'We need global action on climate change': Flooding and Covid-19 in Gambella, Ethiopia

In this edition of Frontline TGP’s Deputy Director Bennett Collins is in conversation with Nyikaw Ochalla, Executive Director of the Anywaa Survival Organisation (ASO), an organisation focused upon empowering Indigenous rural communities in southwestern Ethiopia. For many years Nyikaw and ASO have been advocating specifically for the rights of the Anywaa, a Nilotic,  people who historically have lived along the Baro and Akobo rivers in the Gambella province of south-west Ethiopia and its adjacent areas across the border in South Sudan.

In recent history, the Anywaa formed a large bulk of the Gambella Peoples’ Liberation Movement, one of the democratic forces that helped overthrow the Derg military junta of Ethiopia in 1987. As one of Ethiopia’s most fertile regions, Gambella and its Indigenous peoples have been subjected to mass land-grabbing from both domestic and international agricultural corporations and investors. In 2003, the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and highlander locals massacred 424 predominantly Anywaa men and raped several Anywaa women. The Anywaa today know this as the 2003 Genocide. This pivotal event came at a peak of tensions between Anywaa communities and the Ethiopian government over the establishment of several refugee camps on traditional Anywaa land without prior consultation. Today, any Anywaa have been gradually dislocated from government and private land grabs, which has led to a decline in traditional agro-pastoralist practices and intergenerational cultural practices.

ASO are a long-term partner of TGP and we were pleased to have this opportunity to sit down with Nyikaw and hear just exactly why the situation for the Anuak in Gambella remains so tenuous, a situation made even worse by recent flooding in the area.

Bennett: What do you think are the short and long term implications of this flooding?

Nyikaw: The flooding has far reaching implications on the communities who reside along the Ethiopia-South Sudan border. More than 7000 families – including women, children and the elderly – face severe hunger and are in need of humanitarian assistance. The challenges to those delivering support to those who need it are significant however, especially the absence of infrastructure such as roads and water boats. About six months-worth of humanitarian food ration destined for those affected in Jor district could not reach people in time because of poor infrastructure and lack of water boats, the only way to reach the downstream villages along the Gilo river. Instead, ingenious farmers had to develop a mode of transport to deliver food and non-food assistance to those in dire need.

In the short-run more than 7,000 women, children, and elderly are being exposed to water borne diseases, and children are at high risks of malnutrition and hunger. Because of the flooding they have been displaced from their homes and exposed to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. The flooding also has serious consequences in terms of undermining their livelihoods, including the destruction of crops and cattle, and the inability to fend for themselves from the natural environment as they normally would.

In the long run, the communities affected are forced to relocate to other rural settings and towns both of which are less susceptive to flooding. This creates overcrowding and potential conflicts, and an increase in crime and unemployment as well as competition over scarce available resources, including land.

B: How does this flooding worsen the Covid-19 situation in Gambella?

N: Well, the affected areas are most marginalised and neglected areas even within the region. They lack infrastructure, health facilities and medicines to treat common diseases let alone Covid-19. The remote communities are left to fend for themselves without any meaningful support from the local authorities. Instead, the regional governor in an insult donated 1.5 million birr (£31,000) towards the flooding in Afar while neglecting the flooding in his backyard. The overall impact of flooding in the context of Covid 19 pandemic cannot be minimal in the sense that those areas are remote and lacks basic social services to handle the catastrophic effect of the virus. 

B: What is the media missing in their coverage of what’s happening?

N: There are two major issues that have dominated social media in the past few weeks. The humanitarian catastrophe and the alleged assassination attempt of the Gambella National Regional State leader and other key officials while visiting Jor district, a remote area affected by flooding, and that lacks basic social services and infrastructure such as roads and water boats. Little has been said, however about the overall insecurity that women face, the killing of a young man suffering from mental health problems at the Gambella airport by federal police, and the police officer allegedly beaten to death by federal police members. None of these has received media attention. Branded as political drama, the alleged assassination attempt was nothing but a political game designed to take advantage of preparations for the upcoming federal and regional election that the Gambella branch of the ruling prosperity party is pessimistic about winning.   

B: What have the responses to the flooding been on the ground and at the community level?

N: The news of flooding had a minimal response from the Ethiopian authorities both at the federal and regional level. However, high level regional officials, including the regional state governor, visited the affected Jor district and held a meeting with the surrounding villages, perhaps to ascertain the severity and risk of flooding. This gathering information after the fact suggests a lack of preparedness and readiness in responding to humanitarian catastrophe. However, a joint regional steering committee met in Gambella town and discussed a wide range of humanitarian and development issues, including immediate food needs, water and sanitation, education, and transportation.

At the community level, a dedicated youth group in Gambella town and in other districts took the initiative to collect resources to support efforts to save lives. Also, the zonal administration at Abwobo decided to collect contributions towards the flood affected communities from civil servants. The diaspora Jor community has also appealed to the community and friends of Gambella to support the flood victims.

B: What needs to be done to prevent this in the future? And what can be done now from afar to help communities on the ground?

N: The current food insecurity caused by heavy rain and the overflow of the Akobo, Gilo and Openo (Baro) rivers, has had wider impacts on the livelihoods of Indigenous communities in the region. In particular, along the Gilo river where the impact of flooding is acute, and given the current attention focused on the area as a result of humanitarian appeals and media coverage, early warning responses and information delivery need to be strengthened. Also, the overflow of the Gilo river could be reduced by damming or blocking the streams responsible for today’s humanitarian crisis. This would address the destruction of crops, and cattle in an environmentally sensitive way. As the Jor district that has been affected by the flood is remote and lacks adequate basic social services, and road infrastructure, the responsible authorities need to pay more attention to the delivery of essential services and infrastructure development.

B: If there’s one thing you wanted the world to know right now, what would it be?

N: Indigenous peoples of Gambella have been coping with the effects of flooding for decades. But the current unseasonal heavy rain, and the unprecedented dry weather has had an impact on the farming activities of local farmers. This is undoubtedly as a result of global climate change – which requires global action. Climate change is having a serious impact on Indigenous communities around the world who have little ability to cope with it. Global action on climate change and sustainable development is required. This calls for the active participation of Indigenous peoples in designing and formulating environmental and climate change policies. The flooding in the remote region of Gambella, demonstrates the need for a coordinated response and international support.