Eritrea + 1 more

Ethiopia Situation Report for period Feb 2000

Consolidated UN report prepared by the Information Section of the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia from information and reports provided by specialised UN agencies, media sources, the Ethiopian Government and NGOs.

Bush fires burn out of control in the Bale and Borena zones of Oromiya region, destroying more than 50,000 hectares of indigenous mountain forest and threatening more than 500,000 hectares;

Concerned by the delay in arrival of new food relief pledges, the Government of Ethiopia has announced the allocation of 348 million Birr for the immediate local purchase and transport of 100,000 MT of grain;

Efforts by OAU and United States envoys to broker a peaceful settlement to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict continue, with the main focus being the detailed arrangements for the final implementation of the OAU peace deal;

With unusually hot and dry weather conditions prevailing over most of Ethiopia, fears grow for a possible repeat of last year's failure of the belg (short) rains,

News and Developments

Nearly 15 million voters registered for May elections: According to the Walta Information Centre, a total of close to 15 million people in nine regional states have been registered for casting votes in the upcoming national elections. The number of voters registered for the upcoming elections exceeds that of the past election by over two million, according to regional election officials. The officials told WIC that a total of 14 million people in the nine states had been registered as of 29th February, the expiry date for the initial registration period. According to the official tally, 7,054,526 people have been registered in Oromiya, 4,400,000 people in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's State and 1,400,000 in Tigray alone. Similarly, 870,000 people were registered in Addis Ababa, 850,000 in Afar, as well as 380,000 in the Benishangul-Gumuz, Dire Dawa, Gambella and Harari states together. (WIC, March 8)

Former Prime Minister convicted of corruption: Ethiopia's Supreme Court has convicted former prime minister Tamerat Layne on three counts of corruption and abuse of power, but deferred sentencing to a later date. Tamerat, who was head of a transition government from May 1991 to August 1995, faces between three and 15 years in prison for each of the three counts. He was charged with corruption and abuse of power by involving himself in an illegal US $16 million deal with a business firm that sought the right to export Ethiopian textile products, half of it deposited in a Swiss bank. Tamerat was also accused of using his position to export 1,000 tonnes of state-owned coffee through a bogus firm and of using another company to obtain a tender for the supply of construction equipment worth US $ 13 million. (AFP, February 3)

Aid workers attacked: An armed gang attacked a Medecins Sans Frontieres - Belgium vehicle in southeast Ethiopia on February 7, killing one employee and injuring two others. The vehicle was attacked in the Ogaden area of the Somali National Regional State on the main road between the regional capital Jigjiga and Degah Bur by a group of 10 heavily-armed gunmen who opened fire, an MSF-B statement said. The driver died on the spot. A second employee, a 28-year old French logistics expert, was seriously injured, and a third was slightly hurt. Following the attack, blamed on a extremist element of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, MSF-B suspended its operations in Degah Bur and withdrew its staff to Addis Ababa. The latest attack was the third against humanitarian workers in the Ogaden region in 12 months. (AFP, February 8 & 9; other sources)

Ethiopia tots up recent foreign loans: Ethiopia received some US $1.4 billion worth of foreign loans and aid over the last five years, according to the economic planning and cooperation ministry. The money mostly came from the United States, Japan, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands and was aimed primarily at economic and social development projects, the ministry said, quoted by official newspapers. Ethiopia, whose 1999-2000 budget is estimated at US $1.66 billion, recorded 302 local and foreign investors between July 1999 and January 2000, according to figures from the governmental Ethiopian Investment Authority. The 28 foreign and 274 local investors were mostly involved in the industrial, agricultural, construction and housing sectors with investments worth some US $590 million. (AFP, February 14)

TPLF celebrates 25th anniversary: The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), part of Ethiopia's ruling coalition, celebrated its 25th anniversary on February 19 with mass gatherings in many of the country's northern villages. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi - current leader of the TPLF leader and a former guerrilla fighter - told supporters in Mekele that the country would continue to struggle for land occupied by Eritrean forces. Meles also drew attention to the plight of eight million Ethiopians affected by drought in various regions, according to national radio. (AFP, February 19)

Update on the Ethiopia - Eritrea Conflict

On February 23 an armed skirmish between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces took place on the border near Bure, some 70 kms from the Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab. The fighting was first reported by the Eritrean official media and later confirmed by the Office of the Ethiopian Spokesperson. The Ethiopian statement said that by attacking first and then blaming Ethiopia for initiating the engagement, the Eritrean government was attempting to deceive the international community. Eritrea claimed that Ethiopia was continuing a pattern of attacking whenever a peace envoy comes to the region.

