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When the sky cries

by Rupert Neudeck

In depth

No life without water: Rupert Neudeck and Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid in front of a water reserevoir in eastern Ethiopia.

No life without water: Rupert Neudeck and Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid in front of a water reserevoir in eastern Ethiopia.

Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid chuckled quietly to himself. That was in October in Jijiga in eastern Ethiopia. He said in German, which he had studied in the Federal Republic in the 1970s: “I am so happy about all the rain. We waited and waited for this rain during the long drought and now it has come!” [ By Rupert Neudeck ]

For Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid, it was a blessing. In the region where he lives, known as the Somali Regional State, the rain did not cause any flooding. On the contrary: it completely filled the 13 existing large water reservoirs which were built by Guleid’s organisation “Hope for the Horn”. In the months following, these reservoirs not only turned the desert green and provided irrigation for the large corn and millet fields but the herds of animals and, not least the people, also had sufficient water.

It used to be quite different. Wells were drilled but this was done blindly, with fatal consequences. It was eventually noticed that the wells often dramatically lowered the water table, precisely in the Sahel zone. After all, water is also a limited resource, especially the groundwater in the desert. For that reason, Guleid also founded the orga­nisation “Hope for the Horn” and concentrated entirely on renewable rain water. By doing so, he made a desert thrive again.

Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid is actually a farmer. With the help of a scholarship, he then went to Germany, where he studied business administration. After completing his studies in Dortmund, Abdulkarim applied for a job with Siemens, where he was employed immediately on account of his outstanding knowledge. Siemens even wanted to make him manager of a national office in a prosperous Arabic country.

However, this was back in 1980, the year the tragedy of the Ogaden refugees began. In their tens of thousands, they streamed out of Ogaden in Ethiopia into Somalia. Guleid went from door to door in Germany in his search for backers for his project. He wanted to do something for the people in North Somalia. He then worked for a German aid organisation there for five years. After that, he wanted to show his country people that it is possible to live from working with their own hands in desert regions. He became a farmer and built a large reservoir – a water catchment near Hargeisa, the capi­tal of North Somalia.

Soon, however, the chaos in his country of origin Somalia and Somaliland could no longer be kept in check. The state collapsed. There was no longer a serious government. Guleid therefore settled in Ethiopia, where he had already been successfully active during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. In any case, he was one of the first Somalis to be ranked as officer in the imperial Ethiopian army. Abdulkarim Guleid became a citizen of Ethiopia and founded an aid organisation for the nomads and semi-nomads in the east Ethiopian province. He knows about his roots since he also grew up as a nomad in his family. A few years ago, he was even elected into the Ethiopian parliament for the Gashamo district in the Somali Province, where he still sits today.

Old water collection techniques

To the devout Muslim, it was obvious: water was the biggest problem for the people in east Ethiopia. He therefore looked for old water collection and storage techniques. And thus Guleid began to build an enormous company – in addition to schools and a hospital. He went to the embassies in Addis Ababa and begged for money for water reservoirs. It costs approximately 150,000 Euro to build a large reservoir. All of the 13 reservoirs that have been built so far are protected from cattle. The water supply line for the cattle and agriculture is regulated.

Of greatest importance, however, is that the reservoirs are used as a cooperative. They do not belong to a wealthy property owner or junker in the respective region but are owned by the general public, who are also responsible for maintenance and fencing.

Guleid understands a great deal about pastoral development, the development of the nomads. Ten years ago, the situation in the region was hopeless. The literacy rate in Gashamo district was 0,5 % but has since risen to 20 %. The closest hospital was 375 kilometers away – on an unsealed road, a dirt track. Meanwhile, a whole lot of outpatient and veterinary clinics have been built.

Ten years ago the water situation was also catastrophic: cattle and people drank from the same source, which had often dried up. Today, by contrast, reservoirs, water tankers and cisterns are available.

Nevertheless, during a dry period, nomads still have to walk approximately 50 kilometres with their cattle. Although everything is much better now, Guleid says, it is still not really good. The Ethiopian and his water experts at “Hope for the Horn” were therefore delighted about all the water. In October 2007, the reservoirs were still empty. One could sense that the rain had to come. And that is exactly what happened. Just a few days later, a cloudburst brought the much longed for water.

Nevertheless the rain also has catas­trophic effects in Africa. A drought is often replaced by flooding. This is due to the lack of infrastructure in rural regions, where water is neither channelled nor stored. Until now, precipitation was therefore often seen as a misfortune; they say in the Sahel zone that “the sky is crying”.

The results of the work by the “Hope for the Horn” are especially evident in Hartechek, a place directly over the Somali border. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian refugees or repatriates camped on this plain during the time of the Somali-Ethiopian conflicts (1976 to 1989). These refugees consumed water and also felled every tree and bush in the surrounding area for firewood for cooking.

New ambitions

Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid now has a new plan. He would like to increase food and water security substantially for the nomads, who have since become semi-nomads, by the year 2015. He has therefore worked out a plan with his Ethiopian experts which they can also execute themselves, without being reliant on foreign experts. The only concern that worries Guleid is that he needs money. His NGO cannot mobilise it from within their own society so he needs foreign subsidies in small doses – from a foundation, government or the EU.

The living conditions of the shepherds and smallholders in the desert-like region have always been tough. The weather is not very predictable. The people regarded drought and floods as judgements of God. Meanwhile, the 64-year-old Abdulkarim Ahmed Guleid has also established a tree nursery in this region. He has already sold or given away 700,000 seedlings in the region and thus brought a part of the desert back to life.