Somaliland Cyberspace

Water harvesting technologies in assuring food security: Lessons from the pastoral areas of Somali Region, Ethiopia

Yohannes Gebre Michael


Today most of the chronic food insecure areas of Ethiopia are the pastoralist and agropastoralists.

The cumulative effect of the historical political marginalization of pastoralists in decision-making and recurrent drought and famine had attributed to the prevailing crisis. Moreover, many pastoralists had been losing their livestock assets and dropping out from pastoralism to cover the water expenses for private Birkas. Conflicts between clans and subclans on the use of scarce water and pasture are also becoming a rule than an exception in these areas. Moreover, the emergency interventions with water tankering and fodder were not only expensive but have minimum impact to the magnitude of the problem.

An assessment of success stories in water development and food security in the pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of Somali Region in Ethiopia goes to the local NGO Hope for the Horn. The NGO has introduced a Haffir dams with holistic approach which consists community nursery development, aforestation and closure areas, fodder banking, use of different soil and water conservation techniques and the establishment of environment and water committees. With the NGO strategy of spatial distribution of blue (water points) and green belts (fodder banking) more than 17 Haffir dams had been evenly established across 400 kms.

Participatory monitoring and evaluation is also widely practiced which attributes to the reorientation of the design of the dam and approaches in the development process. Generally the success stories of the water harvesting technologies is based on the adaptive continuity of external intervention with the harmony of local resources, improvement of livelihood and resilience to drought, local institutional building and added values to the innovative capacity of the community to solve their problems. However, Haffir dam has some challenges such as the expansion of settlement around water points and community dependency on the technology.

1. Introduction

In the present day Ethiopia, the pastoralists and agro-pastorlists accounts up to 6 million people and occupy an area of more than 61% of the total national area of Ethiopia. Out of the national livestock population about 40 % of the cattle herd, three quarter of the goats and 100% of the camels are found in pastoral and agro-pastoralist areas. Moreover, the pastoral and agro-pastoral areas are serving as a major source of irrigation schemes (government and private), settlements, hydroelectric power, live animals for export, and tourist attractions (Fox et-al, 2002, Yohannes et-al, 2002).

Surprisingly today these pastoralist areas are known for their drought, famine and dependency on food aid. Government regimes through history have never integrated them in to the national economy; rather they were considered lawless and conflicts-ridden. The development of settlement and irrigation schemes in the name of modernizations which paralyze the dry and wet seasonís source of pasture and water was the outcomes of such mentality. The cumulative effect of the historical neglect, top down approaches, development of inappropriate technologies, poor marketing and extension system and failure to appreciate the rational behind pastoralism were attributing to the crisis in pastoral areas (Hogg, 1997).

Since 1997 there had been serious drought in the Horn of Africa, which can be partially attributed to the global climatic changes. Added to this, conflicts and insecurity have seemed the rule rather than an exception in the Horn over the past few decades. The Ethio-Somali war of 1977/78, and the civil war in Somalia in late 1980s and early 1990s created many man made crisis including refuges, returnees IDPs and land degradation.

As emergency intervention water tankering and fodder distribution which is an expensive operation was a common phenomenon in Somali region. As a response to this Hope for the Horn a local NGO had implemented Haffir dams in different parts of the Somali region with holistic approach which harmonizes the ecological and human eco-system and attributed to food security of the local community. Accordingly the overall aim of this paper is to reflect role of Haffir dam in assuring food security and sustainable resource management. As a methodology a check list was developed to conduct participatory discussions with the differentiated community (ethnic groups, elders, women, water and environment committee, the poor and better-off).

Moreover, field observations on vegetation cover and water sources were made during the dry and wet seasons.

The study area, the district of Gashamo is located south East of Ethiopia about 400km east of Jigiga (Somali Region capital). It hosts a semi arid climatic zone with bimodal rain fall in April - June (Gu) and October- December (Dayer). Usually the rainfall is unreliable both in space and duration. Camel, goats and sheep are the dominant livestock in the district.

The estimated population in Gashamo district was over 130,000 people distributed over 129 villages. The dominant clan in the district is Issaq, which has many sub clans including Haber-Yonis and Haber-Jealo. Generally it has poor transport and communication infrastructures, social services and poor marketing.

Drought and famine, livestock disease, soil erosion by wind and water, influxes of refuges had plagued the district. As a survival strategy most people depend on livestock sector, while the others are involved in petty trades, daily labor, selling of Berka water and remittances from relatives abroad (Yohannes, 2002).

2. Sources of water in the pastoralist areas

i. Natural ponds: Usually natural ponds are located on depressions or concave slopes. The small ponds are locally known as Qayder and the relatively bigger ones are the Harro. Some of the ponds serve during the rainy season (Gu and Dayer) others serve few weeks in the dry season (Hagaya and Jelaal). There is no special water management and sanitations; all livestock enter to the water points. Consequently the trampled soil becomes very lose and easily washed out by wind and water to be deposited in the ponds.