The reports of fighting came after several months of quiet along the common border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The last significant clashes came on the Zelambessa frontline area in early September last year, and, according to Ethiopian radio reports, near the Jerbet river on the left flank of the Badme front in October. Even though there has been relative quiet along the border, the war of words between the two countries has continued unabated with Ethiopia pressing for the redeployment of Eritrean troops away from the remaining contested border areas and Eritrea accusing Ethiopia of preparing for yet another round of fighting. The enmity between the two governments became very evident during the UN General Assembly in October when the Foreign Ministers of the two countries made impassioned speeches condemning the other side and accusing the UN and international community of not doing enough to end the conflict.

Throughout the period since last August attention has been mainly focussed on the so-called "Technical Arrangements" - a document presented to the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) outlining the practical details of how the Framework Agreement for the settlement of the conflict might be speedily implemented. The Technical Arrangements make provision for the deployment of OAU/UN forces to monitor the redeployment of the combatants, the restoration of civilian administrations in the contested areas, the rapid demarcation of the common border based on the relevant colonial treaties and the application of international law and the establishment of mechanisms for arbitration. Eritrea indicated its acceptance of the new document but Ethiopia indicated that it would be seeking certain clarifications on elements considered to be at variance to the original Framework Agreement, the key point from the Ethiopian perspective being its fundamental requirement for the full restoration of the status quo ante, that is the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces to the positions held prior to May 12, 1998, before the implementation of any further elements of the peace plan.

Since submitting a response to Ethiopia’s request for clarifications, Ahmed Ouyahia, the Special Envoy of the OAU Chairman and other international negotiators, including US President Clinton’s envoy, Anthony Lake, have made a number of visits to the region in a sustained effort to help the two countries reach agreement on arrangements to implement the OAU peace plan. In the most recent round of shuttle diplomacy, Ahmed Ouyahia and Anthony Lake visited the region in tandem for a ten day period from February 23 to March 3 in what was characterised by some observers as an attempt to convince the Eritrean government to accept a reformulation of certain points in the Technical Arrangements. After briefly visiting Addis Ababa, the two envoys spent nearly a week in Asmara meeting with President Isaias Afewerki and other government officials. On the completion of their joint mission, the OAU issued a statement on March 6 saying that both parties had had reaffirmed their acceptance of the framework agreement and the modalities for its implementation. The statement added that "With regard to the technical arrangements submitted by the OAU and accepted by Eritrea, a consensus was reached on some of their provisions while others require additional efforts in order to secure the common acceptance of the full document by both parties. The two parties reaffirmed their will to see that the technical arrangements are consistent with the letter and spirit of the framework agreement and the modalities." With most observers concluding that the latest round of talks have been only partially successful, there is again concern that a lasting peaceful settlement to the conflict is still a long way off.

On the humanitarian front, a recent short video produced by Refugees International has highlighted the difficult circumstances faced by many people displaced by the conflict in the Tigray and Afar regions. While additional food aid pledges have been forthcoming in recent months, relief assistance has remained patchy and sporadic. Unable to return to their farms, the majority of families face the prospect of spending the remainder of the year 2000 entirely dependent on relief hand-outs. As outlined in the appeals issued in January by the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission and UN Country Team, apart from food aid the priorities continue to be help in providing a continuity of education for displaced children, improving access to basic health services and water supplies, and providing additional shelter materials in the form of plastic sheeting, blankets, jerry cans and other household items. The official population displaced by the war remains unchanged at 349,837 (315,936 in Tigray and 33,901 in Afar).

