Drought: Fighting Hunger with Sustainable Water Sources

Ethiopia drought

A woman waters her donkeys at a well built by CRS in eastern Ethiopia. It’s the only water for 19 miles around and draws pastoralists from neighboring districts also hit by drought. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

By Ross Tomlinson

Drought is cyclical in Ethiopia. Hunger, however, does not need to be. Over the past eight years Catholic Relief Services has had great success bringing water to vulnerable communities throughout Ethiopia. We hope to do more of the same in other water-starved areas of the country.

I recently went out with a team working with the government to find places with the most severe needs. Our travels in Ethiopia brought us to Sirraro Woreda, West Arsi – where farmers and pastoralists share the land. The drought impacts each of these groups very definitely. While farmers rely on rains to irrigate their crops, pastoralists, who rely on their livestock for survival, need both pasture and water sources to keep their herds healthy.

At first glance Sirraro doesn’t look like it needs much help. It has a river that runs along three sides of it. Age-old settlements with verdant gardens line the riverbanks. In marked contrast, however, to the lush green near the water’s edge, is the view from the plateau just above where the river loops around Sirraro.

The land has been stripped of trees and the sloping ground, made up of deep, barely fertile soil, supports villages that are no more than 20 years old. Only the poor have settled here. With no money to build deep wells that can tap into reserves hundreds of feet below the surface, people live hand to mouth. They dedicate much of their day to water collection.

Pastoralists have the added burden of needing to get their livestock to patches of still grassy land and a source of water—which often can be quite a distance from each other. Communities like this are precisely the type that the CRS Ethiopia program seeks.

The next few months are critical to the most vulnerable of Sirraro. A few farmers risked planting crops despite the weak rains last March while others planted nothing. Sporadic rainfall weakens crops and lengthens the time between planting and harvest. Last season’s harvest is just maturing now at a time when farmers should be sowing and planting in preparation for next season. With very little crop yield, people are at the end of their tethers. The poorest among them are selling the last of their animals and the last of their trees to buy cheaper food items. After that, they’ll have nothing.

Many don’t have the livestock or assets to help see them through the coming months. If the rains are good, they’ll harvest again in November or December, which means that the level of desperation will hit its peak in October. If the rains fail once again it will be a catastrophe. The biggest agricultural boon time in Ethiopia is at the end of the year. A smaller harvest occurs in June and July. Without adequate rainfall it will be at least another 10 to 11 months before farmers might expect a bountiful crop.

For the pastoralist communities the situation is even more critical. The longer the situation carries on the more herds they’ll lose. If it is a catastrophe for the agriculturists, it is more of a catastrophe for the pastoralists. Once a pastoralist family loses a herd, they’ll drop out of their way of life and seek help at a camp. That leads to breakdown in cultural cohesion. Families may be dispersed. It becomes more difficult to rebuild their traditional way of life without a handout.

It’s now Ramadan, and this is the time Ethiopian pastoralists would normally be selling their livestock for profit. They’d be exporting cattle to parts of Saudi Arabia. But their weakened herds don’t have enough meat on them to make them marketable.

Despite their struggles they aren’t waiting for handouts. They’re doing what they can to try and meet their own water needs.

In Sirraro’s plateau villages, neighbors and families band together to make water collection easier. A family with a donkey will lend their animal to someone willing to make the 8- to 10-hour trek to collect 13 gallons of water for both their families. That trip needs to be repeated every two days.

Others rely on a water truck to come and fill a nearby pond. But the cost for just 6.5 gallons is exorbitant. It was by far the most expensive water I saw in all of Ethiopia. In this area people spend up to 60 percent of their income on water. Prices reached as high as $1.76, while other communities were paying as little as three cents.

Obviously these systems only meet basic needs and are not sustainable. Spending so much time or money to access water takes away from other opportunities to make a living or build savings.

As a humanitarian aid agency we need to ask the hard questions. We need to look to provide food where there is water, for cattle, and water where there is food. We need to find ways to meet the needs of both pastoralist and agricultural communities.

Currently CRS is responding by building sustainable water systems, repairing existing systems and reaching deeper into Ethiopia to target the neediest communities. While food assistance is an important component of our short-term response, CRS is in this for the long haul. We’re looking to meet chronic needs and avoid the long-term impact of future drought.

Ross Tomlinson is a senior technical advisor for Water Sanitation and Hygiene on the CRS Emergency Response Team. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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