This contributes to the short life span of the ponds.

ii. Locally made ponds: These are very old men made ponds, locally known as Balliyo even the pastoralists no longer know who originally excavated theme. Also small in number they are widely distributed in a range of 100 to 200kms thought Degahbour zone to prevent over concentration of animals in one spot and minimize also conflicts. Usually poor people who lost their livestock and temporally camp on such spots manage these water points. For the systematic serving of watering the animals the camel owners in return give them some milk. Still the system is functional but in a diminishing trend with the introduction of Birkas and Haffir dams (Yohannes et-al , 2002).

iii. Earth dams: With the help of the government and some NGOs, some of the natural ponds were excavated by machinery in a semi-circle form all over Somali region. An observation in Aware camps and Gashamo area indicates that by and large such ponds are now silting up as they do not integrate the water management and catchments rehabilitation. Still such intervention is prevailing under emergency interventions by NGOs and government due to their inability to learn from past mistakes.

iv. Private Birkas: They are in-ground tanks lined with stone and concert, used to collect and store run-off rainwater for human and livestock consumption. In the Gashamo area it was introduced in the 1950s from the British colony and considerably increases in the 1970s following the drought and 1980s following the civil wars in Somalia and incoming refuges.

The local administration of Gashamo estimated there are more than 20,000 Birkas in the 129 villages. However, currently 30 to 40% of the Birkas are not functional. Some are too old and become expensive to be maintained, others were cracked due to plant roots and some are bad in quality of construction and do not stay long.

Generally the development of Birkas in Gashamo areas has contributed to decrease the scarcity of water, create source of income by selling water. However, this source of water has a combination of problems such as silitation, sanitation and malaria infestation.

Moreover, such intervention was a turning point from communal resource management to individual resource ownership based on profit making. Today the construction of Private Birkas has been diminishing due to the weakness of economic strength of the community and expansion of construction of water points by government and NGO supports.

v. Haffir dam: Historically Haffir dam in Somali region was introduced from Sudan through UNHCR in the refuge camps of Aware. As of its original design it was meant to collect water only for human consumption. However, Hope for the Horn a local NGO closely working with pastoralists had been continuing to modify the technology by accommodating some of the feedbacks of the pastoralists. The Haffir dams made by machinery were to serve both livestock and human beings. The main dam and the silt trap were supplemented with outlet canal attached to two shallow wells where water is pumped to the elevated distribution cistern and further through gravity distributed to the livestock troughs and human collection points.

The cost of constructing an average Haffir dam with a capacity of 60,000 cubic meters of water accounts about 1.4 million Ethiopian Birr (one dollar is about 8.5 Birr). It is assume such volume of water is sufficient to supply up to 20,000 people and their animals for four or three months.

As a system, the Haffir dam is integrated with environmental rehabilitation where the command area is closed, afforestated and complemented by site specific soil and water conservation techniques like micro basins, soil bunds and check dams were applied.

Therefore, the biological and physical measures were facilitating as a silt trap and fodder banking. The check dams were made from the locally available materials of dead branches and living trees. The nurseries were also producing dominantly indigenous multi-purpose trees (fodder, fruit and medicinal values) and few fast growing exotic pants were also introduced to the system. The water and environmental committees which consists elders, women and youth are established on the onset of the Dam construction.

Currently there are a total of 17 Haffir dams constructed across the 400 kms, with an average distance of 60 kms from each other. These dams which serve as a blue (water) and green (fodder) belts cover the five districts of Gashamo (5 Haffir dams), Aware (5 Haffir dams), Harshen (3 Haffir dams), Kebrebehyah (3 Haffir dams) and Jigiga (1 Haffir dam). The spatial distribution of the blue and green belts is based on the consideration of different factors, such as the distribution of other sources of water (natural, tradational and Birkas), clan and sub-clan distribution, mobility patterns and reciprocity among the clans with territorial fluidity.

3. Monitoring and evaluations

By and large the M&E of the physical parameters which includes survival rate of the seedlings, diversity of plants and fodder availability, gully stabilization, silt accumulation in the dams are very similar between the community and the local NGO.

However, the community has their own informal observations dealing with the socioeconomic factors such as mobility ranges, conflicts, and expansion of settlements, spread of livestock diseases, malaria infestations, and access to fodder and technological appropriateness. The local NGO has an opportunity to accommodate such innovative local observations through the regular meetings with the community during the trainings as a phase out strategy, workshops and exchange visits. Moreover, the feedback of the community had attributed to the continuous modification of the Haffir dam designs, less disturbance of the ecology during dam construction, geographical expansion of dam construction and gives more focus on multipurpose indigenous plants and fruit trees in the nursery development.

