Turning Ethiopia’s desert green

A generation ago Ethiopia’s Tigray province was stricken by a famine that shocked the world. Today, as Chris Haslam reports, local people are using ancient techniques to turn part of the desert green.

People performing their 20 days of compulsory community labour

In the pink-streaked twilight, a river of humanity is flowing across Tigray’s dusty Hawzien plain. This cracked and desiccated landscape, in Ethiopia’s far north, occupies a dark corner of the global collective memory. Thirty years ago, not far from here, the BBC’s Michael Buerk first alerted us to a biblical famine he described as “the closest thing to hell on earth”.

Then Bob Geldof wrote Do They Know It’s Christmas? – a curious question to ask of perhaps the world’s most devoutly Christian people – and thereafter the name Tigray became synonymous with refugees, Western aid and misery. The Tigrayan people were depicted as exemplars of passive suffering, dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the planet just to get through the day without dying.

But here, outside the village of Abr’ha Weatsbaha, I’m seeing a different version. From all directions, streams of people are trickling into that human river. You hear them before you see them – some chatting excitedly, others singing hymns – as they converge on a viciously steep valley at the edge of the plain. They were summoned before dawn by horns, an Old Testament echo calling every able-bodied man and woman over 18 years of age to report for the first of 20 days of compulsory community labour. Their job, quite simply, is to tame the desert.

“This is how the Axumite kings got stuff done 2,000 years ago,” says my guide Zablon Beyene. “With the same tools, too.

By 10 in the morning, some 3,000 people have turned up. Using picks, shovels, iron bars and their bare hands, they will turn these treacherous slopes into neat staircases of rock-walled terraces that will trap the annual rains, forcing the water to percolate into the soil rather than running off in devastating, ground-ripping flash floods.

“Sisters are doing it for themselves,” says Kidane, a pick-wielding Amazon whose arched eyebrow suggests I might want to put down my camera and do some actual work. Brothers, too: from strapping, sweat-shiny youths to Ephraim, a legless old man who clearly ignored the bit about being able-bodied and sits on his stumps, rolling rocks downhill to the terrace builders.

Overseeing this extraordinary effort is 58-year-old Aba Hawi, Abr’ha Weatsbaha’s community leader. Short, pot-bellied and bearded, he darts from one side of the valley to the other, barking orders into his mobile phone, slapping backs and showing the youngsters the proper way to split half-ton boulders. Rumour has it that Aba Hawi once took up arms to fight for Tigrayan independence, but these days he prefers to describe himself as “just a farmer”.

Either way, his tireless leadership has brought a miraculous transformation to this sun-blasted land. In just a decade, entire mountains have been terraced. Once you had to dig 50ft (15m) down to find water. Now it’s just 10ft, and 94 acres (38 hectares) of former desert have been transformed into fertile fields. Families are now reaping three harvests a year from fields of corn, chillis, onions and potatoes. Free-range grazing for sheep, goats and cattle has been banned, allowing new forests of eucalyptus and acacias to take root, and Aba Hawi is particularly keen to show me what he’s done with the deep flash-flood canyons that rive the plain.

We take a long, hot hike to a vast pool of cool, green water held back by a huge hand-built dam. “We’ve built 85 of these check-dams so far,” says Aba Hawi, “and you can see how they work. These mini-reservoirs fill up during the rains and are fed by groundwater in times of drought. Now, every farmer has a well.” He tosses a handful of dust into the wind. “Ten years ago, that was our land.” Then he points at a shimmering blue flash in the reeds. “Now look: we’ve got malachite kingfishers living in the desert.”

But success brings its own problems. Abr’ha Weatsbaha is now facing an immigration problem as people from neighbouring valleys clamour for their share of Aba Hawi’s oasis.

“They shouldn’t need to come here,” he says. “Every district in Tigray is supposed to be using compulsory community labour for terracing but, well…” he shrugs with just a tad of false modesty… “not all community leaders are so, er, committed.”

