Literally an oasis, the Awash Valley is lush green in the middle of arid, sandy desert. The Awash River is a rarity amongst Ethiopian rivers because it starts and ends within the country. It also has the claim to fame of being Lucy’s river, and it is likely that our ancestors enjoyed the benefits of living next to it whilst learning to paint in caves and start fires.
The Afar people graze their animals in pasture created by this river and it side streams. Drought rarely affects the river’s headwaters near Addis, and the waters provide a lifeline through extended period without rain. Alas, times are changing for the Afar. The development plan for the area is to start using irrigated water from the Awash to grow sugar. This will create jobs, income and livelihood for an area that is traditionally one of Ethiopia’s poorest. Outside of Asaita there are around 50 mostly vacant apartment blocks waiting to house families that abandon their nomadic existence and settle down for a life of steady employment.
There are naturally pockets of the Afar population that resist this grandiose scheme. Judging by the amount of darkness in the apartment blocks, that pocket remains quite large. There is a town called Semera that is around 60kms up the road. The drive to Semera cuts through a stretch of desert looks largely uninhabitable. But there are villages next to the road. Families sell fresh camel milk stored in recycled water bottles. Camels, goats and cattle graze on the odd bush sticking out of the desert sand. They neighbours sauntering around on the drive last week included baboons, ibyx and a couple of ostriches. The camel population appeared to match the human one. These people do not appear likely to be abandoning their way of life to cut sugar cane anytime soon.
Anecdotally, the plan to use the Awash River for a more profitable Ethiopian economy entails some short term individual pain for long term systemic gain. Less water from the Awash leads to less pasture for the livestock, which in turn produce less for the people to consume. According to a local midwife, this has led to a steady decline in birthweights amongst local Afar babies. The people are slowly being starved into adopting a way of life they do not know or want. The plan to irrigate the Awash is being done in stages, but the irrigation will increase eight-fold in the coming years, so the preservation of the traditional Afar lifestyle looks bleak.