4. Success stories of Haffir dam construction

The out come of the discussions both in dry and wet seasons with the differentiated community of Gashamo area and field observations had helped to make the following ecological, economic and socio-political implications of the water harvesting interventions ; Community participation in planning: Through the existing local institutions usually led by elders the location of the Haffir dam sites is determined. The dam sites are mostly located on natural ponds with high storage capacity and low problem of seepage.

Moreover, the elders consider the dry and wet grazing pattern and the reciprocity among the different clans and sub clans.

Intensification of biodiversity: Due to the synergetic effect of the different water harvesting technologies quick vegetation cover was made possible to minimize water and wind erosion, less siltation of dams, access to clean water and stimulated the multiple uses of plants for fodder and medicinal use.

Introduction of innovative principles: To many of the private Berka owner's desiltation expenses are serious problems. This is also compounded by the contamination of the water, as they are not far from the villages. After observing the site of the Haffir dams some of them had proposed to use small silt traps and expand their closure area to minimize the contamination of the water.

Asset building and diversification: Over coming the scarcity of water stimulates restocking and diminishing of emergency intervention with water tankering and fodder supply. Many pastoralists use to sell their livestock to cover the cost of livestock watering.

" I had more than 50 camels and more than 100 shoats. During the very serious drought (between January and April) I had sold two camels with 3 million Somali shillings to cover the 4-5 months water cost. Today the cost of water in the Haffir dam is almost free. ďA pastoralist from Gasahmo.

Moreover, with availability of dams many pastoralists have shifted their investment from Birka construction to small shops and petty trades and many schools were established due to the availability of water. The more the economic diversification the less will be affected by the drought cycle.

Empowering the pastoralist in decision making: The foundation of pastoralism is common resource management which is complemented with reciprocity and traditional social safety nets. However, this was deteriorating with the intervention of private Birkas which are coined to profit making of individuals. However, the introduction of the common Haffirs contributes an enabling environment for a communal concern of the pastoralists through the different committees created. Moreover, with the election of women in the water and environment committees, it creates a foundation for women's involvement in development issues of their locality.

Minimizing conflicts on resource uses: The strategy of the blue and green belt had minimized the pressure on specific water sources and consequent overgrazing and land degradations. Before the Haffir dams construction the Gashamo pastoralist used to travel frequently long distances to Aware and Somaliland, where some times end up with some conflicts when the water becomes scarce. Now when some of the clans and sub-clans have water points at their locality they feel they have some thing to offer and the reciprocity will be with mutual understandings and less room for conflicts to occur.

The stakeholder had also mentioned some of the threats from Haffir dam development, such as the spread of livestock diseases due to high attraction of livestock, habitat for Malaria with the expansion of settlements around the dams and less attention was given to the construction and maintenance of the other sources of water.


The promising achievements of food security and sustainable resource management through water harvesting technologies were as the result of a combination of factors. These fundamental factors attributing to the success stories includes addressing of community felt needs, working with the existing local institutions, empowerment of the community in decision making, spatial distribution of water sources (representing clans and sub-clans), establishment of strong and devoted water and environmental committee and the use of training as a phase out strategy.

Moreover, the undesired outcomes of the Haffir dam construction can be minimized with regular participatory and dynamic monitoring and evaluations which encompasses beyond the local boundary. Furthermore, the overdependence on the Haffir dams needs to be minimized with the strategic planning of synchronization of the different sources of water.


Fox John and Yohannes G/M (2002): The management of natural resources in the pastoral areas of Ethiopia, Knowledge building process (consultancy work for Oxfam international) May 2002, and Addis Ababa
Hogg Richard (ed, 1997): Pastoralists, ethnicity and the state in Ethiopia. Haan Publishing, London
Hope for the Horn (2001): 2001 annual report, natural resource management, prepared by Abdulkarim A.Guleid, December 2001, Addis Ababa
IIRR (2004): Food security in the pastoralist areas of Ethiopia, International Institute of Rural construction, Nairobi, Kenya.
Sanford, S and Yohannes, H. (2000): Report of the pastoral appraisal team on emergency response interventions in pastoral areas of Ethiopia, Report to DFID
Yohannes G/M and Waters-Bayer, (2002): Evaluation on of natural resources management program of Hope for the Horn, Somalia region, Ethiopia, August 2002, Addis Ababa
Yohannes G/Michael (2002): An impact evaluation of rain harvesting and sanitation project in the Gashamo district of Somali region, Ethiopia, Consultancy service for International Rescue Committee, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Address of author: Yohannes GebreMichael, Addis Ababa University, Department of Geography and Development Studies, P.O.Box 33569, Email: