Eritrea: Securing Availability of Water for Good

Opinions News


Life without water is unimaginable. It is sad that in today’s world 2.1 billion people live without safe drinking water at home. This affects their health, education, and livelihoods. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 commits the world to ensure that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes targets for protecting the natural environment and reducing pollution.

The annual rainfall of Eritrea is quite low. Some regions have better rainfall, about 1000mm annually. Conversely, major parts of the country get less than 300mm. The country has little water reserves, 548 cubic meters per inhabitant. It is equivalent to 7.3 times less than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa and 90 times lesser than the amount of water resources available per inhabitant living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For this reason, the government follows a policy which promotes the construction of large, small and micro-water dams, to conserve every drop of water and set up a network of artificial lakes with multiple functions. Dams and their associated reservoirs provide the ability to store water for later use, provide hydropower and some level of protection from extreme precipitation events.

If designed correctly, dams allow water to be available at all times increasing exploitable renewable water resources. More importantly, reserving every drop of water on micro dams sustains lives of people and introduces a sustainable harvest of production. The construction of dams is of great importance in addressing water shortage and in making water available for irrigation.

According to the 2016 edition of “The Little Green Data Book”, published by the World Bank, in Eritrea, agriculture uses about 95% of the country’s water resources. Since the Government of Eritrea made agriculture its top development priority, water is the number one resource needed for success in agriculture. The ongoing building of a network of water dams in Eritrea is, thus, an investment whose long-term value cannot be underestimated.

The micro dams provide water for small-scale horticultural farming throughout the year. Government and individually owned farms use solar power energy to deliver the needed amount of water to farms. This allows farming to continue, even if no diesel is available.

Today, Eritrean markets are flooded with supplies grown by irrigation-based agriculture. The construction of the dams in Eritrea has also enabled farmers to boost their livestock rearing. Farmers jointly market their products in order to gain from economies of scale. To achieve this they harvest their produce on specific days and jointly transport the product to the market in Asmara where they have a common wholesale market. Many of their buyers are small scale retailers who would then sell in different locations of the city.

A few years ago, when the river Anseba dried off during a drought spell, the same people would move from one place to another in search of pasture and water for their livestock, and the river banks would be deserted.

Networks of water tanks built in Asmara
Networks of water tanks built on Asmara’s high ground sites, especially in densely populated boroughs, for greater access to potable/tap water

Now, encouraged by the Water Action Decade launched this year on World Water Day, communities are turning to nature-based solutions to sustain their livelihoods. For instance in alignment with SDG 6, 13, 14, and 15, a project of “Climate change adaptation program” in water and agriculture in the Anseba region of Eritrea is working with vulnerable communities to increase their resilience to climate change through integrated water and land management.

One of the most innovative aspects of the project is the construction of diversion structures on the seasonal Anseba River. During the dry spells, the structures boost water recharge, ensuring constant water supply to the farms in a seven-kilometer radius. In addition, flood water is harvested, stored in reservoirs and pumped using solar energy to irrigate farms.

To ensure sustainability, the project involves local communities through cash-for-work initiatives, in soil erosion control measures such as hillside terracing, reforestation and check dam construction. Village development committees are in charge of identifying priorities, organizing and facilitating activities, and participating in rangeland management.

About 9000 households targeted by the project also received drought-resistant seeds and early maturing crops like sorghum and millet. Dairy cows, chickens, and beehives were distributed to farmers to encourage alternative livelihoods and provide much-needed protein boost to their diet. A savings scheme is helping farmers purchase farming inputs and spare parts for the water harvesting and irrigation systems. Plans are underway to launch a networking platform on climate change for stakeholders throughout the country, and to replicate the project in the communities of Hamelmalo and Habero.

Like the mining policy of Eritrea that was introduced in the January 2017 edition of Hommes d’Afrique, the network of Eritrean water dams can serve as a model to many African countries for the following reasons. Often in Africa, immense water dams are constructed which become “white elephants” and destroy small-scale farmers and micro-water dams used for local farming and the local economy.

Secondly, it is a “Local Content”. In Africa, 99% of the time building up large and mega water dams means giving the job and the human resources to non-African enterprises. From its feasibility study to its operations and maintenance, the foreigner will be the master of the project. He will come with his know-how and will not share it with the local professionals. Things are going differently in Eritrea with the building of small and micro-water dams. The third point that makes the Eritrean system of water dams catchy is tourism. Water dams add a beautiful touristic panorama to the Eritrean landscape, which is quite special.

This diversity generates multiple experiences. An intra-African benchmarking would allow African countries to share experiences. Without a doubt, the system of water dams of Eritrea can be mentioned.

Apart from this, access to potable water has been provided to some communities in various parts of Eritrea. Water is now readily available at people’s doorsteps with no need to walk long distances to fetch water. Water catchments such as micro dams have been built in the past and are still being built, engaging communities in hard work for food and nutrition security with abundant amounts of water reserved.

Construction of dams is a comprehensive development initiative which causes the economy of a country to improve through agricultural production. It also contributes to a wise way of land and water management. Moreover, it is an opportunity for communities’ settlement and the establishment of new towns reducing the effect of urbanization on major cities. Overall, living standards of the population and communities are greatly impacted by such national development.