the losses have been so great that even this system is likely to breakdown with serious repercussions for those destitute families who, having lost all their animals, will remain dependent on relief handouts for the foreseeable future. Recovery in the lowlands is going to take time and without substantial external assistance (restocking etc) the people in these areas face an extremely precarious future.


Health concerns

With the heavy rain come fears of an upsurge in water-borne diseases, especially where people are congregating in the hope of receiving relief assistance. In many places water tankering has stopped either because surface sources have been fully replenished or roads closed because of flooding. Tankered water was generally taken from boreholes and so was hygienic and fully potable. It is reported that people in areas such as Degehabur Zone in the Somali region, where there is a high dependence on water taken from surface catchments, there has already been a dramatic increase in acute diarrhea and dysentery. The pattern is expected to be similar in urban areas where environmental sanitation is poor and people are living in crowded conditions. In places such as Gode, Imi and Denan where migrants are living under rudimentary shelters, exposure to cold and damp will exacerbate the risk of pneumonia among both children and adults as well as add to the already existing high rate of pulmonary tuberculosis.

In the area of emergency health assistance and disease control, the coming weeks will see a need for vigilance and preparedness. The rain brings an enhanced probability of an increase in the incidence of communicable diseases in all areas, particularly malaria, acute diarrheoal disease (including the possibility of cholera in crowded urban settings) and respiratory infections. If major outbreaks occur, especially in the Somali region where the health infrastructure is already weak, the health services will be rapidly overburdened. The requirements for essential drugs and medical supplies will greater than usual and this will be the time that the regional health authorities need maximum support.

Peripheral regions of Ethiopia, including Somali and Borena, have the lowest rates of EPI (extended programme of immunization) coverage in the country. Apart from local efforts to increase the coverage of measles vaccine in areas around Gode, these peripheral areas have seen no EPI campaigns for the last six months at least. This includes Fik Zone in Somali where a recent assessment by SCF-UK found measles "rampant" among children in the area with high levels of mortality. If the rain continues, the rate of measles occurrence will rise unabated unless control measures are taken soon through a large scale vaccination campaign. Both UNICEF and WHO are seeking donor support for such interventions. The Somali health authorities are planning to undertake a measles vaccination campaign within two weeks if the required spares and vaccination supplies are made available. UNICEF is presently responding to the request for assistance in this regard.

Recent assessments missions to Afar region by MSF France and the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia have highlighted a possible outbreak of Anthrax in parts of the region adjacent to the western escarpment of the Rift Valley. Local health officials have confirmed a number of deaths among people presenting with symptoms associated with Anthrax in places such as Whama in Zone 5 of Afar and Artuna Gila Wereda (district) in neighbouring Oromiya region. It appears the disease may have been transmitted from infected livestock which have moved in large numbers from the more easterly lowlands in recent months as Afar pastoralists seek water and better grazing.


Food aid and logistics

Food pledges have increased substantially in the past month with WFP reporting 634,245 MT in confirmed pledges for cereals and 26,318 MT in non-cereals as of 3 May. This is 84 percent and 33 percent of the national appeal for victims of natural disaster respectively. Taking into account unconfirmed pledges and notional pledges, actual commitments could eventually be significantly higher than this. With the late rains expected to have a negative impact on food production, total relief food needs for the year are expected to rise. A recent public statement by the Federal Disaster Prevention and Prevention Commission suggested the number of drought-affected people in need of food assistance may rise to 10.5 million, a significant increase over the current official figure of 7.7 million. The findings of an inter-agency pre-belg assessment completed earlier this week are presently being compiled and will be used as a basis for a new determination of relief needs, the details of which are expected to be announced by the DPPC later this month.

Concerns over the efficient use of available transport capacity in the country has led the government of Ethiopia to introduce a national coordination mechanism. The new arrangements are being coordinated by a ministerial committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, while technical issues are being handled by a working level committee led by the DPPC. In the regions, transport coordination cells have been formed under the Road Transport Authority and which include representatives of the major transporters.

For organizations wishing to transport food and other relief supplies, requests for trucks are now submitted through the local transportation coordination cell. Under the new arrangement transporters are not permitted to undertake private contracts unless these have been endorsed by the committee and then are required to adhere to officially sanctioned tariffs. WFP transport operations have been exempted from the new arrangements. At the port of Djibouti, the current shortage of transport capacity has affected the unloading of a shipment of 16,000 MT of food from the European Union, an operation which took more than 20 days to complete due to a lack of trucks. Such a vessel would normally unload within a week.

Also in the transport sector, there have been concerns expressed regarding the availability of suitable trucks for transporting relief goods to remote and inaccessible areas of the country, including the central highlands and the Somali region. While Ethiopia has a substantial fleet of modern long-haul trucks, the national secondary fleet is modest, ageing and inappropriate to conditions in rugged and remote parts of the country. In the past week this has been illustrated by the difficulties faced in moving trucks along roads in areas where there has been heavy rain. While it is possible in the dry season to use normal single axle-drive trucks along these remote rural roads, in the wet season many become passable to multi-axle drive vehicles only. There remains a severe shortage of such trucks in Ethiopia.


In short, the start of the rains in Ethiopia has brought about a significant change in the humanitarian situation, raising the possibility of a gradual recovery from the effects of the recent prolonged drought. However, at least for the present, the rain has brought about both positive and negative changes:


12 May 2000

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

PO Box 5580, Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92

Addis Ababa, e-mail: