Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

Afar Region – Awash River Floods
Rapid Assessment Mission: 7 – 10 September, 1999

Introduction and background

The UN-Emergencies Unit (UN-EUE) deployed a rapid assessment mission to flooded areas along Awash river following national newspaper articles, informal reports by a DPPC/UNICEF visit to Afar Region and further information brought to the UN-Emergencies Unit by locally based NGOs. The mission’s objective was to obtain an overview of the actual flood and emergency situation and observe ongoing emergency relief operations. Furthermore, the mission tried to assess possible gaps and needs in terms of humanitarian aid to the flood victims.

The Awash river basin is mostly located in the arid lowlands of Afar Region in the north eastern part of Ethiopia. It frequently floods in August/September following heavy rains in the eastern highland and escarpment areas. A number of tributary rivers draining the highlands eastwards can increase the water level of the Awash river in a short period of time and cause flooding in the low-lying alluvial plains along the river course. Certain areas which frequently, almost seasonally, get inundated are marshlands such as the area between the towns of Debel and Gewane in the vicinity of Lake Yardi and the lower plains around Dubti down to Lake Abe in the administrative Zone 1 of Afar Region. The third area which often floods is the southern part of administrative Zone 3, about 30 kilometres north of Awash town in the vicinity of Melka Werer (see map in annex for geographical location of mentioned places visited).

Afar Region, predominately populated by nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists, is generally not known for settled agriculture. But the riverside land, especially the flat lowlands, is fertile and in parts intensively cultivated and relatively densely populated. Certain areas were developed by the former socialist government into large irrigated state farm plantations for production of cotton, sugar and other cash crops and in recent years some of these formerly government operated farms have been taken over by private entrepreneurs. These big farms attracted a considerable number of migrant workers, mostly from overpopulated areas in the southern part of the country, i.e. Wolayita and Gurage, who settled around the farms and whose families arrived a while later.

In previous years, especially in 1996, the lowlands around Wonji, about 10 kilometres south west of Nazareth town and further down the river around Metehara were flooded and state and private owned agricultural plantations were put at risk. In this upper section of Awash river the flooding was usually caused by the release of water from the Koka dam’s flood gates which is necessary when the reservoir reaches its maximum capacity. Unfortunately, in previous years the reservoir authorities experienced difficulties in releasing water in controlled intervals, often causing flooding downstream.

General situation

This year, mainly two sections of the Awash river with villages, private and state owned agricultural plantations were affected by inundation. The first area is situated in Zone 3 and the second in Zone 1 of Afar Region. Minor flooding also occurred near Metehara town in neighbouring Oromiya Region. No flood damage has occurred in the upper reaches of the Awash towards the Koka dam. The actual flooding destroyed approximately 9,500 ha of cropped farmland, both private and state owned (~ 5,000 ha in Zone 3, ~ 4,000 ha in Zone 1, and ~ 230 ha around Metehara, Oromyia Region). The total area flooded this year is unknown and the number of affected population is also difficult to assess and ranges from 3,000 to 35,000 in Zone 3 and from a few hundred to 50,000 in Zone 1. The Federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission in Addis Ababa states that approximately 3,000 people need assistance in Zone 3. Whereas in Zone 1 no request for assistance has yet been forwarded by the regional government in Assaita. The Bureau for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness (DPPB) in Assaita reported 19,500 affected people to the UN-EUE mission during its visit to the regional capital. The number of affected Peasant’s Associations (Pas) has been reported as per the following: (for Zone 3) 12 PAs in Amibara and 3 PAs in Dulecha wereda; (for Zone 1) 3 PAs in Assaita, 5 PAs in Afambo and 8 PAs in Dubti wereda. A number of human settlements, especially within the affected commercial crop farms, have been inundated and some others have been surrounded by water and are therefore inaccessible by road. This is the case for Melka Werer village in Amibara wereda in Zone 3. At the time of the visit the water level in Zone 3 was decreasing whereas in Zone 1 the level was still rising, reaching a critical level at the dykes which were built by the agricultural enterprises to prevent flooding and destruction of the cash crop plantations (mainly cotton, maize and sorghum).

The health situation may become an issue of concern once the water level regresses. Stagnant water and little lakes left behind in the crop fields by the retiring flood become perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes and are also a source of other diseases of which dysentery is the most frequent. In all the visited areas apparently no deaths directly related to the flooding were reported.

