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Ethiopia: ICRC intensifies its water activities

21-03-2006 Feature

Lying on the borders of Kenya and Somalia, south-eastern Ethiopia is facing severe drought. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been helping civilians affected by armed violence in this region since 1995, is currently focusing its efforts on ensuring that nomads and their herds have access to drinking water.


© ICRC / Stefan Spang 
The ICRC has already supported the construction of around thirty berkats in regions where they are not traditionally used. 
    Because of the drought, the nomads are leading an increasingly precarious existence. Lack of water and the gradual disappearance of grazing land are slowly decimating their livestock. In response to this emergency, the ICRC has intensified its activities to supply water to berkats constructed in the Afder region.
 Berkat is a Somali word derived from the Arabic berka , meaning " buried cistern. " With an average capacity of 200 to 2,000 cubic metres – or 200,000 to 2 million litres – these underground reservoirs are fed with rainwater collected from channels hundreds of metres long. A heavy downpour can fill a berkat of 500 cubic metres in half an hour and supply 300 people with 20 litres of water per day for three months.
 Berkats, which are usually found in arid areas with an annual rainfall of no more than 400 millimetres, are generally covered with roofs to protect the water from dust, contamination of any sort and evaporation.

In normal times, nomads and their herds constantly move about and use permanent water points such as rivers and wells. The presence of berkats along the main roads makes it possible for some members of the community to settle down if they wish. Elderly people can thus avoid the hardships of the road and children can go to school.

The construction of a berkat 
After the initial excavation work is completed, two or three months are needed to build a berkat – a job in which the local population is fully involved. Cement, metal sheeting for the roof and wire mesh for reinforcing the concrete are trucked in by the ICRC; stones, gravel and sand can usually be found on the spot. When the berkat is ready, the community collects money to fund water trucking so that the reservoir can be immediately put to use.  
  A berkat is built in such a way as to prevent the sediments carried along by heavy rains from being washed into it. The water is clarified by a physical process and not by means of chemical additives. While its quality is that of surface water, it is fit to drink and acceptable to the beneficiaries.  
Since most traditional water points are dry now, there is little point in moving on, especially as the livestock is often too weak to travel long distances.
The ICRC has already supported the construction of around 30 berkats in regions where they were rarely or never found in the past, 12 of them in the Somali region. In the current period of drought, the berkats between Gode, Bare and Cheruti are filled once a week by trucks carrying water pumped from distant rivers and wells sometimes located more than 100 kilometres away.
Water points have a definite strategic value. Before starting work, the ICRC takes special care to negotiate with all the parties involved, in particular the traditional leaders, administrative authorities and weapons bearers with a view to ensuring that the water contained in the berkats, which belong to the community, will be shared and not used as a means of economic or political blackmail.
In addition to regularly supplying berkats, the ICRC continues to rehabilitate traditional water installations found along traditional travel lanes. Moreover, around ten trucks journey along the roads between Gode and Argele and between Deraye and Qoxle to replenish 20 special reservoirs temporarily made available to villagers and nomads.
The ICRC will continue its activities to supply water to this part of Ethiopia until the next rainy season, which is expected in April. If the drought persists, the organization, in cooperation with other humanitarian organizations, will take the necessary steps to meet the vital needs of the communities living in the affected areas.