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Floods wreak havoc in East Africa

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 31 August 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:464
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. London

    After years of drought torrential rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands has caused widespread flooding, displacing tens of thousands of people and bringing epidemics of waterborne disease in its wake.

    Last week the development agency ActionAid said that more than 600 people had died and warned of outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, cholera, and diarrhoea because of “poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift shelters.”

    The agency reported, “Although the level of the water appears to be receding in the town of Dire Dawa [in Ethiopia's eastern highlands], the death toll could rise substantially in the south of the country if more rivers overflow and dams on the Omo, Awash, and Blue Nile rivers reach bursting point. Nearly all major rivers are at risk of overflowing, and the soil in the central highlands is saturated with water.”

    The Ethiopian Meteorological Agency told people “to move to higher ground as the rain in the highlands is increasing and dams have water beyond their capacity.”

    One source in the remote South Omo region said that thousands of people had already drowned, but in an area where a near total lack of infrastructure is severely impeding communications and relief efforts there are few reliable figures.

    The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that diarrhoea has already killed 150 people and infected nearly 12 000 in the area. “Despite collaborated efforts, containment of the disease has not been successful, with the disease spreading at an alarming rate … As more information is obtained from the remote villages now encircled by flood waters, the level of casualties is expected to be even higher.”

    In neighbouring Sudan, where the Nile at Khartoum has reached its highest level in 40 years and rains have been amplifying the misery of millions of displaced people in Darfur, meteorologists warn that worse is yet to come.

    However, rain is not the only cause of flooding in Sudan. Sima Samar, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, recently commented on the thousands of families forced to leave their homes last month after the authorities started filling the Merowe dam without warning. The dam, on the Nile about 350 km downstream from Khartoum, is the largest hydroelectric project in Africa and is billed to double Sudan's electrical capacity, but few of the area's inhabitants agree to plans to move them from their riverside farms to plots in the desert.

    Dr Samar said: “I am concerned about the relocation issues related to the Merowe dam project, affecting some 50 000 people. Allegations have been received that flooding of the area started to force people to relocate and that services are not being provided.”

    In April three people were killed and dozens wounded when security forces opened fire on protestors. In August a UN assessment team was prevented from visiting the area.

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