Agricultural Situation and Weather Report

Dry weather conditions persist over much of the country

The hot, dry conditions that prevailed during January over much of the country continued through February. With an area of high pressure area strengthening over the Arabian peninsular, there has been little sign of any seasonal shift in weather or wind patterns associated with the start of the belg (short) rainy season that normally commences from the end of January. Nights have been clear and cold over much of the central highlands with extreme minimum temperatures falling to below zero in places such as Debre Birhan, Alemaya and Holeta.

During the first dekad of February some light rain was recorded in Gambella to the extreme west of the country. There was little or no rainfall over the remainder of the country. Apart from some light showers recorded in a few areas of western Oromiya, Gambella and north-western Amhara, the unusually dry weather persisted through the second and into the third dekad of the month giving rise to concern that the dry conditions would have a negative impact on preparations for the coming belg planting season as well as continue to stress communities living in the peripheral lowland areas of the country. Towards the end of the third dekad of February a rise in minimum temperatures was associated with a build-up of cloudy weather in eastern and south-eastern parts of the country, giving rise to hopes of rain, however, no significant falls were recorded.

According to meteorologists at the national Meteorological Services Agency, the short-term outlook for the belg season remains bleak with no significant rainfall expected before the second dekad of March. Regional meteorological experts meeting in Arusha (Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum), from February 9-11 likewise projected for northern, south-western, southern and south-eastern Ethiopia an increased likelihood of a poor performance of the belg and lowland rains which should normally peak during the period March through May. As well as disrupting the planting of short-cycle, belg crops, poor belg season rainfall will hampered efforts of farmers in the highland agricultural areas to plough their land ready for the main planting season and lead to very low soil moisture levels at the critical early stage of crop development.

Belg season prospects

Belg rains and linkages with global weather systems

Figure I: Comparison of the current La Niña with the most recent El Niño episode
(Surface sea temperature deviation from the average - eastern Pacific basin)

The belg, variously known as the "short rains" or "little rains", generally occurs between February and May. Although more research needs to be done, some experts believe there is a correlation between weather patterns in Ethiopia and El Niño, an increase in the sea surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, La Niña, a decrease in the surface temperature in the same area and Southern Oscillation, and changes in atmospheric pressure across the Pacific Basin between Australia and Tahiti Wolde-Georgis, Tsegay, El Niño and Drought Early Warning in Ethiopia, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, ASP/ESIG, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder Co. USA. These events are joined in the term "ENSO" (El Niño/La Niña + Southern Oscillation), a combination of air and ocean phenomenon with global weather implications (see Figure I). Although other factors also come into play such as surface temperatures and frequent and intense tropical storms over the southeast Indian Ocean, some initial research seems to indicate that La Niña (a cool event) can lead to a decrease in rainfall during the belg season but heavier rain during the main season (meher rainy season) Ibid also Bekele, Fekadu, Ethiopian Use of ENSO Information in Its Seasonal Forecasts, National Meteorological Services Agency, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

As stated above, the link between La Niña and the belg season weather in Ethiopia is not conclusive. Also, the belg rains are often erratic so predictions and links between ENSO and the belg can be subject to different interpretations. It is however interesting to note that the current belg rains are over a month late while El Niño/La Niña cycle is in an intense La Niña phase with the Diagnostic Advisory 2000/2 issued by the Climate Prediction Center/NCEP on 14 February stating that "strong cold episode conditions (La Niña) continued in the tropical Pacific during January, as sea surface temperatures remained more than 1° C below normal throughout the equatorial Pacific between 170° and 90° W" Climate Prediction Center, El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Diagnostic Advisory 2000/2 (Cold Phase), Climate Prediction Center, National Centers for Environmental Prediction, NOAA/National Weather Service, Camp Springs, Md., 14 February 2000..

Belg production estimates

Although various authorities define the belg differently, the most generally accepted definition seems to be crops that are planted during the belg season (February to May) and harvested before the end of August. However, according to some observers the belg season can include crops that are planted in February to May but harvested after August. The belg’s contribution to overall production is also an area of some dispute with estimates ranging from lower than 5% to as much as 25%, this difference presumably due to which definition of the belg is being used. FAO in the annual FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment report, using the stricter definition of the belg, generally estimates belg production for the coming year at about 5% or less. (For the year 2000 the FAO/WFP "...mission has cautiously forecast the belg crop at 250,000 tonnes - still well below the average, due to expected shortages of draught oxen caused by heavy losses in 1999, and some scarcity of appropriate seed" FAO/WFP, Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Ethiopia, FAO and WFP Rome, 26 January 2000..) Depending on the area and the definition being used, some of the most important belg crops are short-cycle varieties of maize, sorghum, teff and barley, plus beans, wheat and millet.