And as fear of starvation fades, Aba Hawi faces new demands.

“People want electricity now,” he sighs.

I’m interested in his views of where God comes into all this. After all, this valley was once the physical definition of the term “Godforsaken.”

Aba Hawi disagrees. “God was here when the land was bad,” he says. “And he’s still here. But God will only help those who help themselves.” More

 

Starved for Energy, Pakistan Braces for a Water Crisis

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Energy-starved Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new resource crisis: major water shortages, the Pakistani government warned this week.

A combination of global climate change and local waste and mismanagement have led to an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply, said the minister for water and energy, Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

“Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” Mr. Asif said in an interview, echoing a warning that he first issued at a news conference in Lahore this week.

The prospect of a major water crisis in Pakistan, even if several years distant, offers a stark reminder of a growing challenge in other poor and densely populated countries that are vulnerable to global climate change.

In Pakistan, it poses a further challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has come under sharp criticism for failing to end the country’s electricity crisis. In some rural areas, heavy rationing has meant that as little as four hours of electricity a day is available.

In the interview, Mr. Asif said the government had started to bring the electricity crisis under control, and predicted a return to a normal supply by 2017. But energy experts are less confident that such a turnaround is possible, given how long and complex the problem has proved to be.

Now the country’s water supply looms as a resource challenge, intensified by Pakistan’s enduring infrastructure and management problems.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Pakistani economy. The 2,000-mile-long Indus River, which rises in the Himalayas and spans the country, feeds a vast network of irrigation canals that line fields producing wheat, vegetables and cotton, all major sources of foreign currency. In the north, hydroelectric power stations are a cornerstone of the creaking power system.

A combination of melting glaciers, decreasing rainfall and chronic mismanagement by successive governments has put that water supply in danger, experts say.

In a report published in 2013, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, with a water availability of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year — a fivefold drop since independence in 1947, and about the same level as drought-stricken Ethiopia.

“It is a very serious situation,” said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership. “I feel it is going to be more serious than the recent oil shortages.”

Shortages of resources have climbed to the top of the political agenda in recent years. Fuel shortages last month, for which government officials blamed mismanagement by the national oil company, caused lengthy lines outside fuel stations that embarrassed the government at a time of low global oil prices.

Mr. Sharif’s government was already grappling with the seemingly intractable electricity crisis, which regularly causes blackouts of 10 hours a day even in major cities. And Mr. Sharif has been visibly distracted by grueling political duels, with the opposition politician Imran Khan, who accuses him of stealing the 2013 election, and with powerful military leaders who have undermined his authority in key areas.

Mr. Asif, the water and energy minister, said the government had started to turn the corner. But he acknowledged that the country’s resource problems were, to a large degree, endemic. “There is a national habit of extravagance,” he said, noting that it extended across resource areas, whether gas, electricity or water.

“I will be very careful not to use the word ‘drought,’ but we are water stressed right now, and slowly, we are moving to be a water-starved country,” he said.

Evidence of chronic water shortages have been painfully evident in some parts of Pakistan in recent years. A drought caused by erratic rainfall in Tharparkar, a desert area in southern Sindh Province, caused a humanitarian emergency in the region last year.

“The frequency of monsoon rains has decreased but their intensity has increased,” said Mr. Amir of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “That means more water stress, particularly in winters.”

Water is also tied to nationalist, even jihadist, politics in Pakistan. For years, religious conservatives and Islamist militants have accused rival India, where the Indus River system rises, of constricting Pakistan’s water supply.

Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, regularly rails against Indian “water terrorism” during public rallies.

Mr. Asif said that contrary to such claims, India was not building reservoirs on rivers that flow into Pakistan. “We will never let it happen,” he said, citing the Indus Water Treaty, an agreement between the two countries that was brokered by the World Bank and signed in the 1960s.

