Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

(Afar Regional State): Helicopter Survey, 5 June 1996

By Dr. Kiflemariam Amdemariam (Head of Relief Coordination, Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission - DPPC), Bekuma Dilgassa (Early Warning Officer, DPPC) and Joachim D. Ahrens (Field Officer UNDP-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia)

1. Introduction
The national media reported on 4 June 1996 "heavy flooding" in Gewane Wereda (estimated population 37’000) and Bure-Mudaitu Wereda (estimated population 35’000), both located along the Awash River in Zone 3 of Region 2 (Afar). Having had no direct reports from the respective wereda officials the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission, DPPC (formerly the CDPP), upon taking notice of the media reports, decided to respond immediately and to launch, jointly with the UNDP Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (EUE), a helicopter survey to the area. The mission was carried out the following day (5 June 1996).

The survey area is situated at an aerial distance of 240 kilometres north east of Addis Ababa (by road approximately 400 km) at an altitude of 620 meters above sea level. Part of the arid lowlands of the Afar region, the area has a history of getting inundation’s after heavy rainfalls in the mountain range of northern Shewa. Tributary rivers flowing down the mountain slopes eastward increase the water volume of the Awash river, which is not following a stable river bed but meandering freely through most parts along his way to lake Abe on the Djibouti border. Consequently, marshlands such as the area between the towns of Debel (Seat of Wereda Bure-Mudaitu), Gewane (Seat of Wereda Gewane) and lake Yardi get inundated seasonally. Populated predominantly by Afar Nomads - whose livelihood is based on cattle and shoats - the respective area is traditionally not used for agriculture. In the past some state farms grew cash crops such as cotton. However, those cotton fields were abandoned after the transition in 1991. Currently, a private investor based in Gewane is about to cultivate again some cotton.

Generally it may be important to note that the survey area lacks both development and infrastructure. For instance, there is no permanent market. Furthermore, it is rather difficult to obtain solid information and reliable data (e.g. referring to population figures) at the local wereda level.

2. Aerial assessment

Flying by helicopter across the eastern mountain range into the Rift valley on the day of the survey (5 June 1996), no significant flows of water could be seen heading towards the lowlands. Consequently, most of the tributaries of the Awash river were dry - with the Hawadi being the only exception, displaying a rather modest water level. From the location where the Hawadi joints the Awash river the aircraft followed the latter course up to the town of Debel and further on over the marshlands (south of lake Yardi) to the town of Gewane. The Awash turned out to carry a good amount of water but initially showing no evidence of overflowing even right after the influx of the Hawadi. However, approximately 10 km south-west of Debel the river was indeed overflowing - apparently due to lack of maintenance of dikes in this stretch - and flooding in the previously abandoned cotton fields of the former state farm. On the way north the aerial view gave evidence of abandoned hamlets, positioned on both sides of the meandering river. The deserted settlements, however, were on dry ground again. Some of the houses ("tukuls") had apparently been completely washed away. Grazing lands alongside the river all the way up to Gewane were in some parts completely under water, and in other parts the water had clearly receded, leaving behind swampy areas and pools of stagnant water; these unfortunately make excellent breeding sites for mosquito larvae.

Overall the aerial assessment gave the impression of an area considerable time after the peak of flooding with the water recessing in most parts.

3. Findings on the ground

On the ground the survey was conducted both in Debel and in Old Gewane (which is at about 2 km west of New Gewane, the town positioned on the main road leading from Addis Ababa to Aysa'ita). Among the persons contacted were Ato Ali Tahero from the Bure-Mudaitu Wereda Administration in Debel, and Ato Hammado Ali Gupe from the Gewane Wereda Administration in Gewane. Furthermore present were some Wereda Council Members and some clan elders.

