By Patrick Nicholson, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia
As you make your way to Erer, you notice how green and lush it is, with its mango, orange and lemon trees. Millions of Ethiopians are reliant on food aid each year just to survive, but that had not been the case here.
You also notice the steady stream of mules you pass on the drive here from the city of Dire Dawa. Each animal has strapped to its back a load of wood to be used as fuel in the growing bustling town.
The wood comes from the highlands of Erer, which are being stripped of trees by locals who need to supplement their living. Trees stop soil erosion and they also slow water as it runs down the hillside after it has been raining. Now those trees are gone here and there is nothing to stem the velocity of the rain.
“The rain came in the highlands in evening,” said Ali Sayed. “The floods came here the next morning at about 5 am.”
The Sayed family has had a farm on the banks of the river for generations. His father cultivated fruit on it during the imperial age. In his forties now, Ali Sayed said has never witnessed flooding as bad as in May 2010, “It was the worst flooding in over 55 years,” he said. He points out a tree, 10 feet tall, and said the water came up to the top.
There were about 300 orange, 400 banana, and some lemon and mango trees on his farm. They are all gone now, along with tools and irrigation channels. The well was destroyed, and now they must drink from the river. His children get sick, but there is no other choice. “We lost everything,” he said.
His harvest would bring in about USD 1500 per year. The money would pay for his children to go to school and buy extra food for the house, like cereals. Now he is falling back on savings to keep his children in school.
The local government estimates that 30 km along the river were damaged, including 18 irrigation canals that feed the farmlands with all their water. About 1500 people have been affected. It has put back development in the region by five years.
Local government administrator Abdullah says the floods were so devastating because of deforestation and an unexpectedly large fall in rain in the highlands. “The rains have become unpredictable,” he said. “Sometimes the rains come suddenly with large amounts of water over a short time and there is flooding. Other times they are weak.”
Abdullah says the unpredictable weather has led to droughts in which cattle die and crop yields are reduced. People must seek alternative forms of income, mainly cutting down trees to sell as fuel. A vicious cycle where the increased deforestation leads to increased soil erosion, which worsens the effects of future droughts or can lead to flooding.
“It’s not traditionally a poor area,” he said. “But for the first year ever people are receiving food aid. About half of the 80,000 people here are asking for support.”
Caritas works in Erer through the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat (HCS). It is part of the national Caritas member called the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, which is holding a conference on climate change 2-4 June in Addis Ababa.
Hararghe Catholic Secretariat runs a nursery operation in Erer where they grow plants such as cactus, alfalfa, and elephant grass from outside the area. They give the plants for free in a project that will reach 200 families in the first year.
The plants provide good forage for the animals, are drought resistant, and help stop soil erosion. HCS also replaced crops lost in the floods. “We’re also educating the people on how to harvest the new types of plant,” said Alemayehn Teshome, an HCS water and sanitation specialist. “It will offer greater protection against drought and will help maintain resources within the community.”
HCS is providing Ali Sayed with seeds so he can replant. “I will try to rebuild,” he said, though he fears another flood. “I have no choice, nowhere else to go, so I will replant and put my trust in God.”