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Last Thursday we saw the commemoration of International Disaster Risk Reduction Day, which is held every year in many parts of the world including Ethiopia. This year’s focus was on the Sendai Framework target 1 “Reducing Disaster Mortality” and had as slogan “Live to Tell”.

With the images of a country frequently struck by drought emergencies, the Government set out to develop policy and strategies to change its image and reputation into a country which is capable of managing emergencies effectively and to pro-actively coordinate emergency responses, based on an effective early warning system.

Ethiopia has registered economic growth for a number of years now and the capacity that has been developed to withstand the impacts of natural and human induced disasters as well as to reduce their effects through provision timely response indeed has seen its effects. The early warning system that has been set up has enabled the country to mitigate the effects of severe droughts that occurred in 2002 and 2010, while a strong efforts was and is still made to deal with the recent worst drought situation over the past 50 years or so.  The system that has been put in place is proving its strength as a result of a combination of a broad range of steps taken toward enhancing the disaster prevention and preparedness capacity.

Besides drought, other disasters risks like flooding have been increasing and this situation is expected to continue and aggravate in the future. Urban disasters like fire and other incidents are also rising because of fast growing urbanization. The country therefor remains vulnerable to multiple hazards and associated disasters. Considering this context, the new process for disaster prevention and preparedness was designed by the Government, which has brought about a paradigm shift by moving away from a system that mainly focused on drought and supply of life saving relief emergency. Instead we now have a comprehensive disaster risk management approach, aiming to reduce disaster risks and potential consequences by providing appropriate and timely responses before, during, and after the disaster period.

Ethiopia’s National Disaster Risk Management and Strategy include general directions and major implementation strategies to develop capacity for withstanding the impact of hazards and related disasters to save lives and significantly reduce damages caused by disasters.

The Government of Ethiopia has since taken full ownership of the coordination and implementation of emergency responses, like during the drought of 2011/2012, when together with the humanitarian partner organizations a road map was designed to make sure that the right measures were taken by all. As a result fatalities were reduced to a minimum and we see the same during the severe drought of 2015/2016, during which the Government assigned more than USD300 million itself to set the pace in responding to the unfolding food insecurity situation for about 10 million people. While responding to the latest drought the National Disaster Risk Management Commission again does not fail to raise the alert over flood risks as a result of the long awaited rains.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Proactive measures would include urgent environmental rehabilitation and water shed management.
  3. While attending to the above, 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Consider flooding risks in land use and urban planning for investments and settlement.
  6. Include communities in comprehensive risk assessments and use participatory planning tools for activities that will reduce the hazards and the community’s vulnerability.
  7. Use early warning mechanisms effectively for droughts, famine and also flooding in order to proactively deal with the threat of disaster.