Ethiopia’s Quest for Deeper Water
GOGTI, Ethiopia—The dry season is at its peak in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, and due to scarcer rains, a new food and water emergency looms. With the 2011 famine in memory, the Ethiopian government, the people, and aid organizations search for water anywhere they can find it. Will these efforts be enough to fight increasing insecurity due to climate change?
A man stands on the slope of a 13-foot-wide crater in the middle of a dry, sandy riverbed. He throws a 1.3-gallon cask of muddy water up to his friend at the surface with a gesture resembling that of a basketball player.
This is not a game, however, but part of the life-saving daily search for water in the Horn of Africa (a peninsula that juts out into the Arabian Sea).
Smaller and larger watering holes like this one are a common sight in the Somali Region of eastern Ethiopia. The region was classified once again as being in a “food shortage crisis” last January, and in the latest reports the area at risk has expanded further.
The vast region, half the size of France, is squeezed between Somaliland and Djibouti to the north, Somalia to the east, and Kenya to the south. It is home to more than 4 million people, 84 percent of whom live a rural life based on subsistence farming.
If the April “small rains” fail again, a new emergency may be declared.
Barely two years ago, famine and the subsequent search for food caused massive displacements. Tied to the instability and insecurity of neighboring Somalia, this gave rise to several IDP (Internally Displaced People) and refugee camps in Ethiopia, many of which still exist. Out of the 51 districts, which declared an emergency in 2011, 44 were in the Somali Region.
The man waiting at the surface of the crater catches the precious container without spilling a drop. He empties it into a larger basin, and thirsty goats cram in for their share of the murky liquid. Men and women wait patiently to the side—only when the animals are finished will they collect water for their own daily usage.
A third man is digging at the bottom of the hole about 25 feet below the riverbed surface, his feet in an inch of water.
The three men repeat the water extraction cycle a number of times, until the hole is dry, then wait for water to slowly permeate through the sand before filling up again.
There are few signs in other African regions of dramatic climate change effects displayed as strikingly as the Somali Region’s daily water-fetching activities.
A family needs at least 10.5 gallons a day for its basic needs, and everyone is saying, “It’s worse than before,” or “The sun has become cruel.” In the last 30 years, eight famines have been reported in Ethiopia due to insufficient rains, four of which occurred in the last decade.
This semi-arid land bears the traces of many seasonal wadis (dry riverbeds that only fill in the rainy season) slicing through it during the summer rains, but water is rapidly lost underground.
In the small village of Darwanaji, in the district of Awbarre near the border with Somaliland, the local shallow well provides water for only four hours a day. A local water committee controls access and distribution.
The local chief, Abib Abdi Moumim, tall and charismatic, is worried: “Rains have been poorer in the past three years. We need a new and deeper well, because this one will be dry before the new rains next summer.”
Several feet away, a veiled woman from the village sits in front of her house. Next to her are the three containers she uses to fetching water. These 5.3-gallon (20-liter) yellow containers are seen everywhere in the Somali Region—symbols of the quest for a much-need resource.
But the quest gets tougher year after year.
“Climate change means increasing temperatures and more irregular rains,” confirms Alebachew Adem, an Ethiopian researcher in the field of geography at the University of Addis Ababa who recently joined CARE International as a climate change adviser.
“As mostly natural grazing is employed for animal farming, the population is totally subject to nature’s changes,” Adem says. His research shows that the number of animals per household is now 25 percent of what it was in the 1980s, due to the effect of changing environment.
It is not how much rain falls that matters, but for how long and how predictably, he says.
“The June big rains tend to start later than before, and whereas they used to last until September, they now stop before the end of August, causing crops to fail,” Adem says. The small rains in April have nearly disappeared in recent years.
According to the Ethiopian National Meteorological Agency, and confirmed by a 2008 United Nations Development Program study, temperatures are projected to rise by 4 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) by 2050, further stressing water reserves, vegetation, and animals. Rains are expected to be shorter and heavier, causing additional soil erosion.
Nongovernmental organizations are tightly controlled in Ethiopia, and many of them have been forced to leave the country in recent years when they don’t comply with government stipulations. The government has, however, come up with some initiatives, both independently and in collaboration with the organizations.
In the quest for water, the government, aid organizations, and communities often disagree on the best approach to sustainable water management.
Some organizations prefer deep wells, delving 500–600 feet to reach phreatic aquifers.
Lorenzo Vecchi, local coordinator in the Somali Region for the Italian VIS organization, says deep is better than shallow: “With climate change, shallow wells are useless in the long term; they are 15 times cheaper, but they dry out and we need to start again. A deep well, when drilled in the right place, may last even 40 or 50 years.”
The cost of a deep well project can reach $230,000.
Oxfam opts for water catchment systems and the rehabilitation of shallow wells that have not been well maintained or have collapsed.
Filippo Ortolani, emergency coordinator for Central and East Africa at Oxfam Spain, says deep-well water can have too much fluorine or salt in it.
“The risk to spend $110,000 for a [deep] well and not find good water is too high,” Ortolani says. “It happened to us in 2009 near Dolo Ado (far south in the Somali Region, near the border with Kenya). It is much safer to work on large rain catchment systems.”
Catchment systems do have some issues, however, in terms of hygiene.
Seeking to provide unified guidance, UNICEF has published guidelines for the benefit of local organizations, but divisions remain.
Consulting the Communities
Adem says, whatever the approach, “Livelihoods need to be empowered with finding the solution which is right for [the community members].”
In some cases, shallow wells were constructed without the consent of communities. The location of the wells affected traditional mobility routes, or attracted too much livestock to a single spot. The result was overgrazing and conflict between clans.
“Government and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] claim they involve local communities in the decisions, but this is only on paper,” Adem says. “For example, they build water structures in areas far from traditional shepherds’ routes. So people are not convinced that this program is for them.”
As striking evidence of how social impact needs to be factored in, local women once damaged the pipes of a new water hole near their village. Fetching water far from home had an important bonding function, as women could be together and away from the control of men. The well had disrupted this.
Another source of the strife is the Ethiopian government’s concessions to foreign companies, which buy up large tracts of fertile land, according to a report by policy think tank The Oakland Institute.
“Indians and Chinese mostly produce biofuel [on Ethiopian land], while Middle Eastern companies produce rice for export, rather than for the local market. Our land is exploited for the benefit of others,” Adem says.
Fencing off large areas of communal land restricts the movement of grazing animals and chokes access to primary water resources. Food insecurity and displacement from farmland results.
So far, 10 percent of land in the region has been bought by foreign companies. Clearly, investors prefer areas, which have some water sources.
Among contrasting interests and changing policies, the poorest people especially require immediate, lasting action to avoid an imminent state of emergency.