A tale of humanity and resilience in Gambella, Ethiopia, where thousands make the annual journey to return home after floods
By Martha Tadesse
Gambella region is one of the regional states in Ethiopia that has been hit particularly hard by annual floods. Studies show that the main causes of this flooding are climate change and changes in land use. The floods result in crop destruction and subsequent malnutrition. In 2020, 11,749 people were displaced in Gambella, affecting their livelihoods.
The Baro-Akobo-Sobat sub-basin is shared by Ethiopia and South Sudan. Its major rivers are the Baro, Akobo and Pibor. The Baro, after being joined by Akobo and Pibor, makes the Sobat that flows to the northwest to join the Bahr el Jebel and eventually form the White Nile.
For this reason, these stories of everyday lives in Gambella are a way to celebrate people’s everyday lives, highlight their challenges and provide a call to action to the government, citizens and other concerned organizations to find sustainable solutions to reduce the effect of flooding in the region.
In May 2021, I traveled to Itang Woreda, Gambela to capture the stories of people displaced by annual floods – people who still make the journey to return back to their homes, year after year. “It is Still Home” is thus a story of humanity – a story of the tenacity of human resilience, despite the uncertainties and dangers of climate change.
‘Great unrealized potential’ in water resources
According to a 2013 study by Mettu University, “among the twelve river basins in Ethiopia, the Baro-Akobo basin has abundant water resources which up to now have not been developed to any significant level. The Baro Akobo basin has great unrealized potential, under-populated by Ethiopian standards, and with plenty of land and water.”
The river provides a source of livelihood to most nearby communities. Most people are farmers who rely on flood recession farming to grow sorghum, maize and vegetables, as well as herd animals and fish.
The floods inundated villages, caused disease and conflicted with the main crop-growing seasons, leading to food insecurity.
As of a 2014 study, “the overall ﬁshery production potential of Ethiopian water bodies is estimated to be 94,500 tons per year, while the actual production is 38,370 tons.”
Fishing is a major protein source for Ethiopians, especially for those living near water bodies including the Baro River, Lake Tana, Ziway and others.
Despite the major potential for fish production in Ethiopia, production is still very low and depends mainly on subsistence means rather than aquaculture. Challenges include “inefficient fishing gears, poor transportation access, poor postharvest handling, low price at the landing site, and improper market place,” according to a 2020 study.
Oman Okachi, 27, and Omot Omot, 25, grew up in Achua Kebele, near the river. Omot has been a fisherman for three years, while Oman has worked in the field for 10 years. Because they rely entirely on fishing, the flooding season in this area has a negative impact on their business, and they are unable to work from the end of June to the end of August. Oman and Omor are seen here fishing early in the morning.
Omot Omot started fishing three years ago by joining an association.
“I grew up by the river; I was able to learn how to use the boat. We transport communities from one end to the other for free. I am part of the fishing association and we have two boats. We use it for transporting communities but also our fish,” he said.
Oman Okachi and Omot Omot were on their way to the station to transport a 7-kilogram Nile Perch fish to Gambella town. Tilapia, Gil fish, lungfish, and Nile perch are the four types of fish found in this area. The majority of Nile Perch are sold in Gambella town, with the remainder being sold in local markets in communities for personal consumption. The price of a kilogram of Nile Perch is about USD $4.
Agua Ogala, 30, was born in Achua kebele near Baro river. She uses Baro for drinking, farming, fishing and making local spirits. However, like many community members in Achua, every year between July - August, Agua and her family face flooding.
Agua said that when flooding happens, her family sleeps on the water by making temporary beds. The flooding, she said, exposes them to various diseases such as malaria and flu.
Ajilu Olero, 40, lives in Achua Kebele, near the Baro River. For almost 25 years, she has been selling Areke, a local spirit. Areke is made by combining buckthorn leaves, powdered malt and water, then allowing it to ferment.
Ajilu fetches 300 liters of water twice a day from the river. Her main source of income is the river, and she, like many other communities in Achua Kebele, closes her business during floods.
Ariet Abay, 40, lives with her six children and husband near the Baro River in Achua Kebele. She supports her family with traditional fishing methods and owns a maize farm. Ariet and her family relocate to the nearest villages with their goods during the flooding and reside with relatives for two to three months.
Ariet Abay makes Tilapia fish in her kitchen. Tilapia fish is one of the most common fish Ariet catches through traditional fishing methods.
Farmer Ojulu Omat stands in front of the river outside his home in Abol Kebele. For farming purposes, Ojulu relocated from Pinkew kebele to the Baro River. Near the river, Ojulu has a maize farm.
Even though living closer to Baro has provided him and his family with access to water, the regular floods have proven to be a challenge. Ojulu’s farm is often completely destroyed by the floods, so he returns to his hometown to wait out the rains. However, like many of his neighbors, Ojulu always returns to Baro when the floods have passed, in quest of a better life.
This #EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development. Editing by Annika McGinnis. Data visualizations by Ruth Mwizeere. Graphic by Jonathan Kabugo.