One major culprit in Pakistan’s looming water crisis, experts say, is the country’s inadequate water storage facilities. In India, about one-third of the water supply is stored in reservoirs, compared with just 9 percent in Pakistan, Mr. Amir said.

“We built our last dam 46 years ago,” he said. “India has built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline.”

Experts say the country’s chaotic policies are hurting its image in the eyes of Western donors who could help alleviate the mounting resource crises.

“The biggest looming crisis is of governance, not water — which could make this country unlivable in the next few years,” said Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert with the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute, a research group based in Islamabad. More

 

Ground water depletion driving global conflicts – NASA scientist

ROME, Nov 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Global ground water supplies, crucial for sustaining agriculture, are being depleted at an alarming rate with dangerous security implications, a leading scientist said.

Cracked ground of the Atibainha dam Brazil

“It's a major cause for concern because most of the places where it (ground water depletion) is happening are major food producing regions,” James Famiglietti, a University of California professor who conducts research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“India is the worst off, followed by the Middle East, and the U.S. is probably number three … the Chinese, particularly on the north China plain, are more water limited than people believe.”

Famiglietti's conclusions are based on his latest research paper “The global ground water crisis” published in the journal Nature Climate Change last month.

The study uses analysis of satellite images to warn that ground water in many of the world's largest aquifers is being exploited at a far faster rate than it can be naturally replenished.

Farming accounts for more than 80 percent of the United States' water use, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the figures are similar globally.

Famiglietti has been called to the Pentagon a number of times to discuss the potential impact of groundwater scarcity with leading military planners.

Water-related conflicts are already happening, he said, and security experts are bracing for more.

“In 90 percent of the world where there are violent conflicts, there are water scarcity issues,” he said.

Water scarcity has been one component driving Syria's civil war, he said. The agricultural sector lacks sufficient water to farm, and a “young generation of unhappy farmers moved to the city and conflict ensued”.

Oil-rich, water scarce countries in the Gulf currently rely on desalinated sea water for much of their water consumption.

Some analysts suggest that more countries will embrace energy-intensive desalination, particularly using nuclear technology, if current trends continue.

Famiglietti said this would not be a good option, as it requires too much energy, and won't be able to efficiently provide the volumes of water needed for large-scale agriculture.

Governments first need to acknowledge there is a problem, he said, and then factor scarcity into pricing, while investing in conservation and new technologies to promote efficiency. More

 

Wastewater recycling, part of the solution to water shortage?

After the report on mountaineering and my experiences on the ascent to Mount Aconcagua, I return to the subject of water, and the opportunities and challenges in recycling it.

In earlier posts here I wrote about a very sophisticated system of wastewater recycling in Singapore, which turns it back into drinking water.

And at this year’s Singapore International Water Week, the Californian Orange County received the highest recognition, for a scheme where perfectly treated wastewater is pumped back into underground aquifers, to be later pumped up again as drinking water. It also serves as a barrier to seawater intrusion.

These two examples, especially Singapore, are probably the most far-reaching examples I know of achievement in water recycling.

Places like San Diego, hit by a drought, are now re-considering again the idea to follow the Singapore example, despite some opposition from civil society. So, to what extent is it possible to scale up these kinds of activities globally; is there potential for wastewater to contribute in a substantial way to closing the gap of some 300 cubic kilometres between the level of water withdrawals and sustainable supply?

Estimates show close to 300 cubic kilometres of wastewater is generated by municipalities per year (average 2003-12). This is the equivalent of some 50% of global average annual withdrawals for household use.

Part of the other 50% of withdrawals not counted as ‘wastewater’ may well be lost in leakage in pipes (in some countries this accounts for up to 70% of the water withdrawn by the municipal water supply schemes). Another part could be ‘used’ through evapotranspiration in lawns and gardens, etc.

As the table below shows, only about half of this wastewater is actually collected and treated, but less than 10% of the treated wastewater is directly reused.

