August 17, 2006

Floods overwhelm Ethiopia

By Tsegaye Tadesse

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Rescuers in helicopters tossed
ropes and emergency aid to stranded Ethiopians on Thursday
after many scrambled onto rooftops and trees to escape floods
that have killed 900 and marooned tens of thousands.

Rushing waters have devastated large areas throughout the
Horn of Africa nation since early this month as emergency
services struggle to cope with overwhelming numbers of

After two rivers burst their banks killing 870 people,
Ethiopia has warned that more rivers have overflowed in the
north, south, east and west, and the country's major dams were
close to breaking point.

Medical relief agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said
flooding near the northern Lake Tana, the source of the Blue
Nile River, had displaced 10,000 people, but the number could
increase to 35,000 in coming weeks.

"About 2,000-3,000 people are being evacuated per day (from
areas around Lake Tana)," Manuel Lopez Iglesias, head of
mission for the Greek branch of MSF, told Reuters.

"We are expecting this number to grow in the coming days as
these villages are evacuated."

Lopez said the situation was not likely to get better as
the rainy season would last until September.

Rescuers said on Thursday they had saved some 6,000 people
in the remote south where the Omo River burst its banks on
Sunday killing at least 364 people.

"Rescue operations are still continuing, and people who
have been marooned by the floods are being evacuated to safe
areas," said Simon Macahele, director general of the state-run
Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC).

"Some six thousand people have been rescued from the (Omo)
flood area."


Helicopters, dispatched to the south, used ropes to save
thousands of mainly local herders cut off by the waters and
dropped emergency aid by air.

"An Ethiopian airforce helicopter detachment has begun
airdropping food packets and shelter materials to people
stranded by the floods," said Chief Inspector Tsegaye Mulunehe
of the Omo regional administration.

Officials and aid workers fear the number of dead and
homeless could be much higher due to the inaccessibility of the
regions worst affected.

Africa's second most populous nation, Ethiopia has appealed
for international aid to help overwhelmed emergency services.

After suffering from a drought last year, heavy rains have
been battering the country in recent weeks.

Floods typically happen in lowland areas after rains in the
June-August rainy season drench the highlands.

But the situation has been exacerbated by land cultivation,
deforestation and overgrazing, aid workers say.

In the east, the Dechatu river burst its banks last week,
killing 254 and leaving 250 missing, feared dead in Dire Dawa,
525 km (324 miles) east of the capital Addis Ababa.

As well as the Dechatu and Omo rivers, officials said the
Awash River, some 300 km (190 miles) east of Addis, had burst
its banks, leading to the evacuation of 7,000 people.

The Awash valley is home to three major sugar estates.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Nairobi)