The main belg growing areas

The cultivation of belg crops is most often associated with the food insecure areas of northeast Ethiopia (South Tigray, North and South Welo), eastern Ethiopia (East and West Harerghe), North and South Omo and the Special Weredas of southern Ethiopia (Amaro, Burji, Konso and Dirashe) but the belg is also an important season in some of the surplus producing areas of the country such as West Wellega, Illubabor, and the Arsi and Bale zones of Oromiya region.

There can be significant variation between years in the percentage of the total crop obtained from the belg. Also, within zones the importance of the belg can vary widely between different weredas of the zone and even within a wereda the importance of the belg can vary significantly. Added to the problems these variations cause, is the problem of incomplete production data for some areas. However, in spite of these limitations the EC-LFSU data on meher and belg production gives a rough indication of the relative importance of the belg in both the traditionally more vulnerable areas and the usually self sufficient and/or surplus areas:

Table I: Major belg producing zones in order of the percent of the total crop from the belg European Commission-Local Food Security Unit, Spreadsheet of meher and belg production. .

Traditionally Vulnerable Zones
Self Sufficient/Surplus Zones
Region/Zone or Special Wereda
% of Crop
from Belg
Region/Zone or Special Wereda
% of Crop
from Belg
SNNP/Burji Special Wereda
SNNP/Amaro Special Wereda
SNNP/Konso Special Wereda
SNNP/Kegicho Shekiso
SNNP/South Omo
SNNP/North Omo
Oromiya/W. Haraghe
SNNP/Bench Maji
SNNP/Dirashe Special Wereda
Amhara/North Wello
Oromiya/W. Wellega
Amhara/South Wello
Amhara/North Shewa
Tigray/South Tigray
Oromiya/E. Haraghe

Note: In this table "vulnerable" zones/weredas refer to areas that have required substantial food assistance in 1999 and 2000. However, it should be noted that some of the SNNP Special Weredas are usually self sufficient and it is only because of the sustained drought over the last three years that these areas are included in the "vulnerable" column.

The 1999 belg season was extremely poor throughout most of the belg producing areas and the traditionally vulnerable areas noted above were particularly badly hit. Not only were crops lost but large numbers of domestic animals died or lost their market value because of a combination of poor condition and over-supply to the market. For highland farmers domestic animals are essential for land preparation and as a form of individual household food security and any loss in value of this important asset can adversely affect a farmer’s ability to cope. Also, as noted last year, farmer’s resources in these vulnerable areas have been depleted through successive droughts and poor harvests and if the belg fails again this year these areas will require special attention and regular and adequate relief interventions if severe stress and possible migration are to be avoided

The impact of the belg rains on the meher (main) season

The "knock-on" effects a poor or late belg can have on production during the main cropping season that usually begins with the start of the kiremt rains in June can include some or all of the following:

  • The belg rains are used for land preparation for the main season and a poor belg can mean that less land is prepared or is not prepared as thoroughly as it should be;
  • Poorly prepared land can lead to increased weed infestations;
  • In some cases short-cycle, lower yielding crops may have to be substituted for long-cycle, higher yielding crops;
  • The belg is important for renewal of pasture and ground water resources and a failure of the belg can mean draught animals can not plough as deeply or as long as they normally would;
  • The lack of adequate pasture can also affect the health and condition of other domestic animals, leading to a decrease in market value just when farmers need to dispose of their assets to buy grain;
  • Poor belg rains exacerbate the spread or intensity of infestations of certain pests like the sweet potato butterfly in Welayita.

