Home Afar Pastoralist Development Association Restoring an oasis – building dams to sustain life in the Afar

Restoring an oasis – building dams to sustain life in the Afar

September, 2019

Water supplies in the Unduru region of Afar, Ethiopia, are increasingly perilous.

Our new activities of reconstructing existing, and building new dams will ensure that when it does rain, the Afar people will have life saving water reserves.


Their lifeblood: An Afar pastoralist rests on rocks near the Bargaale Dam. This photo was taken in December last year, 4 weeks before the dam dried up. Once dry, the Afar herdsmen have to travel up to 300 kms to find other water sources to save their animals.

The Afar people in remote Ethiopia rely on harvesting rain using dams and cisterns for all their water needs. When it has water, the Bargaale Dam, constructed in 1999, provides all water needs for up to 1,500 households (about 9,000 people), who can journey for up to 6 hours to reach it. Over the years, however, silt has built up on the bottom of the dam, reducing its holding capacity. Rather than being their primary, reliable source of water, it now fills with only some pooled water which is hard to collect without also collecting mud.

With water in the dam, it becomes an oasis where the women can collect water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and hygiene, and the herdsmen can sustain their herds of sheep, goats, cattle and camels. Daily, it can provide for all the pastoralists and their families in the area.

Once the water dries up herdsmen have little choice but to travel large distances in search of grazing land and water to keep their herds alive. This divides families, and puts their animals in danger. The rest of the community, the elderly, women and children, have to cope by themselves, relying on trucked water just to survive. The trucked water is not only inefficient, but expensive – truly a last, stressful measure in a crisis to save lives.

But just digging out and reconstructing one dam is not enough for the Afar people to ensure water sustainability. For 12 years now, the rains have become less frequent and more unpredictable. Instead of four rainy seasons, there are now just two. This year both the Winter and Spring rains have failed. Enlarging (removing the silt from and reinforcing) the Bargaale Dam will allow more water to be collected when it does rain, but it is also vital to build another dam in a nearby valley to double the capacity to capture and store the increasingly scarce rains.

Women collect water from the dam for their families using goat skin carriers. Because the water level is low, it is difficult to collect clean water, however, if the dam is dry then women are forced to rely on water that is trucked in to survive.

Valerie Browning, from APDA, speaks passionately of the plight of the Afar people, which has become increasingly desperate after the dam dried up. She says that it is crucial to dig out the dam now so that they can collect the next rains.

“The community is very, very desperate to do this.”

It means everything to them – it means their life, literally. If their herds have got to go kilometres and kilometres to find water first, walking huge distances, then even grazing, the milk is not near the house, the animals are in danger, they have to live away, the family is divided. The children, women and elderly are left to suffer.”

“It’s really an awful situation and that’s what they are up against right now,” Valerie explains. 

The dam will not just alleviate the immediate water needs when rain arrives, it provides the people the opportunity to dream bigger, hope for more.

“If we get the dam in with enough water in it, then we could use the water to do a bit of crop production. Maybe it might not be so good as vegetables, but might be good as fodder. If you grow fodder then you feed your animals in the dry season, and then you have milk. That is another thing you could do – you could grow quick crops, onions that sell well on the market.”

In December last year supporters Zach and Richard Browning visited the Afar people, spending some time with them, listening to their plight and their dreams of water sustainability. The below video describes the current situation. (the dam dried up about 4 weeks after these photos and videos were taken)

Donations to our work with the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) in Ethiopia will support the the reconstruction of the Bargaale Dam and the building on a new dam in the Afar region of Ethiopia. If you would like to donate to our work in Ethiopia, click on the ‘Please Donate’ button (choose ‘Ethiopia – APDA & Valerie Browning’ from the drop-down menu):

Dams like this one are a lifeline for the Afar people. Not only do they use the water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing, but their herds also drink the water, providing the people with a livelihood and fresh milk which, in turn, means more nutrition. Photo credit: Christof Krackhardt

If you would like to donate to our work in Ethiopia, click on the ‘Please Donate’ button (choose ‘Ethiopia – APDA & Valerie Browning’ from the drop-down menu):

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