Table 1: Municipal wastewater generation and treatment data 2003-2012, country groups by income per capita

Source: FAO aquastat

 

To get an idea of how municipal water could contribute to closing the gap between withdrawals and sustainable supply, let me go through the water supply chain.

The first step would require a better understanding of what happens with the 50% of municipal water apparently ‘disappearing’. Where this is down to leakage, governments have to set the right incentives so municipal water authorities address the issue.

One way proposed by the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) in South Africa, which has been implemented by the government there, is to measure both water delivery and water intake, and to pay a premium to the schemes where the difference (i.e., water unaccounted for) gets smaller.

According to 2030 WRG cost-curve estimates, the cost savings would by far exceed the necessary spending to reduce the leakage.

As part of my proposals for targets within the water goal for post-2015 sustainable development, I suggest primary treatment of all wastewater by 2030 – an idea I will come back to in a later post.

So, what happens with 285 km³ of estimated wastewater generated, and what needs to be done? We will first have to increase collection, particularly in economically deprived areas, to make sure wastewater is collected and available for proper treatment.

Actually, only 36% of the world’s population has a sewage connection; this leaves 4.6 billion people unconnected. According to a WHO study, initial investment to set up a sewer connection is about USD 170 per capita; so the investment cost to connect them would be somewhere close to USD 800 billion. The annual cost of capital, repayment and operating cost is estimated at USD 1 per m³.

Next: treatment of both the up-to-now untreated collected – and the newly collected – wastewater. Estimates amount to USD 0.35 per m³. A big part of this cost is energy, an often forgotten link in the water-food-energy nexus framework.

And last but not least: less than 10% of treated wastewater is used directly. This can and must be increased. Direct use is, for instance, the Singapore approach, bringing treated water back to consumers as so-called ‘NEWater’.

Another example is Australia: around 1.4 cubic kilometers of municipal wastewater are treated, of which 0.4 cubic kilometers are used directly, mostly in agriculture.

At Nestlé we have a similar approach. All our factories treat wastewater (in fact the first wastewater treatment plant in the group was built in the 1930s, so we understood the need for this very early) and as much of this treated wastewater as possible is used directly.

At the same time, we should keep in mind indirect use, even though it’s often difficult to measure. Treated wastewater is returned to rivers and then often withdrawn again and treated further for human consumption.

One might, for instance, assume that a significant part of the water in the River Thames, once it reaches London, is treated wastewater from communities further up the river. Increasing the share of direct use of wastewater should clearly be encouraged – in a form accepted by local communities.

So, all in all there are some significant opportunities to use treated wastewater as a resource, helping to close the gap between freshwater withdrawals and sustainable supply. But these opportunities need to be carefully evaluated, to make sure they are fully accepted, but also cost and energy effective when compared to other solutions. Via Peter Brabeck-Letmathe – Linkedin More

 

Ongoing drought in Brazil brings rising tensions

The western USA is not the only place suffering from lack of rain, Latin America’s economic powerhouse has been struck hard by a powerful and ongoing water crisis.

The worst drought since records began 84 years ago has constrained the Brazillian economy in many ways, particularly coffee production, agriculture and hydroelectric power generation, which accounted for 80% of electricity generation. This power fuels the economic development on which millions are counting to rise out of poverty, and the loss has slowed the entire economy, due to the need to import expensive fossil fuels in order to keep the lights on and water pumps running (costing $6 billion extra so far this year, while increasing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions).


Water rationing has been imposed in many parts of the country for months, but the situation is approaching a critical point. Nineteen large cities are under water rationing rules, and the water catchment capacity feeding the megalopolis of Sao Paolo (20 million inhabitants and the economic capital of the entire continent) is down to 10%. Carefully husbanded, and tapping water usually deemed of inferior quality, there is enough left to squeeze out of the system for a hundred days consumption. States are now squabbling over allocation of the remaining water resources, and fighting has erupted sporadically in some rural areas.