Relief Food Pledges and Logistics

New pledges

The Ethiopian government has authorized the local purchase of 100,000 MT of food grain for immediate distribution to needy people in drought-affected areas of the country. A total of 347 million Birr (approx. US $42.58 million) has been earmarked for the purchase and transportation of the grain which will be purchased through commercial tenders issued by the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC). The DPPC Commissioner, Simon Mechale, and Mengistu Huluka, the agriculture minister, told reporters on 16th February that the decision for the local purchase of the food grain had been prompted by the delay in the arrival of food aid promised by donors in response to the government's appeal. They said the country's grain production rose by 8 per cent during the 1998-99 harvest season, compared to the previous year, and that there is sufficient grain in parts of the country that were not affected by drought to warrant the local purchase of up to 100,000 MT of food grain. Simon Michale also indicated that the country's stock of emergency grain reserve had dwindled by some 274,000 MT that were "lent" to donors previously to be used within the country. "Shipments are on their way to replenish the stock of the national grain reserve to its normal level of 350,000 MT within a few weeks," he added. (PANA, February 17)

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) approved February 25 a US $137 million emergency operation in Ethiopia to feed 2.3 million victims of national disaster such as crop failure, pest infestations and ongoing drought. In a press release it issued, WFP said that between April and December, it plans to distribute 250,000 MT of food aid to the country's most vulnerable [persons], such as women and children. "Of that amount, WFP is asking donors to supply more than 200,000 MT of cereal and over 30,000 MT of blended food. "This emergency operation is critical to avert a food shortage that could threaten the lives of millions," said Judith Lewis, WFP country representative for Ethiopia. "We are approaching all donors to consider our urgent request." As agreed with the government, WFP will provide food to about one-third of those in need, the release added. "Up to a third of Ethiopians live in areas which chronically suffer from food shortages. Many more, however, have lost their assets and their livestock over the past year and have had to mortgage their future crops. This has caused them to join the numbers already receiving food distributions," said WFP. As a part of its emergency operation, WFP is including non-food items such as cooking utensils, cups, plates and bowls for its supplementary feeding project for vulnerable pastoralists and its emergency school feeding programme which targets 450 schools in the worst affected areas. (WFP, February 25)

Responding to an appeal of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC), the German government said it has allocated the necessary funds for the local purchase of 1,000 metric tonnes of maize, 400 MT of beans, 100 MT of oil and 50 MT of seeds for the drought-affected people of Borena area [southern Ethiopia]. In a press release it has just issued, the German embassy in Addis Ababa said the local purchase of these goods will be handled by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) in connection with their ongoing projects in the area, the Borena lowland pastoral development programme. The distribution will be carried out by DPPC, the release said. (WIC, February 22)

The European Union (EU) has donated 3,200 MT of relief grain and 270 MT of supplementary food to people affected by food shortages in the Tigray Regional State, according to a report from the Relief Society of Tigray. Emergency relief and rehabilitation department head with REST, Berhane Gebregizabher, said the food aid would be distributed among 115,362 of the over one million people affected by food shortages in the state. Noting that the amount of relief food obtained so far is scanty compared with the number of aid recipients in the state, the head urged humanitarian organizations to step up their assistance. (WIC, February 12)

With the commitments indicated above, the food aid pledging situation is beginning to improve slightly with a total of 268,590 MT in pledges now confirmed for drought and IDP relief programmes (see table II below).

Table II: Pledges against 2000 Food Aid Requirements - Cereals & Pulses (MT)

Gov. of Ethiopia
Delivered as of March 7, 2000

Source: WFP Food Aid Status Report March 8,2000

  • donors to WFP projects include: USA 34,450 MT and Ireland 6,270 MT

Food availability, logistics and port operations

In February there was great concern over a potential gap in food availability during the period March - April. However, according to the latest information from WFP, the overall the food availability picture for March has improved and it is now estimated that virtually all of the food aid needed for March distributions will be available. The feared March gap has been filled as a result of slippage in the food distributions planned for February, strenuous efforts on the part of WFP and other donors to advance shipments and the anticipated availability of the first arrivals at the distribution points of the Government of Ethiopia’s local purchase programme of 100,000 MT.

