Afar Pastoralist Development Association (ADPA)

Water Harvesting

1.   Water development, the essential element for the Afar pastoralists

Afar Region in eastern Ethiopia has the ignoble reputation of being the hottest inhabited place on Earth (National Geographic documentaries 2006 – ‘the Extremes’). With a normal rainfall of 100 to 300 mm per year across the region, the fear of thirst is endemic and death from thirst an annual reality for some. Certainly in the recent decade, rain is far more erratic producing prolonged droughts and temperatures soar to over 50°C by late April. In northern districts of the region, since 1999, each year it has been necessary to transport water in dry and drought seasons as a life-saving measure but at extreme cost to the donor community.

While the Awash River running south north in the region dissipating in sands near the Djibouti border in Afambo and 6 smaller permanent rivers in the west and the north west do provide water for around 50% of the population, the vast interior of the region has no permanent rivers and very occasional permanent springs. Pastoralists (traditionally their women) must walk up to 12 hours to collect water to keep the household in daily water. Aside from the need to search pasture, the need for water is the other major reason for the herdsmen to move from place to place.

Water development has become an essential part of APDA’s program strategy in order that the community can involve in education as well as for health aside from securing the community from thirst. Afar Region has reportedly 7.5% sanitation coverage. There are times when health workers can no longer treat patients as there is no more than a couple of cups of water available per person in the house for consumption – hygiene and sanitation are inconceivable under those conditions.

Up until the intervention of APDA and now government intervention, there was no deliberate effort to search out water resources in the Afar Region. Afar have their traditional ways to search and store water: ‘birikut’ or an underground cistern constructed to store rain-water; ponds; ‘buyya’ – digging in riverbed sand to get water; ’eela’ or traditional well dug up to 4 meters deep and ‘boyna’ or steam – well. Mobilizing the community, APDA has developed these traditional systems, improving their capacity and function to create an improved security of access for communities in the most thirst – bound districts.


2.   The challenges and the possibilities

The greatest challenge is that the underground water table in Afar Region is extremely deep making borehole construction impossible or impractical due to the upkeep expense in the most needed areas. While there are several rivers that come off from the Ethiopian Highlands and enter Afar Region through the western border, these rivers go underground after 25 to 30 kilometers. The water table may be as deep as 250 to 300 meters. Again, when this deep water is obtained, much of it is highly mineralized and therefore undrinkable.

Therefore APDA has chosen to develop either rainwater or underground water harvesting as a technique to increase water access.

APDA’s water harvesting techniques and the costs involved are as follows:

a)     Birikut or cistern

A birikut is firstly a rock – walled pit that is cement – rendered and roofed. It has a rain-water catchment apron, slit – trap at the inlet and an outflow. The organization has improved the design from the regular rectangular shape to cylindrical pits in the last 2 years. These are found more durable and can be constructed as a twin – birikut wherein the first cylinder spills over to the second improving the purity of the water.

These cisterns can be readily filled from a tanker and access to water can be established as a tap outlet some meters from the cistern. A double birikut will provide drinking water for around 1,500 people for up to 2 months.

A double cylinder birikut around 11,000 USD similarly a single cylinder cistern costs 5,500USD to construct.

b)     Pond/ retention dam

Ponds and dams provide water for animals as well as for humans. The added value is that the overflow will develop pasture and grazing shrubs since it will remain with water up to a month after the storm that fills the dam. APDA has used both mechanical excavation and hand labor to dig out the dam. There are benefits in both in gaining a successful dam but the choice is often limited by the difficulty to hire bulldozers in Afar Region.

Dams of 15,000 to 20,000 m3 may remain with water from one rainy season to the next. Total construction cost is around 32,000 USD per dam.

c)     Steam wells

Steam wells or ‘bonya’ is a water source unique to the Afar. It is a system of harvesting steam that is being forced up to the ground level from an underground stream that is passing through burning volcanic rocks and vaporizing. This vapor/ steam then appear on the earth’s surface as wet patches. The Afar then dig around for the ‘eyes’ of the steam at around 20 to 50 cm into the ground. Once they have opened the outlet, they then construct a rock house over the outlet that collects condensation. A traditional steam well will yield 10 to 25 liters of water per day (more in the cooler weather). Water is collected from an outlet and that water is boiling hot and totally pure since it is condensation. This then supplies th drinking water for communities along the Djibouti border in eastern Eli Daar (Siyyaru, Hiilu, M’e’e Dulla) as well as some communities in Teeru and Erebti. In order to get sufficient water, one family may own up to 20 steam wells. APDA has improved the output of the traditional steam well by providing cement to line the inside and improving the outlet. Again, the organization has made 2 large demonstration steam wells that yield up to 1,500 liters per day. The cost of constructing these large wells is 3,600 USD.

d)     Roof harvesting

APDA has only attempted roof-harvesting on one government  – constructed school but it is a technique needed for both school and clinic buildings. An above – ground cement tank is constructed and connected to the roof by guttering. The overall cost for one construction is around 5,500 USD.

e)     Sub-surface dam

APDA first attempted to utilize this technique in March 2009. It assumes that flood water passing through a normally dry riverbed forms an underground stream. Then by digging down to the rock base in the riverbed and compacting soil clay at this level and constructing a wall to stop the flow of the water, water builds up and can be tapped at the surface by putting in a shallow well. APDA has succeeded in doing this in an extremely dry area called Guluble Af in Kori. Now these people have a permanent source of water using a hand-pump where they were dependant on transported water for the dry months of the year. The cost of this construction is around 13,600 USD.


3.   APDA’s success – story to date

In response to thirst in drought and to facilitate education participation as well as promote hygiene and sanitation, APDA developed a section within the program working on water development as of 1999. Much of the construction activity has been carried out by the community as drought relief in the form of cash for work or food for work. To date APDA has constructed

–          162 ‘birikuts’ or cisterns. The capacity ranges from 9 m3 in the earlier design to 280 m3

–          Almost 50 ponds and retention dams ranging from 2,500 m3 to 23,000 m3

–          Supported the community to improve 100’s of traditional steam wells as well as constructing 2 large model steam wells. The large steam well yield up to 1,500 liters per day

–          One roof harvesting system is established on a school roof in Awra.

–          Most recently, APDA has succeeded in developing one sub-surface dam

These constructions are in the notoriously dry districts of Eli Da’ar, Kori and Biru in the north-east of the region and the dry districts of Mille, northern Dubte (Geega), Awra, Uwwa and ‘Adda’ar. After 2 days of rain in March (27th and 28th), the news-breaking story was of the new ‘lake’ formed from a freshly –dug out retention dam in central Eli Daar. People surrounding it have begun growing maize and grass for fodder for the first time in their district’s history!!!!

The other news – breaking story was the sub-surface dam in a dry river bed in Kori yielding water where several borehole attempts had failed.
4.   Forward vision

APDA wants to increase the number of these constructions in the pastoralist society freeing the community form the fear of thirst and improving their quality of life. While the birikut and the pond do not produce totally safe water, it is water in a thirsty land. APDA estimates the number constructed must treble to reach any where near a safe situation for all thirsty districts of the Afar Region. APDA believes the sub-surface dam technique could be readily replicated in districts totally dry for most of the year. In relieving thirst and supplying a sustainable water source, the burdensome but life-saving expense of trucking water during extreme dry periods is overcome.

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