Friday 12 October was International Disaster Risk Reduction day, which was celebrated in many parts of the world including Ethiopia. Just last year a drought was unfolding in parts of this country and Kenya, as a result of the so called La Nina phenomena. Quite a large part of our population lives in disaster prone areas, it seems. That disaster happens every now and then in some parts of the country is not new. It is not for nothing that there are organizations and institutions in place, whose mandate it is to deal with emergencies, although they may be more prepared for drought and famine related disasters than sudden floods or an earthquake for example. The frequency of disasters is on the increase though as we are witnessing the effects of global climate change and environmental degradation. The Horn of Africa seems to be seriously affected as we witness more frequent periods of drought and changing patterns of rain, resulting in more irregular manifestation of disasters like floods. As the mean temperatures are expected to rise, people will migrate to cooler areas in the future, increasing the pressure on land and its resources. Poor people will suffer more as their options to deal with the changing environment are limited. When visiting the rural areas of Ethiopia one cannot help but notice that surrounding hills and mountains are now almost barren, where there were forests before. Massive forest and soil degradation can be observed everywhere, while more and more people settle on and cultivate steeper hill slopes as well as river banks. Narrowing of floodplains due to investment and settlement is partly responsible for a faster water flow resulting in so called flash floods . In other words, while there is no vegetation anymore to hold back the water upstream, rivers turn into narrow channels through which the water rages to lower levels, taking and damaging everything in its course of destruction. With the increase of extreme weather events and the mounting demographic pressure on fragile ecosystems, we are witnessing more frequent and serious floods resulting in more loss of life and property, in other words destruction of livelihoods.
When we celebrated the beginning of the new millennium, Ethiopia took the initiative to plant trees, millions of trees. This was a great initiative and measures need to be taken to make sure that it will be a sustained effort to regenerate some of the forests, which covered this land in the not too recent history and help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Ethiopian Airlines also supports the planting of trees and this example could be followed by more companies who take on social responsibility as one of their values.
Reducing greenhouse gases by planting trees will not only be beneficial for Ethiopia but will have its effects beyond its borders and is indeed an initiative, supportive to global interests. But more needs and can be done. Even though we are not a major industrial nation in comparison to the world’s giants, like the USA, Europe and China, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to pull our weight in adapting our industrial practices in the direction of reduced carbon emission, environmental friendly practice, clean production and effective waste management. There is in fact no time to waste to pull up our socks and become serious about the relations between production, waste and pollution, affecting not only our land but the global atmosphere, which we are using as a natural resource. Perhaps we don’t have that much influence on the global climate changes but we must be prepared to do what we can ourselves at national and at community level, as people are exposed to the hazards of climate change and environmental degradation. So, what can we do to turn this scenario around and help reduce the risk of disaster ? Here are a few suggestions, which are by no means exhaustive:
- While we need to have capacity to deal with disasters, where and when they occur, we also need to look into what can be done to prevent disaster. In other words, we need to become proactive rather than remain reactive.
- Proactive measures would include urgent environmental rehabilitation and water shed management.
- We also need to look into alternative livelihood strategies and energy in order to halt the ongoing logging of trees. Forest products like firewood and wood for construction can only be harvested in a sustainable way if a forest management system is in place which includes quota for logging against replanting of trees. And as long as firewood is the cheapest option for the poor to cook and charcoal remains a source of income to provide urban centres with energy, we are fighting a lost battle. Alternatives must be found.
- Protective measures should be taken urgently in flood prone rivers and urban centres, which could include physical as well biological measures like planting trees in the river corridors.
- Consider flooding risks in land use and urban planning for investments and settlement.
- Include communities in comprehensive risk assessments and use participatory planning tools for activities that will reduce the hazards and the community’s vulnerability.
- Use early warning mechanisms for droughts, famine and also flooding in order to proactively deal with the threat of disaster.