Time to tame Ethiopia’s ‘lion river’

Dechatu River in Ethiopia
Dechatu River in Ethiopia (Photo: RNW)

The Dechatu River in Ethiopia is a threat to people living on its banks. But it also offers opportunities. “If we use it properly, it’s an important source in our lives,” says a riverside resident. “If we don’t, it will destroy us.”

His flip-flops sink into the mud as farmer Abdullah Moussa from Gende Ada, a village on the outskirts of the Ethiopian city Dire Dawa, walks around his orange plantation. The fields are swampy.

It has been raining in the highlands recently, causing a small flash flood to find its way into the desert town. Abdullah relies heavily on these incidental spatters: it offers a valuable opportunity to irrigate his fields.

To make the most of the rain, he has dug a simple channel, which leads the water from the river to his fields. “After a flood like this, my crops can survive for fifteen days without water,” he says.

But the Dechatu River is not always helpful. In August 2006, it showed its destructive side. Heavy rainfall in the highlands flooded the usually bone-dry river. In the middle of the night it swept through town, killing hundreds of people.

Bad smell
“We could smell it,” Abdullah recalls. That night he was working on his field with some neighbours. “When a serious flood is about to come, the bad smell of fertile soil will fill the air before the water arrives.”

As soon as the farmers realised what was about to happen, they ran to higher ground. From Mount Babo, a mountain that overshadows their village, they tried to warn their sleeping families by throwing stones on the iron roofs of their houses. “People woke up,” Abdullah says. “But soon we saw the water leaping over the hills and heading towards our village.” His family managed to escape, but many others didn’t.

The disaster left Gende Ada traumatised, but the villagers have shown great resilience. They refused to move, as the Ethiopian government suggested. Instead, they realized it was time to master this “lion river”, as Abdullah calls it.

Sitting in his house, he discusses Dire Dawa’s climate with fellow farmers. The rainy season has changed, they say. Rains start later and the weather is unpredictable: “It’s either really dry, or we are washed away”.

“Holy hill”
Abdullah recalls that the nearby mountains used to be wooded. Trees would protect villages from stones and mudslides. It would absorb the rain and prevent the four highland rivers from overflowing before they merge into the Dechatu (which literally means “come together” in Oromifa, the local language).

Abdullah takes off his fez and says: “You see my bald head? What happens if you throw a glass of water on it? It will run down immediately. What I’m trying to say is: our mountains need to be planted.”

With the help of a local NGO called JeCCDO the people of Gende Ada, and other affected areas of Dire Dawa, changed their habits and habitat. For one thing, they built terraces on Mount Babo.

The terraces prevent rain, rocks and mud from coming down, but also fertilize the hills. Vanished indigenous vegetation and wildlife has recently returned. Mount Babo is almost “holy” now, villagers say. It’s a source for local medicine and provides grasses to feed the cattle.

Spread the word
To be prepared for floods, a warning system was set up. When there is rainfall in the highlands, people upstream will warn their neighbours. As a reward for their attentiveness, highlanders receive plants and seeds from urban farmers.

Abrahim Hassani is one of the people living upstream. “Whenever there is rain, I grab my phone and call Abdullah,” he says. “If it’s just a little bit, I’ll tell him to use it for his fields.”

But when highlanders are calling in from every upstream direction, it’s time to take action. Police and local authorities will be warned. They sound air-raid warnings all over the city and shoot in the air with guns. People then evacuate immediately.

The farmers acknowledge it’s impossible to control the Dechatu River completely. But with the warning system in place, its behaviour has become a bit less unpredictable.

This report by Freevoice was made possible with financial support from the Postcode Loterij Fonds.