Food Shortages and Seasonal Floods: Major recurrent threats to Gambella Region

Assessment Mission Report: 16 - 21 October 1999
By Dechassa Lemessa, UN-EUE Assistant Field Officer

This rapid field assessment of Gambella Regional State was carried out from 16 to 21 October 1999 with two primary objectives: First, to study the current food security situation in the region and, second, to obtain an overview of relief operations which have been mounted by the government and humanitarian organizations as a response to current food shortages and the recent floods which inundated portions of the region.

Gambella has been repeatedly stricken with food shortages, often linked to flooding of the rivers draining down to the region from the western highlands of Ethiopia. The region was, for instance, affected by widespread floods in 1997 which displaced many thousands, destroyed crops and seriously disrupted economic activity. The picture this year has been mixed with poor rains earlier in the year creating problems for farmers and giving rise to food insecurity reportedly affecting an estimated 30,400 people from 3 weredas (Jor, Akobo and Dimma). More recently, heavy rains in the western highlands resulted in the inundation of low-lying areas along the Baro River directly affecting an estimated 57,500 people from another 3 weredas (Gambella, Itang and Jikawo) many of whom lost their crops and belongings and were made homeless. According to local authorities, altogether 87,900 people in the region are currently in need of relief assistance either due to food insecurity or the flooding.

Methodology and sites surveyed

Information was gathered through individual and group discussions, meetings, field observations, household visits, interviews and analysis of secondary information obtained from various governmental and NGO offices available in the areas visited. The recent preliminary assessment report of the Regional Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau revealed that three out of the 9 weredas of the region are identified as currently experiencing severe food shortages (though none could be visited due to their inaccessibility). Three more weredas were affected by floods in July and October this year. In this connection, Gambella and Itang weredas were visited by the UN-EUE mission.

Background information

Gambella Region, located approximately 770 kms south-west of Addis Ababa, is one of nine regional states in Ethiopia. The region is divided in to two zones (Gog and Itang Zone) sloping westwards with an altitude of 300-2,000 metres above sea-level and an average temperature of 18-20 oC. Annual rainfall received ranges from 500-1,400 mm.

Maize and sorghum, surrogated with other minor crops, are the major food crops grown in the region. Though localized and on small scale, animal husbandry is also an important enterprise in the area.

The population of the region is estimated to be about 250,000 comprising seven native tribes of which the Anuak, Majanger and Nuer are the major ones. The various peoples in the region practice four different forms of settlement: river bank settlement, semi-pastoralism, shifting cultivation and organized settlement which are dominated by indigenous Anuak, Nuer, Majanger tribal groups as well as refugees from Sudan and settlers from the Ethiopian highlands, respectively.

Gambella is endowed with rich natural resources in general and water resources in particular. The two large perennial rivers transecting Gambella region (Baro and Akobo) originate from the wet and fertile western highlands of the country. They are the main sources of potable water, fish (though not yet well tapped) and moisture for riverbank cropping (mainly maize, sorghum and fruit crops). On the other hand, the rivers are subject to seasonal flooding almost every year, which although of long-term benefit to agriculture along the river plains (due to the depositing of alluvial sediments) the increasing extent and intensity of the flooding in recent years has inflicted serious socio-economic and environmental losses.

Farmers in the region practice an antiquated form of agriculture where hand cultivation, with pointed traditional farm tools (locally known as Chala), is extensively used. This coupled with the use of unimproved agricultural inputs leads to consistently poor annual production. The region is considered food insecure at least for three to four months (April-July) even in normal years and more than 50% of people in the region are considered to live far below the subsistence level. Furthermore, people suffer from a lack of safe water sources despite the region's endowment with water resources. There are few developed water sources and many are highly polluted; hence, most of the human diseases in the region are reportedly waterborne. Malnutrition, anemia and malaria are the major causes of morbidity and mortality in the region.

Findings of the assessment mission

Floods and food insecurity, the two often being linked, are not new phenomena to the people of Gambella. They are, rather, recurrent threats occurring almost every year. The floods of 1997 and the associated food shortages, and the repeated overflowing of the Baro River in July and October this year are illustrative of what has become an increasingly common occurrence.

Farmers in the area confirm that the frequency and extent of the over-flooding of the rivers in the region is increasing from year to year. This could be attributed to the intensive deforestation of the western Ethiopian highlands in the past few years as people seek to expand the land available for farming. Mostly undertaken through ruthless clear-felling or burning of the forests, there has been scant consideration of the likely impact on the environment either locally or downstream in areas like Gambella. The reduced forest cover appears to have increased the intensity of the run-off from the highlands during the main rainy season during the months of July - October, although the severity of the flooding is still clearly linked to the intensity, timing and distribution of rains received in the uplands.

