Following the Flood: Evaluating the Vulnerabilities of Communities Along the Awash River

Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program
by Katie Chambers
Ethiopia, July 2017

Katie is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering with a focus on Engineering for Developing Communities. In Ethiopia, Katie will be developing flood inundation maps for communities downstream of hydroelectric dams. These maps will guide the development of Early Warning Early Action frameworks for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and IFRC. Her environmental engineering research investigates the comparative vulnerabilities and resilience of different types of sanitation systems found in resource-limited communities, as well as the tradeoffs made when prioritizing resilience in system selection.

View photo gallery from the field by Katie Chambers

Research has taken me down and across Awash River here in Ethiopia, going further down the river each day to reach new study areas. It has quickly become a landmark, and with each new community visited, the river is located to help with orientation. Flooding in the Awash River Basin is extensive and sometimes overwhelming, with the local Red Cross branch responding to over 500 flood-affected communities just this year. The current scope of the study focuses on communities bordering Awash River, with seven communities, a resort, and a government-owned sugar factory visited to-date. Each is affected by an annual flood event in the summer, with some affected by flash floods in May this year.

Inundation of agricultural land was reported as the most common negative effect of flooding. In most communities, farmland in flood-prone areas is not cultivated during the summer months. Farmers uniformly expressed a desire to farm year-round, noting that they could perform an additional harvest if flooding were not a problem. Additionally, speaking with representatives from Sodere Resort and Wonji Sugar Factory brought a unique dimension to the work. Sodere Resort is affected by annual flooding, which typically damages riverside rooms. Resort staff are notified about when these events will occur in advance, and move property (e.g., refrigerators, televisions) from vulnerable rooms to avoid property damage. This year, flash floods unexpectedly hit the resort in May which caused over $12M birr ($520,000 USD) in damage. Wonji Sugar Factory also suffers from annual flooding, and each year they relocate some of the 35,000 people living within their borders when flooding is predicted. It was interesting to include the mixture of different stakeholders downstream of Koka, and highlighted the need to tailor warning systems to their individual needs.

The early warning systems currently in place only notify communities of controlled releases from the Koka Dam. As reported by several community members, the releases themselves are not the sole cause of flooding. However, they often coincide with heavy precipitation events, and the combination of the two contributes to the flooding. As one community member put it “when there is high rainfall, Koka gets full and must release water.” Here enters my work, in partnership with the Climate Centre, in answering one of the many questions this project raises:

Can early releases from the Koka Dam, using predicted rain from weather forecasts, be used to minimize flooding in downstream communities?

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