Groundwater mapping “fundamental” to climate resilient water supplies in Ethiopia

by Dr John Butterworth, IRC WASH, re-posted with permission

Climate resilient WASH is about new ways of working across the traditional humanitarian and development sectors. We went to one of the harshest spots in Ethiopia, and surely in the world, to find out more.

The small town of Afdera in the north of Afar region, Ethiopia, exists for salt production. Brine from the lake is pumped into simple evaporation ponds and the salt harvested and shipped off in sacks (Afdera salt provides 80% of Ethiopia’s supply). The salt is both a blessing and a curse. For the past few years the town has been dependent on the operation of two small desalination plants that turn the salty lake water into a potable supply. This is high-tech compared to water supply in the rest of the country, and enables the community to get water from stand posts for 4 Birr a jerry can. That’s also expensive compared to elsewhere and its not nearly enough. There are long long lines of jerry cans at the water points.


We came here as part of a Development Assistance Group and HRDG visit that included ambassadors, development cooperation heads, and UN agency representatives mixing with national and regional water officials, NGOs and companies. This wasn’t a typical visit to inaugurate a new water supply scheme. The work has only just started in Afdera, and that was the interesting part of the visit for me. The pitch here by UNICEF, showcasing their work that has received support from Germany, Italy, Switzerland and others, was that Climate Resilient WASH (CR-WASH) is about more than (better) infrastructure development. That is a key message associated with the ambitious new CR-WASH strategy led by the national Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity and supported by development partners such as UKs Department for International Development: big investment in big infrastructure such as deep wells and multi-village schemes will be more resilient. But there were a couple of other messages – linked to the call for new ways of working – also coming through during the visit.

One was that hydrogeological mapping is a fundamental basis for developing reliable water supplies in a country that depends largely on groundwater. This is pretty unfashionable for local or international governments (and their electorates) who generally prefer taps and flowing water to maps as project outputs. Cooperation efforts in this area are developing with the European Union Delegation and Joint Research Centre, USAID/USGS and others working with Addis Ababa University and the national and regional government. Based on such an effort, two high-yielding wells with freshwater have been recently drilled outside Afdera. These are the first freshwater wells within a radius of 100 kilometres or more.

There was also a call for technical support to help regional governments prepare and plan water supply projects, because there are just simply not enough projects ‘on-the-shelf’. But as well as this ‘upstream’ kind of investment to support new infrastructure development, the visit also looked at what happens ‘downstream’.

A new water supply utility is being developed in Afdera. This is being setup following guidelines that have been developed to support the formation of a new class of rural utilities for multi-village water supplies. These will bring some of the professionalism associated with Town Water Utilities into the smaller towns and rural areas. Following the Build-Capacity Build-Transfer (BCBT) model, the private contractor that is working on the scheme is also training staff that will form the new utility.

The capacity building of the new utility and its financing, is a work in progress. With a whopping combined yield of 49 liters per second from the new boreholes, the town is about to have 10 more times water on its hands. Soon this will flow downhill from the well field (at an elevation of -72 metres below sea level) to the town 15 kilometres away (located at -110 metres). One hope is that the costs of water for the local consumers – many of them relatively poor migrants seeking employment in the salt business – will come down from 4 Birr a jerry can to perhaps 0.5 Birr or less.

The idea is that the new model and more professional management will translate into a utility that’s worth its salt, a utility that delivers reliable services over the long-term. Looking around, the signs are not really encouraging: the existing WASH committee (WASHCO) struggles to maintain the desalination plant which admittedly is complex technology. Most of the motorised boreholes in the region are also not being properly operated or maintained with the electro-mechanical works (generators, motors and pumps) being a particularly weak link. There is relatively little servicing or maintenance happening which could help extend the life of such equipment. So no one is expecting the capacity building of a new utility in this remote location to be easy. Another message was that this long-term institutional building needs much more attention.

Reducing emergency water trucking, and its enormous cost, is the short-term goal. Better synergies and new ways of working across the humanitarian and development communities are a source of ideas to solve this thorny problem. Groundwater mapping, building rural utilities, improving maintenance and growing the local private sector have not been the typical solutions, but all look good ways to try and to do that. No-regrets expenditure is what the climate change community might call it.