The most significant finding was the persons contacted confirmed that floods were indeed recessing and, moreover, that they had already occurred by early March. The breaking of the dikes near the former cotton fields due to heavy belg (short) rains in the highlands of North Shewa was stated as the main reason for the occurrence of floods. During that period no loss of human life was recorded nor loss of cattle and shoats. However, it was claimed that from a starting point, approximately 10 km south of Debel up to an area north of Gewane (total distance approximately 50 km), thousands of people had to leave their settlements alongside the river to seek temporary shelter in Gewane, Debel and Bora (a town south of Debel in Bure-Mudaitu Wereda). No exact numbers of the displaced persons were obtainable. The claims included the partial and total destruction of some homes (number unknown) and the consequent loss of household items (no exact figures available). Major buildings, such as schools, were not destroyed nor was the main (tarmac-) road disrupted. Only a temporary disruption was noted of the track road leading from Debel to Shewa Robit (located on the Addis Ababa - Dessie - Highway). However, road repair works were seen to be progressing. No damage to cultivated land can be recorded since the local population is nomadic and relies on cattle for their livelihood. On the other hand after complete recession of the waters a considerable improvement of the grazing land can be expected.

The main concern of the affected population is the current mosquito plague. With recessing floods more and more mosquito ("bimbi") larvae have hatched. The mosquito problem becomes so severe in the evenings that people start to move to higher locations in the hills east of the main road in order to spend their nights. Given the poor health services in the area people are very concerned to get bitten by anopheles mosquitoes and hence getting malaria. Reliable figures on confirmed malaria cases were not obtainable.

Besides the need to take measures against the mosquito plague general needs such as more food and clothing were emphasised on. The general nutritional status of the population (of which the major part was surrounding the helicopter after landings) appears to be satisfactory though. However, it was mentioned that during the period of the flood occurrence the prices for grain (Maize and Sorghum) were raised by traveling merchants (no regular market) from 130 birr to 170/180 birr per quintal.

4. Conclusions

In 1994, when the last serious flooding occurred in the presently assessed area, 8,900 people received flood-related assistance in Gewane wereda and 6,800 people in Bure-Mudaitu wereda. As compared to that year and looking back at the anecdotal records of this area which is prone to regular natural flooding, the assessment team came to the conclusion that the situation found on 5 June 1996 does not require emergency response. Therefore, the DPPC will not launch an appeal. However, also taking into consideration that the only operating aid agency in the area (Save the Children - USA) stopped its operations last year, it was decided that close monitoring should continue. Since the nutritional status of the population appeared to be satisfactory and, since no food relief request had been made by the regional authorities in Aysa'ita, no food assistance would be considered at this point.

Regarding the local complaints about the health situation the DPPC will forward to the Ministry of Health a request to look into possibilities of countering the threat of malaria (through medical care, spraying and other needed interventions).

5. Annex (Follow-up mission by the DPPC on 11 June, 1996)
"Never let the facts spoil a good story" - following this dubious journalistic guideline the Ethiopian national radio and television as well as the "Ethiopian News Agency" (ENA) published on Saturday, 8 June 1996 highly exaggerated, incorrect and unconfirmed reports on the Awash river situation, stating that flooding in the Afar Regional State had significantly increased during the last days. These reports were apparently based on statements made by a single member of the Afar State Council in Aysa'ita, who was only expressing fears of possible future consequences in case the flood situation would deteriorate. The media consequently turned those speculations about the future into present reality.

Taking note of these reports DPPC officials felt that immediate response was required.
On Sunday, 9 June 1996, without having had the chance to verify the information, the DPPC sent relief goods to Gewane and Bure-Mudaitu weredas (200 quintals of biscuit, 2,000 blankets, 100 tents and 60 plastic rolls). This measure again made front page headlines of the national newspapers the following days ("The Monitor" 11 June 1996; "The Ethiopian Herald" 12 June 1996). Confronted with this unfortunate development the DPPC relief coordination body decided to conduct, on 11 June, a second helicopter survey mission to Gewane and Bure-Mudaitu and even further to the Afambo area east of the regional capital of Aysa'ita - this time without the participation of an EUE officer (since space in the aircraft was needed to carry extra fuel due to the long distance).

The findings of the second helicopter survey (11 June 1996):

Since there is no emergency at the present time in the Afar Regional State, no emergency relief response is required at this point and no appeal will be issued either internationally or nationally. Further monitoring of the vulnerable areas, however, will have to be continued. Regarding relief goods already sent to Gewane and Bure-Mudaitu Weredas, the DPPC has decided not to distribute and to hold the stocks locally as reserves, thereby increasing local preparedness to face possible future emergencies.

Furthermore, the DPPC is to advise, through the Ministry of Information, that the state media should develop more professionalism in the future and refrain from publishing unconfirmed and unfounded stories.



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