March, like February, will be a quiet month at Djibouti port with only about 26,000 MT of relief food scheduled for arrival. In April, however, there will be a dramatic increase in shipments with a little over 200,000 MT expected, including 25,000 MT of fertilizer. Although there will probably be some slippage of a few of the shipments into May and efforts will also be made to see if some of the smaller vessels could be switched to Berbera port, this much tonnage will put a strain on both port facilities and trucking capacity. Included in the April shipments is the Mt. Fairbanks, carrying 80,000 MT for USAID. This is the largest vessel to call at Djibouti port and lighters will have to be used for discharge, as it is too big to berth.

Also included in the March and April shipment arrivals are about 87,000 MT of repayments for the Emergency Food Security Reserve (EFSR). Although these arrivals will theoretically boost the Reserve above its presently very low stock levels, demands for additional loans are so high that it is likely that most of these repayments will be borrowed immediately upon arrival and will move directly from the port of distribution warehouses rather than to the EFSR warehouses.

Bids for the DPPC local purchase operation for the 100,000 MT Government of Ethiopia donation will be opened on 9 March and actually deliveries will begin around the middle of the month. The DPPC hopes that it can complete this operation in two months and deliveries will be made both to EFSR warehouses and to distribution areas.

In view of the urgency of beginning the Djibouti port improvement program, WFP has taken a loan from the WFP Immediate Response Account (IRA) so that work can begin immediately. The most urgent task is to demolish an old warehouse which presently prevents the full utilization of bulk cargo berth number 13. An engineer seconded to WFP by Swiss Disaster Relief arrived in Djibouti on 1 March to supervise the project.

The director-general of Djibouti port, Mr Adan Ahmad Du'aleh, has told reporters that the volume of Ethiopian cargo handled by the port increased tremendously in the past two years. Speaking at a half-day seminar on the promotion of the port of Djibouti held in Addis Ababa, Du'aleh said the handling capacity of Djibouti harbour has improved, and Ethiopian export cargo through its harbour had increased to 4 million MT in 1999. He said the increased volume of the Ethiopian export goods and the improved facilities at the Djibouti harbour will make it possible for more Ethiopian export cargo to be exported through the harbour. He said Ethiopia had previously imported 700,000 MT of fuel (in 1998), which had now increased to 1.1 million MT. Du'aleh further said the Ethiopian government was currently constructing a new oil depot on a 25,000 square-metre piece of land inside the Djibouti port which will have the capacity to handle up to 80,000 MT of petroleum products. According to the manager, US $15 million has been earmarked for the expansion of the port's terminal and to increase its throughout handling as well as to triple the yard capacity. "We also intend to expand the berth of the terminal by 200 metres, bringing the berth length to 600 metres," he said.

Meanwhile, according to the Walta Information Centre, repair work on the 40 kms Galafi - Djibouti road (on Djibouti territory) is underway, according to the information and public relations office of the Ethiopian Roads Authority. According to Debebe Gizaw of ERA, the road repair project was being undertaken to ensure safety of goods being transported to the hinterland of Ethiopia from the port of Djibouti. Debebe said that although the road lies within Djibouti territory, the Ethiopian Roads Authority has offered to assist in the maintenance work in order to avert any damage done to goods. According to the WIC report , Debebe also said a plan by the government of Djibouti to undertake a new road project to seek a lasting solution to the problem. According to ERA, a total of between 700 and 800 heavy trucks move along the Galafi - Djibouti road daily.

Special Report: Bush fires spread out of control

It is common practice in Ethiopia during the dry early part of the year for farmers to burn the vegetation on their fields in preparation for the ploughing that precedes planting of the belg and main season crops. In the lowlands, herders also light grass fires to drive away infestations of tsetse flies and encourage the regeneration of the grasslands when the first rains arrive, usually in February or early March. Increasingly, farmers in marginal areas have also set fires as they encroach on previously uncultivated bushlands and the margins of the remaining indigenous forests. It appears that this year the exceptionally dry weather together with gusty winds have combined to greatly increase the risk of these fires burning out of control.