General causes of flooding

This year’s flooding along Awash river was mainly caused by heavy rainfall in the eastern highlands and escarpment areas of North Shewa and Welo and not because of heavy rain in the upper watershed areas (i.e. upstream of the Koka Reservoir). Over the years soil and water run-off in the escarpment areas has steadily increased as a result of deforestation, the most serious environmental degradation in the escarpment areas being caused by overpopulation in the highlands. Tributaries to Awash river such as Kessem, Kebena, Hawadi, Ataye Jara, Mille and Loqiya rivers contributed most to the lowland flooding in Afar.

It was unanimously agreed among interviewed experts, governmental officials and local farmers that the causes of flooding cannot be attributed to the partial release of water from the Koka reservoir upstream. It seems that the opening of the flood gates and the partial release of water is now being well managed and did not cause flooding further downstream as in previous years. Warnings were also broadcast through the public media in advance of the planned release of water providing sufficient time for preparations immediately downstream of the dam.

Some observers argue that the dykes constructed by the state farms and private entrepreneurs to protect cropped farm land in the vicinity of the riverbed were not strong and high enough. This may be the main cause of this year’s flooding and damage in Melka Werer area. On the other hand, silt is building up rapidly, causing the rise of the riverbed and forcing farm entrepreneurs to raise and reinforce their protective and preventive dykes every year. For communities living in the lowland areas the result is one of growing vulnerability to sudden and potentially catastrophic flooding when the river inevitably breaks through the increasingly unstable dykes. The rise of the riverbed due to silting is causing the Awash river to overflow in places where it never used to overflow.

The vulnerability of the population living along the Awash river and in the marshlands has also been exacerbated due to seemingly inappropriate settlement patterns in these flood prone areas in recent years. Even though most of the settlers are nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists and very well aware of the annual flooding and its danger for themselves and their livestock, these particular areas, with their fertile soils and abundant vegetation, are very attractive. Especially during the dry season the riverside areas are the only places in Afar with grazing land and are essential for the survival of humans and livestock. People are voluntarily taking the risk of possibly being trapped by flood. Also, migrants working for the commercial and state farms have established permanent (and often unofficial) settlements close to their places of work and these villages have expanded further with the arrival of the worker’s families. As the villages have grown and become permanent, the seasonal movements of people to the Awash farms are no longer as marked as they were a decade ago.

Current emergency activities

Emergency committees (health, security and relief co-ordination committees) have been established in Zones 1 and 3 of Afar Region. Whereas in Zone 3 the various sub-committees are operational and have re-established access to the cut-off areas, taken measures to prevent malaria spread and organised food and other relief items distributions, in Zone 1 the emergency committee was only established a few days before the mission’s visit and no measures and action had yet been undertaken with the exception of warning and informing the local population of the danger of the flood. Furthermore, the mission was told that no immediate relief had been planned for Zone 1 and no outside help was expected. The local people were helping themselves by building papyrus boats to rescue trapped people and livestock.

Evacuation and transport facilities to the cut-off villages in Zone 3 had been made available in the form of three boats and two amphibian military vehicles. During the first days of flooding some rescue operations were also carried out by helicopter. By the time of the mission’s visit two of the three boats were out of order and one of the amphibian vehicles was found stuck in the mud. Some food aid deliveries were dropped by helicopter to cut-off areas (3 PAs in Amibara wereda) but most of the 65 tons of wheat delivered by the Federal DPPC were distributed in Melka Sede and brought in small loads to the affected areas. In addition, 180 cartons of military biscuits were delivered for distribution. The Federal DPPC was also in process of sending an additional 100 tons of wheat. Supplementary food for children was not distributed and none is expected. Neither food aid deliveries nor additional transport facilities are available or expected in Zone 1. DPPC sent 20 rolls of UNICEF plastic sheets to Zone 3 for distribution. But apparently plastic sheeting for shelter is not an urgent requirement for the time being. Only very few sheets have been used.

In Zone 3 the protective dykes built to prevent the water flowing into the commercial agricultural plantations had been breached at several places. Workers and construction equipment, i.e. lorries, excavators etc. had been deployed from nearby state farms and industrial enterprises to reinstate the dykes. At the time of the mission’s visit, water was still flowing into crop and inhabited land at a strong and steady pace at one place. All the effort was concentrated to close the one remaining hole in the dyke.

