The Drought Factor

Drought is affecting Ethiopia with over 10 million people facing the risk of food insecurity. One important aspect of the drought is water scarcity and media reports have shown that the severity of the problem is growing with each day. Although the problem is worsened by the current drought, water shortage has long been with us. Even Addis Abeba, is not yet self-sufficient when it comes to water supply. And this relates to governance.

We have been talking of drought and shortage of water time and time again, reiterating that the interval of occurrence has grown more and more frequent. Ever since the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby’s film The Hidden Hunger brought Ethiopia’s plight to the world, causing the downfall of the imperial government, every government of the day dreads any drought as a nightmare.

The pathetic picture that caught the imagination of the world by surprise, also left scars of inherited shame that follows our people anywhere they go, be it to the podium where gold medals are awarded for athletic achievements, or elsewhere. Those of us living long enough under that shadow of inability to feed our people at a time when the rest of the world is obsessed with the dumping of food or the problem of obesity, are often disappointed. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had said that he had wished to see all Ethiopians having three meals a day in a period of 10 years time.

That wish of the Prime Minister was expressed decades ago. The ruling party has been in full power winning all seats and the nightmare still hangs over our heads, even more threatening than before. Its impact seems even stronger when the country is claiming that more hectares of land have been brought under irrigation, better seeds have been introduced and rural technology has improved.

We are told that over a decade the gross domestic product (GDP) has consecutively grown by double digits, the favourite number being 11pc. That means, if we assume that five years ago the GDP was, for example, 100 billion Br, with a cumulative growth of 55pc, the current GDP will be close to 200 billion Br.

But is that so? Or is there a secret way of calculating percentages?

In a country that leans much on rain-fed farming, the absence of rain becomes detrimental. This is because both grain production and cattle raising depend much on the availability of water, whether it comes down in the form of rain, flows like a river or springs up from digging deep wells.  The old maxim that says “water is life” and the warning that says “wasting even a drop of water is a cost of life ” goes beyond figurative expression. Water as life cannot be any more relevant than at the present time.

A few weeks ago, a group of mainstream reporters went to some drought affected areas and zones to check for themselves what the BBC reporters had reported earlier. I do not want to fight over the reported toll of cattle that had suffered from the scarcity of water.

The herdsmen not only admitted that it was the animals that needed water more, but they also indicated that the scramble for water will not be between human beings and the animals, but between the animals themselves. The owners were pleading with the zone officer to open up the sealed deep wells or bring new pumps or generators if need be.

The question that comes to mind is: will it be worth while to save the dying animals or sell them away at dirt cheap prices? How much water is needed by the animals?

This is a field for researchers to know. All the veterinary doctors who had opted for politics should now indulge in studying the cost benefit analysis of keeping herds around at a time of water scarcity. The experience of 40 years ago reveals that the intimacy and passion herdsmen have towards their animals was so moving that they were dying of hunger instead of killing the animals and eating them, at least until they could get some help.

This time around, the world is also seeing people dying, houses being flooded by river banks busting their swelling water in the  Midlands of the United Kingdom and in many countries of South America, El Niño characteristically brings unexpected storms and rain and even tornadoes as happened in the United States. The destructive hands  of nature which include the global climate change occurring at the same time, as if to prove the Paris resolution more relevant than ever before.

According to development economists of Latin American, tornadoes are said to be caused by the harsh clearing of the Amazon Forest by cattle ranchers. Here too, the cow is causing havoc in the contribution to the climate change. The grazing cow out in the field defecates on the grass that cannot germinate because of the toxic effect of its dung. The question of survival shows up once more.

In the case of Ethiopia, overgrazing is also being faced. When the cattle go hungry they overgraze until the soil becomes dust. Add this to the water scramble syndrome and there you are. The drought threat is obviously to be felt both economically and socially so much so that the young tend to flee the country for dear life if nothing else. The rest is history.

When talking about water the threat of the scramble story cannot be complete if we overlook the situation in the metropolis. Over a 120 years ago, Menelik II launched the first piped water from Entoto Hill where the river Kebena had its birth. That was the time when the river’s water was clean and almost pure. That river is now aged and only a dumping river for waste water flow, originating from settlements by the bank of the river.

Later on came Gefersa and Lega Dadi reservoirs, both of which sustained the lifeline of the capital. The recently developed deep water wells at Kaliti do not seem to function. About three decades ago, the then CEO of the Addis Abeba Water & Sewerage Authority (AAWSA), Argaw Tiruneh, had managed to launch the first drainage system and the long time solution of building two dams at Berbi and Sibilu. These proposed projects have not materialized till this day and the shortage of water cannot sustain the growing population and the changing lifestyles of city folk. The high-rise buildings also need more water to flush upstairs.

There seems to be another scramble for land around the city incorporated in the draft Integrated Master Plan. But the scramble for water needing land for the catchment area, makes the problems more critical. If a city is not able to provide drinking water for its population, I see no reason for the incumbents claim to stay in power. Water is being retailed by vendors at very high prices. If it is not possible for residents to get this, the oncoming problem is beyond our imagination.

By Girma Feyissa

Published on Jan 04,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 818]



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