“I thought he was going to die”
Displaced by floods, and now homeless, a proud mother narrates her son’s battle with a deadly cholera infection.
When heavy rains in July 2020 threatened to burst the walls of the upstream Gibe Dam on the Omo river in the south of Ethiopia, the authorities were left with no choice but to open the dam’s spillways. The torrent that gushed from the dam brought forth devastation to homes, crops and livelihoods and displaced thousands of people downstream.
Nechye Aygaliye (45), a mother of 7 was among those displaced. She and her family were forced to leave their Chugar village and moved to Delerele where they were settled into a camp for the displaced, along with 12,000 other people, like her, displaced by the floods from villages dotted along the river and lake. Some 2,000 under-five children live in the camp.
“As the water began to overflow our village, the government people came and moved us to Delerele by a motorboat. I also moved here with my children” she says.
As soon as they moved to Delerele, Nechye’s 15-year-old son, Akolo Korobe, began to experience bouts of diahorrea and vomiting.
“The diahorrea and vomiting became heavy and continuous. At first, I was worried that he was going to die. His eyes and face began to change. It became worse in the evening and he became so weak. The health workers came and asked me to separate him from the rest of the children. After a short while, they took him to a health facility where they started him on glucose,” recalls Nechye. “They cleaned everything in the house with disinfectant, washed our clothes, and gave us new clothes. They also gave us laundry and bath soap.”
Nechye says it was not only her child who was suffering from cholera, but several other children from the IDP site who were brought to the health facility.
“There were so many people who were suffering from the same sickness, especially those who came from Lureye. I also heard that some people had died there. I think that it is caused by the fish that we eat which is not properly cooked. Some people also excrete in the lake, and we drink from there. It is a lack of hygiene.”
Jegnaw Tesfaye, head of the Delerele health centre, is a young and energetic gatekeeper of the IDP site who oversees the needs of the displaced population. He keeps a close eye on the site to minimize the outbreak of communicable diseases and ensures that health, water and nutrition services are provided to the people.
Jegnaw recalls Akolo’s condition.
“He was seriously sick with constant diahorrea and vomiting. We had to disinfect the house immediately so that it did not contaminate the rest of the family. We took him to the cholera treatment centre which was set up near the school. After three days of care, he was well enough to go home the next day.”
According to Jegnaw, 158 people had been treated for cholera, with three fatalities recorded at the treatment center. Seven people died in their homes, too late to seek treatment.
“As soon as cholera broke out, UNICEF gave us four beds, a tent, and five treatment kits which helped us to get the cholera treatment center up and running. The disinfectant and hygiene materials which included soap helped us to stop further spread of the disease.”
To minimize further disease outbreaks, UNICEF installed an emergency water treatment kit with the capacity to produce 7,000 to 12,000 liters of treated water per day from the adjacent Omo river. However, demand for the water sometimes outstrips supply.
“The people resort to using the Omo river when there’s not enough water and the health risks this poses are a source of great worry for us,” says Jegnaw.
Another source of worry, according to Jegnaw, is the absence of safe sanitation at the site. Open field defecation puts the IDPs at great risk but is soon set to end as the Ethiopian Red Cross is constructing two latrine blocks, with funding from UNICEF.
As much as Nechye is happy that her child recovered from cholera, she is worried about another risk in her temporary home - malnutrition.
“Since we moved here, there hasn’t been much to eat. It was better at our village where we could fish from the river. Traders used to bring in oil and sugar by motorboat. I also used to have 20 heads of cattle which provided us with milk and butter, enough to feed my family. But now, I only have two cattle and 3 goats. I lost everything. And here, we are forced to rely mostly on wild weeds that grow near the river.”
The government provides families with a monthly ration of wheat and maize, but they say this is not enough.
“These people [the Dasenech] used to be self-sufficient with ample food from the lake. They had fish and cattle and they are not used to depending on handouts. The floods have reduced them to penury,” says Jegnaw.
The situation has left children vulnerable to malnutrition. Since July 2020, 98 children have been treated for malnutrition at the health post, with 19 treated of severe acute malnutrition. One child was referred to the nearby Omorate health centre for specialized treatment.
“We have enough ready-to-use therapeutic food to treat children with acute malnutrition. However, we are concerned that if we don’t receive supplementary food, which is scarce now, children with moderate malnutrition will quickly deteriorate. We are also concerned for the nutrition of breastfeeding mothers,” says Jegnaw.
The lack of antibiotics and other medicines in the health post to treat common childhood illnesses means many children go without the treatment they need. The capacity of the health post is also stretched by the local community which relies on its services, in addition to the IDPs.
Some 9,000 IDPs live in Delerele kebele (village), of which1,700 are under five children. In total, 63,000 IDPs live in Dasenech woreda (district), 8,000 of whom are children. The IDPs, along with the host population, are served by five health centers and 30 health posts, four of which were damaged by the floods.
According to Gnektela Gnagbe, head of the Dasenech woreda health office, 1,867 cholera cases and 26 deaths have been recorded in the district since April 2020. Ten of these deaths occurred in cholera treatment centers and the rest in the community. Ten treatment centers were established with UNICEF support.
“The major challenge now is the scarcity of food and water. There are communities who live very far. They live without any income in harsh weather conditions. Water and sanitation in institutions such as clinics and schools are a big challenge. Many health facilities do not have water,” he says.
The floods in Dasenech also destroyed 16 schools, although nine have since reopened. However, a lack of funds means the other schools remain in disrepair. Encouragingly, school meals have started to be offered in three schools, although the lack of water remains a challenge.
Dasenech is distinguished by its semi-arid climate, with low and erratic annual rainfall. Livestock herding is the main income and food for the pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities that populate the district. The diets are complemented by wild food and fish from the Omo river.
“Recently, we inspected the villages where people were displaced by the floods last year. We had to use a boat because the water has not yet receded. It might take two to three years before these people return to their homes. Until then, it is going to be difficult to move them to their villages,” says Jegnaw.