In Sao Paolo itself, financial incentives to reduce consumption have been accompanied by cutting water pressure at night, effectively cutting off all the poorer areas of the city which sit on hills. In nearby Gaurulhos residents of some neighbourhoods are getting water one day in three. Balancing the competing needs of drinking water and power generation is also having societal consequences, exacerbating general social tension, and helping fuel reactions such as the protests and riots back in June.

The drought may be linked to climate change, since the rains that normally come south from evaporation in the Amazon basin failed to arrive, a potentially very worrying symptom. It also reveals some of the likely types of economic cost and societal tension that will arise and worsen as the world warms further and the consequences begin to bite. Some early spring rains appeared in Brazil this week, enough at least to halt the fall in Sao Paolo’s reserves, but the prognosis for the coming rainy season is still very uncertain.

Via Facebook –The Earth Story

Image credit: Reuters/Nacho Doce

http://www.theguardian.com/weather/2014/sep/05/brazil-drought-crisis-rationing
http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/12/us-brazil-economy-fiscal-idUSBREA1B1CY20140212
http://phys.org/news/2012-05-worst-drought-years-toll-northern.html

 

 

 

 

Karachi thirsts for a water supply

KARACHI: On the outskirts of the slums of Pakistan’s biggest city, protesters burning tires and throwing stones have what sounds like a simple demand: They want water at least once a week.

In Karachi people go days without getting water from city trucks, sometimes forcing them to use groundwater contaminated with salt. A recent drought has only made the problem worse. And as the city of roughly 18 million people rapidly grows, the water shortages are only expected to get worse.

“During the last three months they haven’t supplied a single drop of water in my neighbourhood,” protester Yasmeen Islam said. “It doesn’t make us happy to come on the roads to protest but we have no choice anymore.”

Karachi gets most of its water from the Indus River — about 550 million gallons per day — and another 100 million gallons from the Hub Dam that is supplied by water from neighbouring Balochistan province. But in recent years, drought has hurt the city’s supply.

Misbah Fareed, a senior official with the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board that runs the city’s water supplies, said that only meets about half the city’s needs — 1.2 billion gallons a day.

Karachi’s water distribution network has exacerbated the problem by forcing much of the city to get its water through tankers instead of directly from pipes. The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board operates 12 water hydrants around the city where tankers fill up and then distribute. Even people in the richest areas of the city get their water through tankers that come a few times a week to fill up underground cisterns.

But criminals have illegally tapped into the city’s water pipes and set up their own distribution points where they siphon off water and sell it.

“I personally know some people previously associated with drug mafias who now switched to the water tanker business,” Fareed said. “Just imagine how lucrative the business is.”

Other areas of Pakistan pump massive amounts of groundwater. But in the coastal city of Karachi, the underground water is too salty to drink. Many people have pumps but they use the water for things such as showering or washing clothes.

The water shortage is exacerbated by Karachi’s massive population. Pakistani military operations and American drone strikes in the northern tribal regions, as well as natural disasters such as flooding and earthquakes, have pushed people toward a city long seen as the economic heart of Pakistan.

The city is trying to increase the amount of water it gets from the Indus River by building another canal — dubbed the K4 project. But even if they were to get political approval from the capital to take more water from the river, it would take a minimum of four years to build.

But analysts say supply isn’t the only problem. Farhan Anwar, who runs an organisation called Sustainable Initiatives in Karachi, said the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board is horribly overstaffed and many of those are political appointees. The cost for water is also very low and the agency doesn’t collect all that it’s due, Anwar said. That’s made it difficult to upgrade the ageing pipes the system does have, meaning contamination and leakages are common.

Meanwhile, Karachi residents have to spend more money or walk further and further to get water. One elderly resident Aisha Saleem said in recent months even the little water they get from the water board is salty.

“Women and kids have to go miles by foot and carry drinking water every day,” she said More