By Tamrat G. Giorgis
In Fortune Newspaper, Saturday, 26 2011, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
In the vast and lush plain of the Shinelle lowlands, 30km west of the town of Dire Dawa and a few kilometers from Melka Jebdu, are scattered close to eight boreholes, seemingly less significant beyond serving not more than 1,500 members of this farming community of Hasseliso.
At the centre lays an imposing concert water collecting tank, built on a plot taken from the family of Hassen Ali; himself claiming to have the distinction of building his house from hallow blocks while many of his neighbors still live inside mud houses. The tanker was is built to temporarily hold 200mt of water per second from the boreholes nearby, and an additional four boreholes dug two kilometers from the tanker.
For many women in this rural village, such as Saada Hassen, 25, the mother of a six-year old daughter, who supports herself by running a tiny vending shop, the boreholes are a godsend. Now able to fill a bouquet of yellow plastic containers - a popular sight across rural Ethiopia - for 50 cents from a pipe a few meters from her shop means she is relieved. Her neighbor, Razia Ibrahim, a mother of eight, still remembers the days when women from this village travelled to a nearby river, Halahulal Shine, to fetch water, getting up as early as 5:00am.
For five months now the Chinese-built water network system, whose electromechanical part was installed by Indian experts, has brought drinking water not only for the village. Farmers such as the Abdure brothers - Mohammed and Muktar - use water from the boreholes for watering their land growing sorghum. For an area that receives annual rainfall of not more than 200 cubic meters, a daily flow of water through his farm land is extraordinary.
Surprisingly, there is not little indication that the area exposes the size and extent of the project; nor do the couple of small shelters made of blocks scattered across this arid lowland plain tell how lifesaving they are to the people of Harer, and five small towns along the way.
One of Ethiopia’s historical cities, and the first to get piped water even ahead of Addis Abeba, 100 years ago, has seen its resident population of 108,188, according to the recent census, suffer from water deprivation for many years, but more acutely for the past eight years. In February 2004, Lake Alemaya, where the city developed a water supply system in 1966, dried up owing to declining levels of rain in the area and excessive irrigation. Even today, where the dried land serves as grazing land instead, the trace of the lake is evident looking at the remarkably green field where it still holds water whenever the season gets kind.
However, the prospect of inability to provide water to the town’s residents has been worrying authorities both at the central government and local level since the mid 1980s. For over a decade, experts were on the lookout, searching for suitable locations endowed with underground water. Initially, locations at Maya Gudo and Errer River were identified for their potential for underground water.
A revised study financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB), in 1995, where a suggestion was made to build a dam on these rivers at an estimated cost of 830 million Br, was nixed due to feelings of high cost at the time. It took another five years for experts hired by the federal government to identify a rich well-field far from the town of Harer, and near Hurso, crossing two jurisdictional regions.
Ethiopia’s real potential for underground water is a matter that remains within the study rooms. No one seems to know for certain how much there is underneath the surface, with only 36.8pc of the country landmass being mapped, according to the Ministry of Water & energy.
Although the country's groundwater is the main source for domestic water supply and sanitation, with potential for irrigation and industrial needs, it is the least known in terms of volume, location and quality, according to Asfaw Dingamo, former minister of Water Resources, in his paper presented to the International Geological Congress held in Oslo, Norway, in 2008.
Experts, however, believe Ethiopia is not particularly impressive in its potential for ground water, which is estimated to be 3.2 billion cubic meters. Nonetheless, recent studies yet to be finalized increase this estimate to 13.2 billion cubic meters under 12 identified basins and covering 1.13 million square kilometers.
The largest of these basins is the Abay River Basin, which is believed to have 1.87 billion cubic meter of water covering 199,812sqkm; followed by Omo Gibe, with its 0.42 million cubic meters covering 79,000sqkm. The river basin where the small village of Hasseliso is located is included in the Awash River Basin, which is believed to have 0.14 million cubic meters water covering 112,696sqkm area.
