Afar Region in brief – its Environment and People:

The Afar Region has the lowest population density of any region in Ethiopia probably because it has the most fragile environment in the country. National Geographic published that the Dallol/ Barahale landscape in the northwest is the hottest, inhabited place on Earth with temperatures reaching up to 54 Celsius. This occurs in the region’s notorious hot, dry season from April to September when temperatures stay in the 40’s in most of the region. During the region’s winter, temperatures drop into the 20’s. The region’s rainfall is highly erratic ranging from expected annual falls of 300 mm to 150 mm. However, since 1999, the region has endured 4 major droughts reeking both human and environmental consequences. The topography ranges from fertile river flats along the permanent river courses (there are 7 permanent rivers of which the Awash is the most known and utilized), foot – hills on the western boundary with Tigray and Amhara Regions to desert and semi-desert regions that are marked by ancient volcanic lava flows and vast sand dunes.

The Afar pastoralists are utterly adapted to their environment and live a life herding animal practicing balance with the ecology that their lifestyle is sustainable. Traditionally they are extremely learned about the weather patterns, the sustaining capability of all the environmental resources including water, forest – cover, pasture and land formations. Therefore, there are traditional laws protecting each and every part of the environment against sustained damage and over usage. Again, because they are natural ecologists, they move their families and herds in a deliberate plan to preserve the environment. They calculate the effects of staying in one place over a given time and leave to prevent damage. In addition, afar pastoralists have traditional mechanisms to assist them in coping under drought and other stressful times. For example, they reserve certain pasture from grazing so that it can be used during drought time. This is called ‘desso’.

Afar Region’s environmental challenges in brief:

This fragile environment as mentioned above now faces ever increasing and new challenges to remain in balance and not fall victim of exploitation. The main challenges are grouped as follows:

1.Lack of policies – ‘modern verses ‘traditional’

Modern ‘development’ discredits the traditional leadership and therefore protective laws and the upholding of those laws is undermined. The regional laws are insufficient. There is no government enforcement of environmental protection, whether forest protection or water source protection or land use protection.

2.Competition of land use

Afar Region is highly valuable to the country and outsiders due to its strategic geographic position. This gives way to economic priorities leading to exploitation of the fragile and frugal natural resources of water and arable land particularly along the Awash River. Afar pastoralists are more and more pushed off land they normally used as dry season grazing such as the Awash River. This is leading to the constant use of land that cannot sustain year – round grazing causing environmental degradation.

 3.The Dilemma of Prosopis Julanti

During the Dergue Regime, Prosopis Julanti was introduced as a means of re-foresting the Afar Region. This exotic weed has now taken over 100’s of thousands of hectares of otherwise grazing land along the Awash River from Awash to Assayita. The shrub is highly resilient and is transported to other areas through animal droppings since goats eat the seed – pod. Where it grows, it chokes out the growth of natural shrubs and grasses. The thorn is a poisonous needle killing animals and badly wounding people. There seems to be no means to get rid of it.

As a consequence, NGOs and others introduced using this weed as charcoal. However, in order to make charcoal out of it, you must burn the natural trees with it. This then has introduced the most devastating practice of charcoal production along the Awash River and adjacent areas that is fast robbing the region of its remaining forest cover.

This is an historic tragedy only dating back for some 6 years. Afar by law do not make charcoal but now, since it is highly lucrative, they are being encouraged to by-pass their own laws and establish a production relationship with the non-Afar who make the charcoal.

4. Increasing poverty due to herd – loss

As mentioned above, Afar herdsmen have suffered successive droughts since 1999 killing off well over 50% of their herds. This then is driving more and more Afar to make money out of firewood and charcoal.

5. Increasing urbanization

Due to Afar having the highway from the Port of Djibouti passing through the region and increasing enterprises aiming at commercial production such as the new and growing sugar plantation, there is more and more demand on the Afar forest for construction and cooking fuel. There are no alternatives to either wooden – poles for house construction or firewood/ charcoal for cooking.

6. Lack of water source and pollution of rivers

The pastoralists endure greatest hardship due to lack of water in the dry season and in droughts. Yet the underground water table is dramatically deep – falling to 250 and 300 meters. Again, sub-terrain water is often unpalatable due to high mineral content. The Awash River holds the waste of 5 up-stream factories and is highly polluted with a variety of chemicals including DDT used to spray cotton over 3 decades.