Health measures in Zone 3 comprised the establishment of 8 mobile clinics that operate in addition to the local health centres. DDT spraying had commenced in an effort to prevent the spread of malaria. Local authorities feared that the current available drug stock, even with additional supplies from Federal government sources, would not be enough to handle an expected malaria and dysentery outbreak. By the time of the mission’s visit, approximately 700 malaria and 340 dysentery cases had been treated. One baby had reportedly died of malaria. But the malaria incidents are rapidly rising. In the week starting 6 September 1999, approximately 100 malaria cases were being reported daily from all over Zone 3.

Problem of dismissed temporary commercial farm employees unsolved

In Zone 3 a significant number of temporary state and commercial farm employees have been dismissed from their jobs due to the flooding and the damage caused to the cash crop plantations. The local authorities counted approximately 7,000 dismissed employees and dependants who have been dislocated by the floods and took, among other places, refuge in 4 schools. These people, for whom (according to government policy) their respective employers are responsible, were compensated for their dismissal with one monthly salary of 120 Birr and a one time donation of 6 kg of wheat per family member. Furthermore, they were told to leave the area and look for work somewhere else. It is estimated that some 1,500 workers did so, but the remaining and all the dependants were left behind. The local authorities do not feel responsible for them and fear that they might not vacate their school refuge which should have opened for the new Ethiopian school year. Most of these part-time farm workers and dependants arrived many years ago, mainly from overpopulated areas in the south. It is out of question for them to return to their places of origin and most have nowhere to go. Solutions should be discussed among local authorities and farm entrepreneurs for they will not be able to remain in the school compounds.

Conclusions, recommendations and general remarks

Unfortunately, the whole dimension of the Awash River flooding could not be thoroughly assessed by the mission. For such an overall assessment a helicopter survey would be more appropriate rather than a ground survey as many of the flooded places and areas along Awash river were not accessible by vehicle.

The overall situation seemed to be under control and the Federal DPPC does not seem to be particularly worried, feeling this year’s floods were more or less "normal". However, more drugs may be needed to treat malaria, dysentery and other typical diseases related to floods in the affected areas. They seem to be available at the Federal level if required.

The mission developed the impression that the Afar authorities and population alike have a somewhat fatalistic attitude towards flooding, especially in Zone 1 around Dubti and Assaita. The floods come every year and is viewed as just part of the game nature plays. Everybody expects it and reacts accordingly. Those who take too many risks and remain with their cattle in the flood-prone areas have to assume the consequences.

For state farm operators and private commercial entrepreneurs the yearly overflowing of Awash River is a costly burden. Average production losses caused by the partial flooding of their plantations need to be an integrated part of their profit calculations. They are aware that they are trying to make business on risky ground. For the growing population of semi-settled migrant workers, their situation is clearly becoming more precarious. Obliged to settle in some of the most dangerous locations close to the river, the workers and their families appear to be largely left to their own fate.

Despite considerable investment and effort, the protective dykes broke at several places before the actual water capacity level was reached. That the dykes were breached at so many different places is perhaps not so much due to technical deficiencies in their design as to the growing instability of the river itself as it deposits silt in the lower reaches of its course thereby raising the river bed and increasing the likelihood of a devastating flood.

The Ministry of Water Resources Development is currently seeking to implement the "Awash Master Plan" to research and develop ways of overcoming (or accommodating) the problem of periodic flooding in certain areas along the Awash River.

Literature list of referred papers and previous UN-EUE Afar Region mission reports

Ahrens J D (1996) Koka Dam – River Awash Floods; Report of joint UN Assessment Team, UN-EUE Field Mission Report, 26 to 27 August, Addis Ababa

Kiflemariam A & Ahrens J D (1996) Awash River Floods (Afar Regional State): Helicopter Survey, 5 June 1996, UN-EUE Field Mission Report, Addis Ababa

UNICEF (1999) Brief Report on the Flood Situation in Afar Region, informal and internal report, UNICEF, 15 to 19 August, Addis Ababa

Press releases


DPPB - Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau (mostly at Regional level)

DPPC - Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (Federal Government level)

PA - Peasant Associations (lowest administrative level)

UN-EUE - United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

UNICEF - United Nations Children Fund


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.

21 September, 1999

UN-EUE  Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29 
PO Box : 5580  Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92 
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  Email: undp-eue@telecom.net.et