Around the middle of February the federal Ministry of Agriculture received the first reports of large forest fires burning out of control in the Borena and Bale administrative zones of Oromiya. Both fires apparently started in the transition zones between woodland and cultivated areas. The first fire began around Shakiso, initially affecting up to 20,000 hectares of forestland. In the Bale area fires were reported from three of the four indigenous forest reserves (Haranna-Kokosa, Mena-Angetu and Goro-Bele), threatening an area of nearly 600,000 hectares. These mountain forests are considered by experts to comprise a so-called "biodiversity hotspot" and are neither adapted nor dependent on recurrent fire. The forests encompass the Bale National Park from three direction, the Bale park being recognized by UNESCO of great scientific value as one of the few remaining habitats for the Ethiopian Wolf and Mountain Nyala. Reports at the beginning of March indicated that some 600 hectares of afro-alpine vegetation in the park had been burnt but the fires there had been largely contained as a result of the efforts of local people.

In the forested areas, initial surveys indicated that the fires had occurred in many (in excess of 100) locations, giving rise to fears that combating and preventing the spread of the fires would be extremely difficult and hazardous. In addition to the lack of trained personnel and specialized fire-fighting equipment a major problem has been the difficult access to the affected areas. The terrain is extremely rugged and dissected by small river courses, forcing fire fighters to walk several hours to reach the fire fronts. By March 9, the fires were said to have destroyed around 50,000 hectares of forest and coffee plantations, had destroyed the homes and property of 300 families and displaced some 1,500 as well as destroying crops, coffee and other plantations and killing wild and domestic animals. Wildfires were also being reported from Assosa and Wollega in western Ethiopia. According to official reports from national coordinating committee, by the beginning of March upwards of 70,000 civilians and military personnel were being mobilized to combat the fires.

Faced with a worsening situation and lacking either the required expertise or resources to contain the fires, on February 26 the Ministry of Agriculture appealed to the international community for assistance. In responding to the request, a number of donor countries helped form and deploy an International Fire Emergency Advisory Group comprising fire-fighting experts from Germany (Global Fire Monitoring Centre), South Africa and the USA. The team was tasked with undertaking a rapid survey of the affected areas and mapping out a strategy for immediate action to contain the fires. After three days in the field the team presented their findings to the Ministry of Agriculture and public on March 6.

In general, the team of experts felt that government estimates of fire damage were conservative, mainly due to a lack of a reliable damage survey or monitoring system. During the survey the team identified two fire types requiring the mobilisation of national and international resources. First, the fighting of fires in the vicinity of settlements needed support in terms of technical advice and logistics, including appropriate technologies. More alarming, however, were fires burning in closed mountain forest sites which were viewed as threatening a unique ecosystem and causing extreme damage. Due to problems of accessibility, here the fires have to suppressed by the aerial (helicopter) deployment of specialized fire-fighting crews.

A two-phase approach was recommended with phase one requiring the immediate international deployment of a Fire Boss/Incident Commander, 8 airborne fire suppression crews, the procurement of hand tools (rakes, fire beaters, back-pack pumps, etc), a helicopter-borne water bucket, two winch-equipped helicopters, VHF communications equipment, and a fixed-wing spotter plane. Among the resources to be mobilized locally are: 2 Mi-17 helicopters, aviation fuel, replacement aircraft crews and logistical support. Additional international support was also sought for satellite mapping of the fires and in kind or cash support for the operations (including fuel and food).

While the feasibility of helicopter-based fire fighting (water bombing) was in doubt due to the apparent lack of surface water in the vicinity of the fires, this option is being reassessed as more information becomes available. The Mi-17 helicopters owned by the Ethiopian military are seen as well suited to these operations, however, specialized training of the crews is required. The second phase of the operation, which is a continuation/expansion of phase one, is to be reviewed around 12-13 March following a review of the progress of fire-fighting efforts and reports on the weather outlook.

On March 9, South Africa announced it would be providing an additional 22 firefighters and other experts for the first phase of the operation, which is expected to last around ten days. South Africa also indicated that it would be providing a spotter plane and contributing US $35,000 towards the cost of the first phase.


UNCT; UN-OCHA Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN-East Africa); Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC); National Meteorological Services Agency (NMSA); EFSRA Newsletter; UNICEF; UNHCR; WFP; UN-EUE mission reports; MSF Holland. Also media sources: Walta Information Centre; Addis Tribune; AFP; BBC Monitoring Service.

Figure I was obtained from:

PO Box 5580,
Addis Ababa,

Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29
Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92