Ethiopia: After the flood

Kevin Watkins

It's a long way from Louisiana. But when you stand on the banks of the Dechatu River that runs through the southern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, you can feel that this is a town twinned in tragedy with New Orleans.

Maybe 'river' is the wrong word to describe the Dechatu. For most of the year it is little more than a dried out sandy channel - a dead testimony to drought and environmental collapse. During July and August, rains in the Eastern Highlands that surround Dire Dawa strip thousands of tons of topsoil from impoverished hillside farms, dumping it in tributaries that feed the Dechatu. Even then, by the time the river reaches the town it is little more than a trickle.

Last year was different. On the 3rd of August, as New Orleans was preparing to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Dechatu went destructive. Some of the heaviest rains on record in the Eastern Highlands unleashed a mini-tidal wave. The waters crashed into Dire Dawa in the early hours of the morning, leaving more than 300 people dead and 10,000 homeless. Around 5,000 people are still living in a makeshift refugee camp in tents supplied by the U.S. army.

Climate change is heavily implicated in the disaster. In recent years Ethiopia has suffered recurrent droughts and heavy flooding linked to El Nino and the warming of the Indian Ocean. Walk through the refugee camp in Dire Dawa and you see the human faces behind the looming catastrophe predicted in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released today.

There are some painful parallels with New Orleans. When Katrina struck, the victims of the flood were concentrated in the poorest parts of the city, like the Ninth Ward. In Dire Dawa, the worst affected area was the ninth district, where people had built homes on the banks of the Dechatu. Today, only the shells of a few ruined houses remain - a reminder of the destructive power of nature.

Hawa Bahar, a 40-year-old woman, living in a tent with 45 other people in the refugee camp, was away from Dire Dawa when the flood struck. She returned to find that she had lost her husband, two daughters, and everything she owned. Now she is trying to rebuild her life while having to care for her grand-daughters. "The flood took away everything," she says.

Amidst the tragedy it's easy to lose sight of some of the positive stories. Given the scale of the disaster, things could have been far worse. Donors and Ethiopian government agencies moved quickly to deliver food, medicines and clean water systems, saving countless lives. Within 24 hours of the disaster striking, a U.S. army convoy had arrived from Djibouti with tents to provide shelter.

There have also been some impressive recovery efforts. New homes have been built, though donors like the EU have been slow to deliver on pledges on aid for re-housing. Meanwhile, local authorities and the International Organization for Migration have put in place a training programme to give people who lost their livelihoods and homes new skills as masons, electricians, and carpenters. Over 220 men and women have graduated so far.

Dire Dawa may be desperately poor. Yet the city, the country, and international aid agencies tackled the challenge of saving lives and post-crisis recovery with more conviction than their counterparts in New Orleans.

The bad news is that, as the IPCC report warns, climate change will bring more floods, more droughts, and more vulnerability, thwarting the efforts of millions of people to escape poverty.

Of course, Americans and Europeans will also have to deal with the consequences of climate change - but there's a difference. For one thing, the rich world is dealing with a problem of its own making. The average Ethiopian generates around 0.03 tons of carbon a year - the average American over 10 tons. Another difference is that people living in lower Manhattan, London, and Paris, unlike their counterparts in Dire Dawa, are protected by multi-billion dollar flood defence systems.

All of which leaves me with a question. Just what type of morality justifies leaving millions of the world's poorest people to sink or swim with their own resources in a crisis manufactured by the world's richest nations?

Kevin Watkins is director of the United Nations Human Development Report Office.