“This area has a reserve of water meant to supply for 10 years,” said Ahmed Mohammed, coordinator for Harer Water Supply & Sanitation Project, walking around the tanker in Hasseliso, a few weeks after the water system begun pumping water to Harer, 72km from the source.
For the local authorities fighting to secure water to the residents of Harer, such as Arif Mohammed, general manager of Harer Water Supply Authority, it has been a watershed in the long and arduous struggle began in the year 2000, when the federal government had asked AfDB for loans to finance the project. Two years later, the board of directors of the Bank approved the request for loans and grants amounting to 227 million Br, and an agreement was signed in November 2002.
The Hareri Regional Government chipped in 66 million Br and the federal government put in an additional 60 million along the way. The project was a collaboration of the federal government, the regional states of Oromia and Hareri as well as the Dire Dawa Administrative Council. A steering committee chaired by the minister of Water & Energy, but also comprised of the heads of each administrative region oversaw the construction process.
Juggling the federal politics, with each region attempting to assert its right over the source of the water’ and the four towns where the 600m wide pipe imported from India passes through demanding their fair share, has left its mark on the delay of the project of almost a decade now.
Passing through the towns of Alemaya, Aweday, Adele, and Dengego as well as the Alemaya University, the pipeline was built by the Chinese CGC, and climbs 1,000m above sea level to reach the Denegego reservoir containing 2,000 cubic meters of water, before it heads down hill to the largest reservoir in Harer with the capacity to contain double the amount of Dengego. This water engineering, designed by Water Works Design Enterprise, in partnership with the French BCEOM, requires transmission of 47km employing pumps and the remaining with gravity.
In between, two reservoirs with the capacity of 500 cubic meters each are built, comprising valves, generators, compressors and pumps, all installed and operated before commissioning by the Indian firm, TechnoFab Engineering Ltd.
Two weeks ago, experts from the Indian firm were installing the automated system which monitors and regulates the water storage in each reservoir in order to relay the data to a remote computer inside Arif’s office. They have yet to be launched, but almost all the panels have been installed, though hardly any of them are functioning to date.
This did not stop water from reaching households in the town of Harer two weeks ago. Even the first pipelines Ahmed Mohammed (Bomba), an Indian businessman, had installed in 1892 have began to function despite their being dried up for over a decade.
One such household inside the town’s historical Jegol was Niema Ibrahim’s, an 80-year old mother with a family of five, whose son was on a visit from Addis Abeba.
“Unlike last year when all of us had been disappointed with a promise not delivered, this time there is indeed water,” he said, opening the water pipe few meters from the front door, to demonstrate it with a sense of relief.
At the far corner of the compound, where there is a small room and washroom for the quarters, were jerry-canes piled up one after the other. They are reminders of the dry days, when members of the family used to send for refills from a nearby community water depot each fill-up costing as much as five Birr, as opposed to now where they pay a monthly bill of few hundred.
“It is ironic that the room was originally built for a shower,” said Niema’s son. “It ended up being a storeroom for the jerry-canes.”
His mother’s residence is located on one of the three zones in the town provided with daily water.
“I used to get water once every two weeks,” a lady whose identity she declined to disclose as she stood by her compound gate told Fortune. This has changed now; for the past couple of months, I get water five days a week.”
Interruptions within these days are now unusual, according to Arif.
“If there is one for a day, people call me on my mobile phone,” Arif told Fortune.
Residents in Harer have a total demand of 7,000 cubic meter water a day. When the project gets commissioned during the scheduled date on December 30, 2011, the town’s water supply authority will have a capacity to provide 10,000 cubic meters.
But not all have water anytime soon after the commissioning of the project.
At least one zone where the family of 18-year old Bethlehem Girma lives, and paradoxically located near the largest reservoir, has yet to get a network of pipelines. Struggling to make her way through lines of women carrying jerry-canes one morning, and unlike Saada, where the community’s water pipe is a few meters from her shop, Bethlehem and her family are bound to continue receiving water from one of the five temporary depots installed across the town, for which trucks transport water from a nearby well.