March 28, 2011

Ogaden: Corruption Aggravates Drought

As drought once again threatens parts of the Horn of Africa, hydropolitics and allegations of corruption at the World Food Programme only add to the malaise.

Below is an article published by Think Africa Press:

On Tuesday March 22 the 18th World Water Day took place amidst negligible media coverage. Its theme was “Water cities: responding to the urban challenge”, a nod towards the pressures that rapid urbanisation and industrialisation have on water supplies in ballooning cities. Established by the United Nations (UN) in 1993, its purpose is to raise awareness of the importance of freshwater access and to advocate for more sustainable water management. With the world focused on unfolding events in Libya and Japan, and the UN and its agencies holding close to 100 such observance days in any given year - including World Television Day - the lack of media exposure can be forgiven. However, in the Horn of Africa another potential humanitarian crisis based on access to – and the politics of – water has been brewing, worsened by allegations of corruption at a major international organisation and - as revealed to Think Africa Press - bribery being intrinsic to obtaining necessary water supplies.

For several years the problem of water shortages and droughts has been a major issue in Ethiopia and Somalia. Irregular and infrequent rainfalls have long been a fear for the nomads who populate a large portion of the region: the whole basis for a nomadic lifestyle is in part rooted in the continuous search for water sources. As the countries of the Horn become more urbanised however, new concerns are developing which perfectly chime with this year’s World Water Day theme. Since December 2010, water prices have increased by an alarming 300%, plunging many into increasing debt as incomes are depleted through the need to obtain an essential commodity.

On the surface, this appears as nothing more than a climatic disaster compounded by external economic factors, in this case the huge global demand for food commodities. Certainly, the increase in water prices is largely down to man and nature squeezing supply, together with humanity’s insatiable appetite driving up demand. However, an ongoing conflict between rebel forces and the Ethiopian government’s military and Islamist militias in Somalia is exacerbating the drought. Furthermore, allegations of neglect and possible corruption at the World Food Programme (WFP) from last year continue to haunt the agency. 

The Somali Region of Ethiopia, often referred to as ‘Ogaden’ by its inhabitants, is reportedly suffering more than other areas of the country due to deliberate policies of the federal government in withholding water supplies for political reasons. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has long been at war with those in the country’s largest region, many of whom consider Ethiopian rule as a form of occupation. The WFP, together with the governments of Ethiopia and Somalia, remain largely responsible for managing and organising the distribution of food aid provided under various multilateral and bilateral provisions.

Contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars are given out to logistics firms – many local – tasked with moving water around the country to those most in need. But the allocation of food and water aid has largely been a catastrophe. In September 2008, British TV news programme Channel 4 News exposed details of the usage of food aid as a weapon against rebels and other anti-government forces in Ethiopia. In Somalia during the same year, it was reported that only 12% of food destined for the people actually reached them. Last spring the WFP had to respond to claims by a UN Monitoring Group report that food and water aid was effectively being stolen by a cartel of businessmen, militias and even the WFP’s own personnel, leading to claims of corruption in the organisation. The WFP denied the claims, arguing they were based on "hearsay" and "commonly held perceptions". In the autumn of 2010, Human Rights Watch produced a detailed report outlining the extent to which aid meant to support basic services – such as water provision – was being used as a means of repression by Ethiopian government forces against rebels and subject to fraudulent behaviour.

As the UN again warns about a potential humanitarian crisis due to a major drought, Somalia and the Somali Region of Ethiopia are seen as at risk to ‘limited humanitarian access’. In Somalia alone, some 2.4 million people out of an estimated 7.2 million are in need of aid relief. At the same time, new assertions are being made against the WFP’s inadequacy in Somalia and the Ethiopian government’s deliberate policy of blocking water to the Somali Region. The accusations were aired by US international public broadcaster Voice of America, which broadcast an appeal by rebel group Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). According to the news report, rebels claim that the government is purposely blocking aid as part of a tactic in the ongoing conflict in the region.

Speaking to Think Africa Press, a Somali NGO worker based in Ethiopia described the problems of obtaining water through official distribution organisations and the actions of military personnel in seeking bribery. "I had to send $500 to my family members so they can pay a private truck to deliver water to them from Dhagbur to Dig town," he said. "The area they (about 20 family members) live in is in a remote rural area and the droughts have gotten so extreme that private trucks have to be paid. To add insult to injury, the Ethiopian army intercepted the truck and we had to pay extra bribery money for them to release the truck. We are going to have to repeat this next week because the water is only going to last for 7 days."

It would be wrong to jump to conclusions based on the evidence thus far. The WFP itself has brushed aside negative reports of its work and continues to strongly deny assertions of corruption. But it appears that something is going critically wrong with the logistical mechanisms of allocating and managing water. The claims made by the UN Monitoring Group last year together with reports by certain media outlets recently paint a damaging portrait of the WFP: at the very least it is culpable of poor management and wastage of financial resource; at worst, it may be involved in some capacity in corruption of aid provision. If further evidence of the latter is forthcoming, it will only continue to undermine the entire aid industry at a time when the sector already feels under siege.