East Africa drought solution runs deep

by Rich Heffern

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By Bekele Abaire and Sara A. Fajardo (Catholic Relief Services)

Ethiopians remember keenly the devastating losses of the drought in 1984 and the more recent one in 2000. The numerous pastoralist communities in Ethiopia know that lack of access to water will kill their livestock and destroy the very fabric of their culture.

The East African drought of 2011 that is hitting Kenya and Somalia so hard is also proving to be one of the worst that Ethiopia has faced in 50 years. Currently more than 4.5 million people in Ethiopia alone are facing severe hunger due to the La Niña-induced rainfall shortage. The work that CRS has been carrying out in Ethiopia for more than 50 years is paying off in this drought.

One particularly hard-hit area is eastern Ethiopia near the lowlands of the Somali region. A common sight is pastoralists traveling across the barren landscape in search of water for their livestock. As the sources dry up, desperation is taking hold. Their animals, losing weight and producing less milk, are further weakened as the pastoralists are forced to move them up to 6 miles a day to find drinking water. In the worst cases, their herds die from thirst, starvation and exhaustion.

"When people hear the word drought, they automatically assume that there is no — or very little — water in an area. And while it is true that we're dealing with the aftermath of poor rain seasons, the truth is that there is water in Ethiopia," says Bekele Abaire, CRS water and sanitation program manager. "There is a solution to this problem of recurrent drought that has left millions to face severe hunger. The challenge is that the water runs below the surface in underground caverns as deep as 1,000 feet. This water is difficult but not impossible to access."

During the past 8 years, CRS—with generous funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.N. Office for the Coordination of International Affairs, and donations from concerned Catholics and others of goodwill—has helped fight the effects of recurrent drought in Ethiopia.

"We brought in rigs to drill wells 1,000 feet into the earth. A recent visit to the field revealed that 95 percent of 28 wells we've constructed are still operational," Abaire says. "These sites were built to serve up to 5,000 people in any given community, but we're finding that the need is so severe that up to 10,000 are now flocking to these water points."

Pastoralists travel in search of water. Drought, though, often forces them to stay in one place, their livestock dies off, or they move to cities to buy food. The strains of urban life are debilitating to them both psychologically and culturally. Taking these factors into account, a CRS water and sanitation team studied the migratory path of pastoralist communities to create a system that would meet their needs for water and help maintain their nomadic traditions.

"We've drilled wells along the route pastoralists often travel. The goal was to provide water without encouraging any given group to settle in one spot," Abaire says. "It's an approach that includes a drinking trough for livestock, water for human consumption, showers, and washbasins for women to do their laundry."

The difference between communities with water sources and those without is remarkable. The livestock are plumper and produce more milk, which, in turn, means that the people themselves are nourished better. People in these areas rely less on food aid and more on their own means. Water is prized here. It is never squandered.

"Most years our system works beautifully. Pastoralists migrate and access water easily." Abaire says. "A concern of ours now, however, is that, because of the current drought, many of them are settling near water points out of fear that they will not be able to access more. This puts a strain on the existing resources."

Much more work needs to be done. Water is there, but more wells need to be built. Yet, few rigs in Ethiopia have the capacity to drill deep enough to access the water. Abaire says that the solution won't come overnight, but, if planned right and with adequate resources, it can happen.

Bekele Abaire is a water and sanitation program manager with CRS. He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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