Addis Ababa - Huge bonfires mark the Orthodox Christian feast day of Meskel on 27 September, which coincides with the end of the rainy season in the highlands of Ethiopia. This year rains were good; too good in some places.
The residents of the Cheffa Valley, some 350km northeast of Addis Ababa, will no doubt celebrate the end of the rains. When floods hit the area in late August, buildings collapsed, houses filled with mud and some villages had to be abandoned while women and children camped at a school and men slept out with their livestock.
Adam Mustafa, 80, said the floods were the worst in his lifetime, a punishment from God; other residents blamed bad management of drainage canals and excessive run-off from the degraded highlands. Local officials blamed a changing climate.
Whatever the causes, help came from local government, welfare groups, the military, local business, UN agencies and international NGOs. A relatively small but effective operation provided immediate help with food, plastic sheeting, clothing, blankets, soap, water purification and healthcare. Military helicopters ferried supplies to stranded villages.
The valley was one of dozens of places across the country to face floods in 2010. Overall this year, the government estimates several hundred thousand people will be affected, while tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes, at least temporarily, in seven regions. Floods continue to threaten some parts of lowland areas in the Somali and Gambella regions.
A new government strategy is under development to establish new systems to tackle perennial hazards including drought, floods and disease outbreaks.
Well-fed by rivers from the highlands on both sides, the broad Cheffa valley, green and sometimes swampy, has obvious agricultural potential – a thin furze of seedlings of a staple crop, teff, is sprouting in the alluvial soils of the flood plain. Some farmers are doing their first weeding, but the floods washed away their earlier planting attempts and they said they could not afford to buy more seeds. Longer-term recovery needs, such as seeds, will take longer to mobilize, local official Jibril Osman Wado told IRIN.
“If this situation continues yearly,” said Wado, “farmers will find it difficult to survive.” Wado is the zonal head of disaster prevention and food security head-quartered in the town of Kemisse.
Health workers were still trying to dry out the files and stores at Kemisse’s health centre. Fridges, supplies, drugs, computers and paperwork were swamped. Vacuum tubes for blood samples were caked in mud, medical records turned to pulp and operations disrupted.
“I feel for the patients who were sent back without service,” said health centre administrator Hussein Said.
Handling the threat of floods – often overlapping with other natural or man-made emergencies - demands a coherent government response and the sound management of domestic and international resources.
But local officials are careful not to overplay the flooding situation - although it is “challenging”, according to Wado - and to emphasise the importance of a recovery plan.
An ability to take relatively small disasters in stride is part of the government’s “Disaster Risk Management” approach – a policy framework which looks at the cycle of preventing, mitigating and recovering from disasters in a coherent way.
Drawing on the “Hyogo Framework”, developed at the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Japan, Ethiopia’s draft policy promises a “paradigm shift”. After decades of emergency and reactive relief operations, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said this month the country would no longer need food aid by 2015. The new policy marks an effort to break with the past, by prioritizing national preparedness and engaging the private and voluntary sectors and international agencies only where needed. In the past, “the disaster response structure was excessively reliant on external resources”, the document states.
Coping better with disaster – and being seen to do so – is a key government objective, observers say.
To the chagrin of Ethiopia’s leadership, who have now been in power longer than the former regime of Mengistu Hailemariam, overthrown in 1991, the country struggles to shake off an association with starvation and beggary, analysts told IRIN.
This has been a good year for food security in the whole region but despite the good weather, Ethiopia’s vulnerabilities – food insecurity being the most serious - have not gone away. In a country of some 80m, with two million more mouths to feed every year, even a small percentage of needy people translates into a formidable burden.
According to government figures, some five million Ethiopians – about 6 percent - require emergency food aid in 2010, amounting to some 650,000MT (3 percent of the projected national crop production of 18m MT). A further 7.5m people who are chronically food-insecure receive cash or food assistance through the government’s Productive Safety Net Programme.
''If this situation continues yearly, farmers will find it difficult to survive''
Ethiopia, whose modern history has been closely entwined with drought and food shortages, has been the scene of innovative programmes to mitigate food and climate risk: weather and risk insurance, safety nets, cash transfers and public works programmes.
The government has retooled its disaster response architecture several times since the creation of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) in the 1970s. In the latest policy a new Federal Disaster Risk Management Council, chaired by Meles, is proposed as the top decision-making body.
Numbers of those in need (and the definition of need), statistics about levels of malnutrition and the prevalence of diseases are closely managed and their political and diplomatic impact closely monitored, aid workers and observers told IRIN.
Some aid workers worry, however, that in the drive to shed the image of a country perennially in crisis and needing foreign emergency aid, the government is too quick to minimize problems.
The 2010 Humanitarian Requirements Document prepared by the government and its international partners refers to a “shift in targeting of beneficiaries for various interventions”; by using a new way of defining those who are eligible for food aid, the head count of the needy fell by hundreds of thousands.
Some aid workers worry that the very poor may lose out in the drive to show progress away from relief dependency.
A humanitarian observer told IRIN the government’s approach was to “vapourize” any notion of Ethiopian dependency on emergency handouts.
Just as if it were thrown on a Meskel bonfire.