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Administrative free-fall

Blind spot for early disaster mitigation costs Ethiopia

On February 3, 2022, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Shimelis Abdisa, president of Oromia regional state, arrived at drought-ravaged Borena zone. A month later, Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonen arrived in drought-stricken Somali regional state, in an attempt to show a Ethiopians living in the two areas that the government is ready to provide support to people in need of urgent assistance. But that is a late reaction since nine of the 14 zones in Somali Region and the whole of Borena Zone are severely affected by drought, a situation that has pushed over four million people to the brink of famine.

“We had forecasted the drought a year ago. But we could not prepare ahead and avert the damage, due to a lack of resources,” said Bashir Arab, team leader of the early warning system in Disaster Risk Management Office in Somali regional state.

Last year, before the drought took hold, Bashir’s office asked for USD 60 million to drill wells, health facilities and procure strategic infrastructures needed to avail alternative water sources. A year down the road, only USD 23 million was secured from the government and NGOs.

“Our traditionally-dug water-well dried. I had 102 cattle. Sixty died and the rest are now unable to move due to lack of water and fodder for months. Unless we find assistance immediately, even people will start to perish,” said Ukala Hibru, administrator of Kas woreda, in Borena zone.

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According to the zones administrator, some pastoralists even tried to commit suicide, after seeing their cattle’s perish on the desert.  

Currently, 316 schools in Somali, Borena, Bale and Hararge are closed, as children and families migrate to neighboring regions in search of water.

Despite the repetitive natural disasters stemming from climate irregularities in eastern part of Ethiopia, the early mitigation system remains to be farfetched.

To some degree the catastrophes that took place including the El Niño of 2015, la Niña of 2016, desert locusts that ravaged the country for the past three years, the Fall Army Worm that inundated fields and the food insecurity caused by the war in Ethiopia would have been averted if early preparations were put in place.

The country spends huge sums of money in the aftermath of a disaster to provide humanitarian assistance, animal feed, reconstruction and safety-net. And after calculating the loss of production, time wasted and impact on environment, it sum would offset if preventive measures were taken.

The early disaster response system is weak both for man-made and natural disasters. In fact, the government usually responds after the media exposes the catastrophe that has taken place.

Ethiopia, along with Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda, rank “Very High,” on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Global Risk Indexes in drought, floods, epidemic, pest and storms. Ethiopia is also prone to landslides, earthquake and even volcanos due to the unstable Rift Valley crossing the eastern part of the country.

The African Union Commission (AUC), through the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Technical Coordinator, Gatkuoth Kai, expressed concerns that Africa’s risk profile is very high. To address this, the AUC adopted its Program of Action for the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, envisioning the reduction of continental risks and mortalities by 2030.

Out of the natural disasters that happened in Ethiopia over the past four decades, flood constitutes 49 percent, followed by epidemics at 25, drought 12, landslide six and insect manifestations four percent, according to a 2022 UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) report.

Even though Ethiopia has adopted the National Disaster Risk Management Policy in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), the implementation remains to be a lip-service. AU adopted the Sendai Framework to lay down the regional institutional infrastructures and build capacity on disaster and risk management. 

States agreed to allocate at least one percent of their national budget for DRM. However, Ethiopia’s allocation stands at 0.6 percent, compared to the 2.5 percent allocated by Kenya.

According to a recent progress evaluation report on the Sendai Declaration, “The policy frameworks for Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Gambia, for example lack indicators, timeframes and reporting arrangements. DRM corrective measures are not elucidated while the activities are inclined toward disaster response.”

The focus of Ethiopia is more on managing disasters rather than preventing the disaster. The lion’s share of DRM’s expenditure in Ethiopia is in response to a crisis, while early warning, preparedness and mitigation take the fraction of the budgets, according to the report. This is against a backdrop that Ethiopia has experience in institutionalized disaster management for almost half a century, since the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission was established post the 1980s famine.

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The National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) is an institution tasked to coordinate disaster response, risk management, preventive measures and recovery programs in the country. Its officials say they have always been at the forefront in providing early warnings before disasters occur.

“We warned about the current drought a year ago, before it happened. But the irrigation commission, the Ministry of Agriculture and other stakeholders did not react early. Our commission’s job is not developing irrigation infrastructure for drought prone areas or other infrastructures for other disasters. Our job is to declare early warnings and provide humanitarian assistance once it happens,” said Debebe Zewde, Communication director at NDRMC, adding “The cost of disaster could be much lower, if only responsible stakeholders could react earlier.”

However, the cost of building an infrastructure required to mitigate disasters ahead is much higher, according to Isayas Lema, director of crop development at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Thinking ahead is very rare in Ethiopia. Huge investment is required in irrigation to avail alternative water sources in lowland areas like Somali, Borena and other drought-prone areas. There is no fund to build such projects and takes many years. Efficiency of existing infrastructure is also weak. Our task is limited to issuing early warnings,” said Isayas.

Even though the disaster resilience in Ethiopia is strong, due to its embattled history, the frequency of drought has doubled over the decade, following a global climate change and expansion of the Sahara desert southwards.

Ethiopia’s failure to prevent disasters from happening is deep rooted in the institutional structure of the DRM. Over 90 percent of the planned Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) budget goes to responses. According to experts, redirecting investments on preparedness, early warning and disaster mitigation, and redesigning the DRM’s institutional arrangement is critical.  

Ethiopia does not have a contingency fund in place to battle the increasing intensity and magnitude of both natural and manmade catastrophes. Usually, the federal government allocates resources on ad hoc basis, after a crisis happens.

Currently, 125 projects targeted at preventing disasters are underway, including the lower and middle Awash construction and rehabilitation dyke, canal maintenance in Afar, drought resilience and improvement of pastoral livelihood programs, regional funds for strengthening drought resilience in Ethiopia and sustainable pastoral livelihood projects, among others.

In a country where there is a recurring drought, a strong commitment from the government and institutional arrangements are required, particularly on early warning and prevention systems. Due to the lack of institutions that work on mitigating disasters, the country even has no response mechanisms that match the level of risk dynamism Ethiopia faces today.

The strategic food reserve of the country has remained at around 400,000 metric tons for the past two decades. This does not match the level of risk and population growth of the country today. New warehouses for strategic food and medicine stocking, tracing and information dissemination technologies are unavailable, while alternative logistics and communication systems remain underdeveloped.

Linking Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) with DRR is recommended to mobilize finance for mitigating disasters. Though CRGE has funding, its objectives are not aligned with early disaster management mechanisms, to bridge the gap in domestic resource mobilization for early warning system, preparedness, and development of projects that can mitigate disasters based on recommendations forwarded from think-tanks.

But the fact that DRR is not included in the national planning and the absence of institutional arrangement at a regional state level, exacerbates the problem.

Mainstreaming DRM into national targets through the National Planning and Development Commission and re-designing implementing institutions, is recommended by experts. DRM institutions are recommended to be established along the various natural ecosystems of Ethiopia.

“Disaster risk mitigation needs specialized institutions. Especially a country whose economy depends on agriculture cannot afford disasters,” said Shemelis Araya (PhD), an agricultural economist, adding “NGOs and donors also need to redesign their support mechanism, shifting from ‘responding to crisis to preventing crisis.”

But the probability of turning this into a reality still hangs by a thread as funds for NGOs usually come after a crisis occurs.

Contributed by Ashenafi Endale and Amanuel Yelekal

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