UNICEF flood emergency response in southern Ethiopia
Elam Kadu was brutally awakened by the sound of swift flowing water wreaking havoc in her wood and straw hut, washing away animals and household items. In the pitch-black dark she grabbed her infant child and scrambled to higher ground. Within minutes her home, personal belongings and stores of grain were washed away. Only the larger animals and her husband remained.
The mighty Omo River, swollen by an unusually intense rainy season, burst its banks in the middle of the night on 17 August engulfing dozens of villages in Desanech and Gnagatom districts of South Omo Zone in southern Ethiopia. As a result, 364 people lost their lives, more than 3,200 cattle were swept away, corn fields were inundated and 760 traditional grain stores destroyed.
The floods left more than 15,000 members of the Desanech ethnic group stranded and their livelihoods, directly linked to the well-being of their herds of cattle and the small plots of corn which they cultivate on the side, hanging in the balance.
“The water rose during the night and covered everything,” says Elam, who arrived in Awga, one of five camps for flood displaced persons near the village of Omorate in Desanech district after being rescued by Ethiopian army teams sent to assist stranded villagers. “We lost some of our smaller animals and our home was washed away. When the sun came up the water was everywhere and we could not see land.”
Elam walked 25 km with her baby, Yergilem, from the spot where the army boats dropped them off to get to Awga. They were fortunate not to have lost any family members. Elam’s husband, however, stayed behind insisting that he had to look after the surviving cattle.
Flooding that has resulted from the unprecedented rainy season has affected more than 200,000 persons, 90,000 of whom are children. If rains continue – as meteorological forecasts indicate they will – these numbers are expected to rise to more than 500,000 persons affected, 235,000 of whom are children.
Young children are most vulnerable to the sudden impact of a flash flood. The death toll currently stands at 635. Numbers could be higher in remote areas. Children are also falling prey to a range of deadly water-borne diseases including malaria and acute watery diarrhoea. They also face measles, colds and pneumonia.
Within 48 hours of the floods in South Omo, UNICEF was among the first supporting the Government and other partners providing life-saving assistance to the flood-affected communities who live in one of the most remote and inaccessible areas on earth (it takes two days to drive to Omorate, the closest town to the flood-affected Desanech community, from the regional capital Awassa). Since the first floods hit the eastern Ethiopia town of Dire Dawa UNICEF has reached 42,000 people with emergency family kits (plastic sheeting, blankets, jerrycans, soap and cooking materials); 80,000 people with a month’s supply of water purification tablets; 40,000 people with emergency water kits and bladders. Other material distributed includes large numbers of tents, oral rehydration salts, high energy biscuits, supplies and equipment for health staff working on acute watery diarrhoea. UNICEF has so far disbursed more than US$ 2 million. Technical and emergency staff are currently deployed in all five of the main emergency-affected zones.
Camps like Awga that have been set up for the flood displaced people are an alien environment for the pastoralist Desanech. Numerous families have set up temporary shelters in close proximity to each other leaving them vulnerable to outbreaks of communicable diseases. The weakened physical conditions of the people due to their loss of livelihood combined with the psychological trauma of experiencing the floods and ensuing displacement increases their vulnerability to disease. The lack of sanitation facilities compounds the situation exposing camp residents to diarrhoeal diseases which, particularly in the case of children, can be fatal.
Water purification systems were immediately set up in the South Omo camps to ensure a safe supply of drinking water and thereby help prevent outbreaks of diarrhoeal disease. Insecticide-treated nets were also distributed as malaria is one of the major killer diseases in Ethiopia and is endemic in South Omo zone.
UNICEF project officers are also assisting the Government to operate health posts in the camps. Mothers and children are screened for malnutrition, and if found to be undernourished are provided supplementary food rations. Children are vaccinated against measles, which can spread rapidly in crowded camp conditions and can be deadly for undernourished children. Vitamin A supplements are administered to further boost children’s immune systems. They also receive de-worming tablets, all in the effort to ensure their survival during what can be a traumatic and stressful time.
“The authorities have given us shelter materials and food to eat,” says Elam. “I want to say thank you because without this we would not be able to survive. The waters still surround our home and I have not heard from my husband. If the animals survive we will be able to go back home and start again. Otherwise I don’t know what we will do.”
© UNICEF Ethiopia/2006