Water, sanitation and hygiene in arid and semi-arid lands: What can we learn from the DREAM ASAL Conference 2019?

12 November 2019

From 29th September to 3rd October the DREAM ASAL (Development of Resilience Empowering Alternative Measures for Ethiopian Lowlands) Conference 2019 took place in the Ethiopian city of Samara, capital of the Afar region. The five-day conference reunited key stakeholders from government, INGOs and CSOs not only from Ethiopia but also from Kenya, Pakistan, Rwanda and Somaliland. It was organised by the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture and facilitated by the GIZ- Strengthening Drought Resilience (SDR) programme.

The DREAM Conference had two major aims: 1) discuss ways to control, eradicate and make beneficial use of invasive species in the arid and semi-arid lowlands (ASAL), and 2) gather innovative and tested methodologies and technologies in the area of community planning, land rehabilitation, livelihood development, rangeland development, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) including disaster risk management, in the lowland areas of the horn of Africa.

In this blog post I present the main takeaways in relation to WASH in ASAL from the discussions held in the two-day group work. I attended the DREAM Conference representing Fostvedt-Mills Consulting (FMC), a young and promising development consulting firm, working on WASH for pastoralist communities focusing on participatory programme design, pilot implementation, gender and environmental mainstreaming.

As a brief introduction, the fourth day of the conference was dedicated to reflect on the main opportunities and challenges of implementing WASH interventions in ASAL (mainly in Ethiopia). Ways forward and the drafting of an action plan took place on the fifth day. The workshop was attended by several key stakeholders which greatly enriched the discussions (to mention a just a few: Action for Integrated Sustainable Development Association (AISDA), Ethiopian and Finish Red Cross, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), GIZ-SDR, Somaliland Ministry of Water Resources, and UNICEF Ethiopia).

Let’s start with the opportunities first

Participants identified the availability of groundwater (60 litres/per second) as one of the key opportunity in ASAL, not only of Ethiopia but also of Somaliland. Together with this, the possibility to install solar technology for drinking water, irrigation and climate change mitigation. Whereas, it was recognized that solar power technology involves a higher capital expenditure, it was pointed out that this renewable technology lasts longer and requires less maintenance compared to other technologies such as diesel water pumping. Sand dam and water spreading weir1 construction were also identified as other opportunities in ASAL as dams can capture the scarce rain and hold water for 3 to 4 months – just for illustration, in the Ethiopian region of Afar it rains on average 5 days per year.

Furthermore, UNICEF mentioned that, together with the European Union RESET, it is finishing the development of a deep groundwater mapping for climate resilient water resources. The modelling will serve to understand where groundwater is available. The report is now being peer-reviewed and the launch is expected on November 2019.

(During Day 3, we visited GIZ-SDR’s Wanassa solar pump project, which is providing 104 m3 of safe drinking water to 5,525 community members, 20 m3 of water to almost 300 livestock, and also supporting maize and fodder production. Photo credit: Maria Gerth-Niculescu)

The traditional knowledge of the Afar communities in Ethiopia lowlands was also identified as an opportunity for the collection of water and the building of latrines. Afar pastoralist women were recognized as innovators who, used to building their houses every time they migrate in search for water, are eager to construct toilets using locally available materials. Invasive tree species (such as the Prosopis Juliflora) that extend into large areas of arid regions provide potential materials for pastoralist communities to construct pit latrines. It was also noted that their use of these trees for building is controlled and regulated.

The engagement and commitment of clan and religious leaders was also identified as an opportunity, especially when it comes to behaviour change interventions which need the support from local leaders for these activities to be accepted and communities to be triggered. For example, in Afar where the majority of the population is Muslim, religious leaders are promoting handwashing with soap and other hygiene practices through the Quran.

Furthermore, health extension workers are already trained on WASH, CLTS, CHAST and PHAST approaches by organisations such as CARE, GIZ-SDR, FMC, Red Cross and UNICEF. This means that if local leaders work closer to health extension workers, scaling up WASH at the local level is not only feasible but can be made sustainable in the arid regions of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian National Open Defecation Free Campaign 2020-24 presents also the opportunity for WASH interventions to further develop and scale up in Ethiopia lowlands, and mainly in Afar, as the region has the furthest to go in what concerns achieving national sanitation and hygiene targets. Multi-actor resources were also recognized available in ASAL; the opportunity here is to bring all those actors in for ideas to materialise and resources to support existing and new WASH interventions.

Lastly, attention was drawn to the growth of tourism in Ethiopian ASAL and the lack of sanitation and hygiene facilities available for visitors. This might represent the chance to engage tourism companies in the construction of toilets and handwashing stations in lowlands and also local communities with new practices that help to conserve their environments and potentiates additional sources of income.

Let’s follow with some of the main challenges

On the fourth day, main WASH challenges in ASAL were also discussed. The participants mentioned that there are high levels of non-functional water schemes in the lowlands. This might be in part due to the low community ownership and accountability of the water schemes, as community members tend not to have a sustained training on how to maintain different types of water technologies. Lack of training after the construction of WASH facilities together with limited data collection and monitoring is one of the major challenges for the arid lands, but not the only one.

Climate change is threatening the arid and semi-arid regions. Every year seems to be a drought year due to the lack of water – even the rainwater is evaporating faster – which degrades the quality of the soil not allowing it to infiltrate sufficient amounts of water and nutrients when these are available. Recurrent droughts can result in an over use of the water sources and a decrease in the water level of existing boreholes, and it can also limit the use of handwashing facilities.

The increase in community displacements due to climate change poses another risk to the WASH access in ASAL. Participants draw attention to the fact that many villages will disappear while social and cultural shocks will make the already vulnerable communities more vulnerable. The concentration of the population in one place can imbalance the ecosystem, creating new challenges for the access to safe drinking water and the use and sustainability of sanitation and hygiene practices.

Participants also mentioned the challenge of sustaining the water sources with the same water quality found at the inauguration time. Despite shallow wells and aquifers being constructed at 40-50 metres in ASAL, in times of extended drought, water is found very deep (over 100 metres), with high temperature and containing fluorides and salinity. This creates an additional difficulty as there is limited knowledge and practice of treating water at the household level.

Additionally, it was recognized that despite the efforts to make WASH a priority, there are still barriers in what concerns WASH implementation and follow up from the government level; this is seen more in isolated geographic areas of ASAL where the fragile infrastructure makes implementation and monitoring become a greater challenge. The need to further strengthen the integration and collaboration between the different WASH actors was also discussed – as it was pointed out by a participant, many new water schemes are being constructed but many others are being abandoned.

Furthermore, the challenge to engage local level actors was also raised. In the Afar region, for example, it is hard for health extension workers to connect with the communities while implementing and monitoring WASH interventions as they usually come from other regions and don’t share the local language as well as many of the cultural and religious norms.

(A participant writes down a WASH challenge in ASAL while others were already identified. Photo credit: Florencia Rieiro)

Let’s move to the ways forward

During the fifth day the participants were asked what immediate action they could take to solve some of the most compelling WASH challenges in ASAL. It was first suggested the development of a more participatory planning to bring all stakeholders in and improve multi-sector coordination. It was identified that this can avoid duplication of efforts and can also bring resources to ASAL to foster WASH financial sustainability. To note, GIZ-SDR and FMC conducted a participatory programme in Afar which involved multi-stakeholder consultations at regional and woreda (district) levels for the development of action plans on sanitation and hygiene; this is something that could be explored further in the lowlands. The collaborative approach of the DREAM Conference is an important aspect that could be replicated to ensure learning and integration within the WASH sector in ASAL.

UNICEF mentioned that, together with the Ethiopian Government, it has already produced a micro-plan to cost how much it takes to achieve sanitation and hygiene targets in Ethiopia. It was recommended to trickle down the micro-planning to the woreda and kebele (ward) levels in the lowlands to understand ground realities and plan for feasible sanitation and hygiene options that help meet targets on time.

Building community capacity for operation and maintenance and prioritising traditional knowledge while doing so was recognized as an important step towards fostering community ownership of the WASH facilities, and reducing the amount of non-functional schemes. It was also mentioned the need to focus further on the community benefits of accessing WASH and to foster water source conservation practices. IRC WASH is already monitoring the functionality of water systems in the lowlands, and working for an improved management of the existing water schemes by engaging government and communities in their sustained maintenance. This might be a good opportunity for other organisations to join in and integrate knowledge and practices to reduce the amount of abandoned facilities.

Participants also proposed strengthening learning spaces, such as the regional WASH Forum, where stakeholders could learn from each other on best practices to scale them – I will also add here to un-learn and to learn from mistakes, always so necessary and commonly forgotten in the WASH sector.

Last but not least, it was also suggested to foster research and innovation to make use of other available resources. And to have a better equipped technology team with whom to more regularly monitor facilities and practices, make water quality tests on site, and rehabilitate deep boreholes. Maybe the participants’ suggestion to develop public-private partnerships to secure the value chain (mainly spare parts and human resources) can be linked here as a way to foster innovations in the ASAL WASH sector.

(Participants discuss ways forward for the WASH sector in ASAL. Photo credit: Florencia Rieiro)

An action plan for WASH in ASAL

As this blog shows, there are institutional, infrastructure and programming challenges. But there are also solutions and specific actions the participants started to outline, such as: fostering WASH Forums as spaces for joint-planning, monitoring and financing led by the Regional Water Bureau and drilling of new boreholes. Another vital recommendation was maintenance of existing infrastructure through a stronger coordination between partners in the field including AISDA, CARE, FMC, GIZ-SDR, IRC WASH, Red Cross, and UNICEF. This maintenance can be further supported by engaging major WASH actors, such as UNICEF, USAID, and WaterAid, in advocating for an increase in the government budget allocated to operation and maintenance of WASH facilities.

Overall, the DREAM Conference 2019 brought the main stakeholders together to discuss opportunities, challenges and ways forward for WASH in ASAL. Integration of sectors and approaches for cooperation and networking, trickle down of micro-planning to the lower government levels, and participatory monitoring and evaluation that leads to joint-learning (and un-learning) are my takeaways from the WASH group discussions. The following weeks are decisive for these actors to come together to review learnings and set an achievable action plan they can commit to and follow for a year, until the second DREAM Conference is held in 2020.

This blog post was written by Independent WASH consultant Florencia Rieiro.

  • 1. As defined by one of the participants, water spreading weirs have a similar functionality to sand dams plus the erosion control over extended areas.