Eight out of the nine weredas in Gambella region (excluding Godare Wereda) are subject to seasonal overflowing of the Baro, Akobo rivers and their tributaries, usually from July to September. In this connection, 163,263 people of the region residing in 111 peasant associations are considered vulnerable to the effects of seasonal flooding.

According to the local authorities, the October 1999 inundation of the Baro River displaced and made homeless 57,500 people in Gambella, Itang and Jikawo weredas of the region inflicting the following:

  • Inundated residential areas, farm and pasture lands (in Itang town offices and houses were totally drenched and temporarily put out of use);
  • Damaged household belongings;
  • Disrupted economic activities;
  • Created conducive conditions for the proliferation of disease vectors; malaria and other water-born diseases;
  • Damaged feeder roads and other vital infrastructure.

The 1997 inundation of the Baro River took a long time to recede impeding the normal riverbank planting (maize and sorghum) in October which normally should have been ready for harvest as of January 1998. As a result of this late planting, crops were exposed to moisture stress at milky stage and, hence, there was a very poor main season harvest last year.

The socio-economic factors predisposing the region to food insecurity include:

  • Riverbank agriculture is a risky undertaking; yet despite the dangers, riverbank settlement is preferred for the high soil fertility and moisture, favourable fruit production and short water fetching time;
  • The primitive nature of agricultural practices undertaken by the farmers;
  • Lack of mixed farming and extensive crop diversification;
  • Uneven distribution and erratic nature of rains (too much or too little);
  • High prevalence of human diseases (malaria and other water-born diseases);
  • High prevalence of livestock disease (trypanosomiasis) which drains the cattle population in the area;
  • Inefficient utilization of natural resources: water sources and fisheries, for example.

In 1999, the main season meher rains started on time but discontinued for sometime forcing the replanting of crops and eventually reducing prospects for a normal harvest.


The 1999 riverbank cropping season (crops planted in October this year to be harvested in January 2000) is likely to be delayed as the floods had not receded as of October 21, with the likely effect of prolonging the current hungry period by at least by two more months until April 2000. In fact, this kind of event is happening for the second time in the area which was also highly food stressed in 1997/98. A significant problem that will arise from the current cropping season is that delayed plantings will be exposed to moisture stress which will ultimately reduce overall crop yield. Riverbank cropping is an important undertaking and makes a significant contribution to the food economy of the area and the failure of this harvest might lead to further substantial shortages of food for people.

The relief response to date

Responding to the food shortages and flood emergency, Norwegian Church Aid (through the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus) and the federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) have provided 850 MT of grain to be distributed through food-for-work programmes. Meanwhile, as an additional response to the effects of the flood, the DPPC allocated some 500 cartons of biscuits as well as 35 rolls of plastic sheeting to be used for the construction of temporary shelters by those who have lost their homes. However, the overall response made so far appears inadequate in relation to the size and scale of the problems faced by the region.

Conclusion and recommendations

Food scarcities and the problems of flooding in Gambella are of a cyclic nature and as such will continue to result in the need for urgent relief assistance unless integrated short and long term actions are taken.

For the moment, the urgent provision of additional food relief, along with supplementary foods, plastic sheeting and tents to provide shelter to people displaced by the floods is a priority for the local authorities. Furthermore, clothes for children, mothers and the elderly is seen as an imperative. It is likely that already prevalent human diseases like malaria as well as dysentery and other waterborne diseases could erupt and spread rapidly through a vulnerable population already weakened through food shortages. Hence, the available health facilities need to be strengthened in order to provide better basic health services as well as the capacity to respond to outbreaks of communicable and other serious diseases associated with poor nutrition and floods.

The underlying vulnerabilities to recurrent emergencies in the region also need to be addressed through long term development efforts and measures. In this regard, all possible means of reducing the risk of crop failure should be exploited. Among the potential strategies that might be employed are the training farmers in better agricultural practices (oxen ploughing, use of improved farm inputs); the promotion of mixed farming practices; and encouraging the diversification of crops. Although considerable financial investment would be needed, the possibility of exploiting the irrigation potential of the rivers in the region is another option. In fact, this could be considered together with incentives for settlements to move on a voluntary basis away from the flood plain (as opposed to riverbank settlements which are currently the norm) to make use of relatively large areas of irrigable land close to the main rivers.

As the practice of consuming and supplying fish to local markets is already common among the local community, organizing more efficient ways of fishing and developing markets for the sale of fish would be practical with the financial and technical support of the region.


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

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