A long-term solution to Eritrea’s water shortage

Published: 13 November 2003 0:00 CET

The village of Balwa is small but surprisingly busy. Wooden huts line the roadside the length of the village, each with tables and chairs set up under the shade of coconut matting, in an attempt to attract passing trade.

Situated on the winding, mountainous road between Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, and the regional capital, Keren, Balwa is an increasingly popular place for travellers to break their journey.

At the busiest times, several buses and trucks are parked in the village, their passengers sitting in cafes or on the ground, under trees. Some buy soft drinks or coffee, but in the scorching summer heat, everyone needs water, for washing, drinking or simply cooling down.

For the villagers the business is welcome. Like much of Eritrea, the region around Keren is suffering from a severe drought after years of poor rainfall. Successive harvests have failed, grain prices have increased and local people have been forced to find alternative ways to earn money to feed their families.

In a largely agricultural area, Balwa is one of the few villages with a chance to become less dependent on farming. But the daily influx of visitors has placed enormous pressure on its water supplies. The local water table has dropped over the past few months and the village well can barely supply Balwa’s inhabitants. There is nothing to spare for the hundreds of daily visitors.

Desperate to solve their water problems, the villagers, together with the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE), have proposed a long term solution.

With the backing of the International Federation, they plan to build a sub-surface dam in the village. The dam would collect water during the rainy season and store it underground.

The water would be cleaned by a natural sand filter which would make it safe to use. As well as storing excess water, the dam, which would be the first of its kind to be built in the area, would also improve the capacity of the village well by maintaining the water table at a higher level.

“Balwa is a truck-stop, so there is a permanent community and also a transitory one, which doubles the population. They use a lot of water, water which the village does not have,” said Edoardo Casetta, the Federation’s water and sanitation delegate in Eritrea. He estimates that the water table in the area has dropped by up to two metres in the past few months.

Balwa’s unique geological situation means that it is a good location for a sub-surface dam, says Casetta. “It is situated in a valley, and so it has natural walls on each side, it is also at the neck of a river,” he says.

The project relies on community participation and the village water committee is playing a key role in the project. Villagers have been organized into work teams and much of the preparation for building the dam has already been completed. Stones have been collected and construction is due to start in time for this year’s rainy season.

If the dam proves successful more could be built in the region. Such interventions are urgently needed all over Eritrea, according to the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) Network, which reports that the water situation is critical across the country.

“Reservoirs have not recharged, shallow wells have dried up and the water table has fallen, reducing the yield of boreholes, and in some cases pumps have burned out,” FEWS reports.

“Protecting access to water is a major priority,” the agency concludes in its latest report.

Long-term water projects are also considered to be a vital way of combating Eritrea’s worsening food crisis.

Global acute malnutrition for children under five is around 20 per cent, with a severe malnutrition rate of two per cent, according to data compiled by the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

Balwa’s inhabitants are anxious for work on the dam to begin. Many see it as their only hope for the future. As she wipes a floral plastic tablecloth outside her wooden hut turned cafe, Semret says: “We need something to happen here as we cannot continue like this.

“Balwa is next to a busy road so we have a chance to make a living. Otherwise we might have to move somewhere else. The land alone can no longer support us, we need to change the way we live if we want to survive in this place.”