Reporting on the next war to break in Africa?
"If the river goes down, there will be war" Nyangatom warrior, Ethiopia.
If you want to report on the next war in Africa, then go to the south east of Ethiopia. Make your way to Harar, a Muslim city, with a refugee camp on its edge, full of 5,000 Somalis fleeing a nasty conflict. Getting there? Fly to Addis Ababa: Hara is some 500 kilomters east but ask the locals (then go to www.camelhire-AddisAbaba.com and bargain for transport). You will find (photogenic) Harar somewhere near Ethiopia's highlands. (For excellent views of Harar, see Ahron de Leeuw's Flickr site - one pic enclosed here. For more detailed infor, try NowPublic/Ifindtrends/June 12th, 2008. What more do you want?).
Where is Harar?
Yes, Harar - not Harare! Never heard of Harar yourself? Doesn't matter. Neither have most other journalists. So you could be on your own. Places to stay? No worries. Three four star hotels: "The Belayneh Hotel is situated next to the bus terminal, adjacent to the walled city and next to a market. The rooms and roof top restaurant are excellent places for unobtrusive people watching, which is one of the highlights of a visit to Harar. The rooms are clean, basic but adequate, and are good value for the money". That's how 'travgan from Seattle' described a stay there in February 27th this year.
Alex Stonehill spent four months in this border area last year, writing on the water crisis there for a book about to be published. He found women had to "walk for miles each day to collect drinking water; farmers are pushed into deadly conflict by dwindling river flows". These refugees at Harar were first driven from the Ogaden region by fights over access to water. The camp there is a sprawl of small, wood-framed, plastic covered domes, that shield the refugees from the burning sun. The Somalis lost their livestock and some their families, in the violence. Now all they have to survive on is what handouts the locals give them. But that hospitality is drying up. To get water they have to dig into the dry riverbed until they reach the muddy water somewhere. Alex says (Z magazine June 2008) the village elders asked if he knew anyone who could help. Of course he didn't.
He reckoned "their story would never find its way into the media". These, he says, were "just poor people fighting over water". He is probably correct. Pastoralists like these live everywhere in Africa (away from any areas where the Tsetse flies flourish) where they can herd their cattle, close to the margins of life. The grazing around Harar is barely viable for their herds. The fighters want independence for Oromia and the Ogaden. Fat chance of that!
These water conflicts are really serious and they're contagious. They could get worse too. The trouble is, we in the Global North have heard it all before - our eyes simply glaze over whenever we see another report on water conflicts in Africa. On March 15 this year, the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt reported on water conflicts in another part of Ethiopia - Borana. She said the pastoralists there always carried guns with them. These conflicts will get much worse. More people will go hungry. Only today, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that the numbers of malnurished people across the world has increased from 850 million, where it remained for a few years, to around one billion today. So much for halving hunger/malnutrition by 2015.
Guns, guns, guns:
Another place nearby - a dead cert for a nasty war soon - is in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia, in the south of the country. Here, the Ethiopian government has contracted out a dam: the second biggest dam in Africa, to be built across the river. There are already rumours of shady deals by the Ethiopian government. Peter Greste, reporting for the BBC, says that the government broke all the rules to get the dam started. There was no open bidding process, local people weren't involved, the Environment Impact Assessment was done only after the dam got started. (Even the eventual private funders thought this Assessment was sloppy and hopelessly incomplete). And the World Bank refused to finance the deal.
More worryingly, the area is full of guns. Peter Greste says: "almost every male here carries a Kalashnikov or an M-16 assault rifle, and what might in the past have been a fairly innocuous dispute over grazing or water-rights between different groups, could easily escalate into bloody warfare". The Mursi people are one of many groups here who depend on the river and its ebbing and flowing to survive. Another tribe, the Nyangatom, are "amongst the most heavily armed in the Omo Valley". Half of them lives inside South Sudan, and probably fought with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the civil war.
In Kangaten, the village's elder spokesman, Kai, raged at Greste: "Let them first bring helicopters to kill us all". Another shouted: "If the river goes down, there'll be war." A group of Mursi elders said they'd heard nothing official about the dam. "We will suffer because there will be no more floods," he said. The floods lie at the heart of the dispute. Richard Leakey, the Kenyan ecologist, said: "My problem is that the dam is going to affect a huge number of people who have no voice, a huge number of people who will fight over the decreasing resources".
Anthropologist Marco Bassi (Oxford University) says the tribes have sophisticated farming techniques that rely on the flooding capable of giving them a good, sustainable life for centuries. Each wet season, communities move to higher ground, waiting for the floods. After the rains they move back to plant their crops on the newly replenished soils. Cattle can feed on the new grass. The higher the flood, the more land gets fertilised. "It looks primitive from the outside," said Bassi. "But when you investigate it, you discover that they have an intimate knowledge of the land and its fertility. "Each family has seven or eight varieties of sorghum to respond to different conditions. Their planting tricks gives enough food whatever happens. But these tribal lands are squeezed by large commercial landholders, and growing populations. Under these circumstances, they will not be able to do that… Simply, they will die." The Ethiopian government says the dam will continue to flood the plains but local tribes people don't believe that.
Across the border south into Kenya lies Lake Turkana. It gets fed by the Omo River, at present anyway. The tribes who live on its banks are highly dependent on the lake for their food, as well as grazing their livestock and fishing. Any change to the lake would seriously disrupt their lives. There are 300,000 people living around Lake Turkana. No one told them about the dam. In Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, there are half a million people. The dam will affect all of them. This region could easily become a powder-keg ready to explode at any moment. Organise, before that happens? Forget it. The Ethiopian government doesn't listen to local protests. As Peter Greste points out, "this case is not just the responsibility of outside agencies and the Ethiopian dam planners. The peoples of Lake Turkana must be heard".
Take it to the UN:
This conflict is not yet on the world's radar screen. No one in the UN is pressing for the Security Council to discuss it yet. Not that the UN would be of much help: they could send a few more UN peace keepers to Africa I suppose (joke!).What worries me is that no one outside countries doing things like this ever gets involved until the conflict has got way out of hand. Then it is too late. And we all wring our hands in horror at places like Darfur. Yet, for all the pleas - "never again" - after Rwanda, the talking goes nowhere.
So what are you waiting for? Your report on this nasty conflict could spread the story further. And it certainly needs much wider publicity. Peter Greste's reports this week have been excellent. But they will forgotten tomorrow. Ethiopia is building the dam in order to increase its woefully inadequate electricty supplies. If it gets away with this huge project, it could well plan to build more dams. And that will certainly mean civil war between the people left with inadequate water to feed their herds and to grow their crops.
Please note: None of the photos are by me. The professional looking ones with nmy name underneath are either by Ahron de Leeuw (Harar) or by the BBC (Ethiopia).
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