Heavy rain pounded Ethiopia again Saturday, feeding the overflowing rivers that have killed some 2,000 people and are threatening to create an inland sea in southern Somalia.
A month of flooding has inundated large areas of southern Somalia between the Ethiopian border and the Indian Ocean. High water has wiped out the freshly harvested staple crop of sorghum and left hundreds of thousands homeless and hungry.
The death toll is rising so fast that aid agencies can only guess at the carnage.
David Neff, CARE’s director for Somalia, said any estimate below 2,000 dead “has got to be conservative.”
He said the Juba River, which originates in Ethiopia and runs south to the Somali port of Kismayo, is now eight miles wide at some points. “Normally, this is what we would call a creek in the American Midwest,” Neff said.
The Red Cross has been making twice-a-day deliveries of high-protein biscuits and plastic sheeting, landing at the few airstrips in Somalia that were still above water.
Pilots have spotted families stuck for days in trees. Other bits of high ground will be wiped out if the floods rise just a few feet more, said spokesman Josue Anselmo.
Ten more days of rain are forecast for Ethiopia, also the origin of the overflowing Shabelle river.
According to the Somali Flood Response office, an estimated 210,000 people have fled their homes, and there was fear that the Juba and the Shabelle might merge to create an inland sea covering 60 square miles.
The U.N. World Food Program said more than 148,200 acres of prime farm land was underwater.
“Somalia just reaped its best sorghum harvest in years,” Anne Mulcahy of Save the Children said. “The floods have ruined everything.”
Flash floods submerged 90 percent of the town of El-Waq on the Somali-Kenyan border Thursday night, killing at least 125 people and forcing 17,000 others to flee to higher ground. Another 84 towns also had to be abandoned.
Agencies have had little success so far in their appeal for helicopters to airdrop food and medicine. UNICEF spokeswoman Lynn Geldof said agencies had received pledges of about half the $9.6 billion needed.
Somalia has had no central government since January 1991, when armed factions ousted late dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, then turned against each other.
Many donor countries are reluctant to return to Somalia, where their missions were attacked and robbed beginning in 1992 by warring militia during a three-year U.S.-led effort to help famine victims.
Most agencies pulled out in 1995.
Patrick Berner, head of the Red Cross delegation for Somalia, said the situation has changed from a conflict to a natural disaster.
“We cannot close our eyes,” he said. “People are dying every day in Somalia.”