From drought to floods: nine months in Ethiopia

By Liz Lucas

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I arrived in Ethiopia in January, 2006, to support Oxfam America's humanitarian communications team and to help develop permanent capacity in the region. At the time, the country was in the beginning stages of what would eventually become the worst drought in five years. The additional threat of potential border conflict with neighboring Eritrea hung overhead, and as I unpacked my bags I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

Drought, flooding, internal conflict, and displacement of tens of thousands of people were among the many challenges I witnessed during the nine months I was in Oxfam America's Horn of Africa office. Through work with the humanitarian team, I saw firsthand the impact Oxfam can have on communities before, during, and after emergencies.

For a nation that is seen so often as a place of drought and famine, it was the rainy season from June to September that presented the most challenges.

First responder

Over those few months, Oxfam, partnering with the Ethiopian Red Cross, was a first responder to a clan conflict that left thousands of people displaced in the south of the country. Immediately following that, our humanitarian team was confronted by flooding throughout the country.

We responded quickly, traveling around the country, assessing the situation in different flood-affected districts and visiting camps to see what was needed by the displaced. Many of those at the temporary shelters had been evacuated by boat during the peak of flooding and left with virtually none of their belongings.

In other areas, flash floods had devastated communities, resulting in a disproportionate loss of women and children and a traumatized population. People were worried about their future, their children's education, and how long they would have to live in a temporary shelter.

Support and protection

In each area, Oxfam worked with our local partners and with other groups to tailor the most appropriate response. In Dire Dawa, a city that suffered many fatalities, Oxfam worked with the city administration to provide psycho-social support to more than 9,000 flood-affected people, while offering protection from assault to children, women, and others people from vulnerable groups. Recognizing that the needs in the community would be long-term, Oxfam helped rehabilitate schools and purchase school supplies to ensure the right to education would not be denied to those who had already lost so much.

In other areas where basic items were lacking, Oxfam provided blankets, soap, plastic sheeting for shelter, jerry cans for water, and cooking pots to meet the needs of families who had lost everything. Longer-term initiatives were also set up, including the provision of seeds for farmers, livestock vaccinations, and veterinary care for animals to ensure that people would be able to continue making a living.

As the floods continued, Ethiopia also faced an increasingly serious outbreak of acute watery diarrhea (AWD), a common result of poor sanitation. According to the United Nations, as of November 13, 38,007 cases of AWD and 404 deaths had been reported.

In addition to providing medical supplies, clean water, and non-food items, Oxfam partnered with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and deployed public health experts. Oxfam took it one step further, providing training to water committees, community leaders, and community members on precautionary and preventative measures as well as good hygiene practices. By training community leaders, Oxfam remained sensitive to the traditional community structures, using the most appropriate methods for maximum impact.

Work still continues

This is only a small piece of Oxfam's work over the time I was there and much of it still continues. There are still reports of flooding, and AWD continues to affect many. Security concerns around Ethiopia are increasing as early warning systems monitor the potential for upcoming drought.

I've been home for a month and still can't sleep at night. I wait for the sound of the planes at Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport, almost expecting them to land on my house. I wake myself up fighting with imaginary mosquito netting. When it rains I toss and turn, wondering if it's the beginning of a flood and what new challenges this will present.

But in typical Oxfam fashion, I'm ready to go back, to do more, see the incredible work that my colleagues do on the ground even in the most remote locations. Through my work with our Horn of Africa office, I saw people at their most vulnerable, forgotten by systems and institutions, who relied on Oxfam not only to save lives, but to preserve their dignity.