Mystery Sickness in Eastern Ethiopia?

As villagers in Somali region fall ill in unexplained circumstances, some locals fear gas exploration has tainted the local water supply. (Photo: A natural gas well at one of the Hilal gas fields in Ethiopia’s Somali region/The Guardian)

The Guardian

The mystery sickness bringing death and dismay to eastern Ethiopia

At first, 23-year-old Khadar Abdi Abdullahi’s eyes began turning yellow. Then the palms of his hands did the same. Soon he was bleeding from his nose, and from his mouth, and his body was swelling all over. Eventually he collapsed with fever. He later died.

A deadly sickness is spreading through villages near a Chinese natural gas project in Ethiopia’s Somali region, according to locals and officials who spoke to the Guardian. Many of Khadar’s neighbours have suffered the same symptoms. Like him, some died.

It is not clear what is causing the sickness, and officials in the federal government in Addis Ababa firmly denied allegations both of a health and environmental crisis in the Somali region, or of any problems relating to large-scale energy projects there.

Poly-GCL, a partly state-owned Chinese company, has been prospecting for oil and gas in the Ogaden Basin, as the vicinity is known, since 2014. Calub, roughly 500km south-east of Jigjiga and near neighbouring Somalia, is due to start commercial gas production soon.

Khadar, like many from the area, is suspicious that the sickness is caused by hazardous chemical waste that has poisoned the water supply.

“It is the toxins that flow in the rainfall from Calub [gas field] that are responsible for this epidemic,” said Khadar, as he sat outdoors in the eastern Ethiopian city of Jigjiga.

He had recently been discharged from hospital; doctors there said there was nothing more they could do for him. He was weak and thin and his eyes were sinking into their sockets.

“There are new diseases that have never been seen before in this area,” said an adviser to the Somali regional government, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Without any public health protection, it is very clear that Poly-GCL uses chemicals that are detrimental to human health.”

It is an allegation the Guardian heard repeatedly during a recent visit to the thinly populated scrubland that surrounds Calub gas field, though it was not able to independently verify its veracity.

Poly-GCL did not respond to requests to comment.

Ketsela Tadesse, director of licensing at the federal ministry of mines and petroleum, said the government was not aware of any reports of spillages, adding that in any case there were “there are no permanent settlers” in the vicinity of the gas field.

“We can emphatically state that all the gas wells at Calub and elsewhere in the Ogaden Basin, are sealed, safe and secured … according to international standards,” Tadesse said.

What is clear, however, is that the mysterious sickness has caused deaths.

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