Eritrea: bringing hope to drought-prone communities

Published: 12 July 2010 0:00 CET

Robert Fraser, IFRC, in Anseba region, Eritrea

At the bottom of a steep, dry and rocky ravine, which can only be reached after climbing down a precipitous path, a dedicated group of community and Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are building a dam.

The team, supported by the government, is working seven days a week to complete the first phase before the next rains commence.

“Our water tables are dropping by as much as one metre every year due to climate change,” explained government engineer Zeregaber Hidrai. “We have to capture our limited rains before they run down to the sea.”

Naturally filtered

To achieve this, a series of ‘check dams’ are being built to slow down the flow of water while the sand-storage dam under construction will store the water that is washed down every rainy season. It is not a new technology, but an effective one as water trapped in the sand does not evaporate, becomes naturally filtered and can then be channelled by gravity to more than 10,000 people who live downstream.

”We are using local materials as much as possible, cutting stone blocks by hand from the hard granite at the bottom of the ravine so we only need to bring cement and pipes to complete the dam and distribution system,” explained Michael Bahta, a Red Cross Society of Eritrea engineer from the Anseba Branch who coordinates this activity, part of a nationwide project supported by the European Union, the Netherlands, Danish and Austrian Red Cross societies, and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

”It is difficult to predict exactly how much water we will be able to produce eventually from this dam, but we are already producing more than 170,000 litres per day,” notes project manager Yisehak Kiflay, who is in charge of a wide range of activities throughout the country including solar-powered pumping systems, piped water supplies, borehole construction, terracing and tree planting as well as crucial sanitation and hygiene promotion activities.

Adapting to climate change

“We are adapting to the effects of climate change, and integrate our water and sanitation activities with other on-going projects to better serve the most vulnerable communities,” explains Mrs Nura Mohammed Omer, Secretary General of the Red Cross Society of Eritrea. “The key is also encouraging community participation and volunteering in every aspect from the planning, implementation and final hand-over to ensure sustainability.”

A total of 121 communities have been targeted for community-led total sanitation, a participatory process that leads communities to declare “open defecation free” status after encouraging simple family latrine construction to address the low sanitation coverage prevalent in rural areas.

Women often lead this process in the community. One such women’s group proudly showed us the latrines they had built at their homes and explained that, as many in the group are head of household, “improving sanitation using locally-available materials is one of our key priorities”.

Sustainable activities

The project  in Eritrea is one of more than a hundred projects that fall under the IFRC’s ten-year Global Water and Sanitation Initiative (2005 to 2015) that aims to encourage National Red Cross and Red Crescent  Societies to increase sustainable activities to further contribute to the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

”The Red Cross Society of Eritrea is the prime implementer of this project, but working in an effective partnership with communities, government and the other partners under the overall umbrella of the IFRC adds value to the process,” IFRC country representative Ahmed Suleman explained.

“Coordinating such a partnership can have its challenges, but we have successfully brought all the elements together and now see significant results in meeting the long-term needs of vulnerable communities in Eritrea and look forward to sharing our experience, both technically and in project design, with other such projects in arid countries in Africa.”