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Tapping into deep history to manage water scarcity in Africa

For centuries, pastoralist communities have herded animals across arid plains in Ethiopia and Kenya, guided by the sacred wells that quenched their ancestors’ thirst in times of drought. The wells are enduring markers in a land of mobile clans and erratic weather, where heat waves may become more extreme and water availability less predictable due to the effects of climate change.

The burden of water scarcity

Every year, unsafe water coupled with a lack of basic sanitation kills at least 1.6 million people worldwide. The situation could worsen as we face a growing water crisis due to global warming and rapid population growth, which is putting resources under increasing pressure. In Ethiopia and Kenya, indigenous peoples are already on the frontlines of climate change, facing frequent droughts that kill the crops and animal herds they rely on for their livelihood.

Alice Lesepen , from the indigenous Rendille Community in northern Kenya, says her community’s water sources and pastures are declining, and because they are unable to depend on herding, there is sometimes not enough food for families. Women and girls who could otherwise attend school, shoulder the increasingly heavy burden of securing water, travelling for hours in the heat to find wells that can meet their needs. These difficult journeys can also be dangerous.

“Women are vulnerable … and on many occasions meet wild animals or are exposed to other dangers,” Lesepen says. “For example, water scarcity can ignite security issues where communities fight over the same resources.”

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“Water scarcity can ignite security issues where communities fight over the same resources.”

A history of expertise

Today, satellite imagery reveals a network of paths trodden into the dry earth radiating from wells and connecting clans scattered across the land. Water scarcity is not a new challenge for these pastoralist communities, which have thrived for centuries in spite of inhospitable conditions. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) gather data to document how communities have flourished, using anecdotal evidence and accumulated knowledge being handed down through families. They hope that looking at the region’s archaeology and rich collection of oral accounts will lead to ideas that will help secure water and a bright future for pastoralist communities.

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A combination of deep and shallow “hand” wells that provide fresh water to families and livestock, have proven crucial to the survival of the Gabra , Rendille and Borana pastoralist communities in northern Kenya, and the Borana pastoralists in southern Ethiopia. Borana communities have dug tula wells for around 600 years. The wells were hand excavated by the previous inhabitants of the Borana area and include distinctive features such as internal subterranean walkways to help people more easily collect water. Communities still detect the presence of water by looking at types of plants growing in an area to see whether they are moist and in good condition, and then, after digging many metres below ground, use the ancient method of fire setting, whereby the rock is split or shattered when heat is applied, to break through hard layers. The techniques, which have been passed down through generations, enable the communities to dig deep wells extending 20 to 30 metres into the baked earth.

The wells have features that still serve the needs of the community, such as troughs up to 17 metres long to cater for herds of goats and camels. “They are gently graded to let water flow all the way down to the far end, so camels can line up along the trough and drink,” says Paul Lane, the Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Professor of the Deep History and Archaeology of Africa at the University of Cambridge. Spiral ramps are used in some deep wells in southern Ethiopia to minimise the effort it takes for teams of people to draw water. While giraffe-skin vessels have now been replaced with plastic buckets, the original features of wells still serve the needs of contemporary communities.

Tried and tested rules

It is not only the location and design of wells that enable them to meet the needs of communities. Sophisticated rules and customs have evolved that determine rights of access to water across parched landscapes where annual rainfall is low and surface water is scarce. They ensure this critical resource upon which pastoralists and their livestock depend, is accessible in a fair way.

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Water is found in three forms, each with a particular set of rights. During the rainy season between March and May, surface water or dambala is available to people living closest to seasonal ponds and streams. A similar rule applies to water contained by dams, but deep wells are the most important water source in the dry season and have been for more than 600 years, says Waktole Tiki, pastoral land tenure specialist at the Land Governance Activity Project at Tetra Tech, Addis Ababa. As such, they are protected by the most stringent customary rules. Dr Tiki believes that while other ancient water sources have been forgotten, the strong institutions created and strict rules they impose have kept the tula wells’ history flowing. Of course, the socio-cultural and symbolic significance of the wells matter equally in preserving the tula wells.

The wells are owned by clans, with specific wells associated with particular clans, but there is universal access, so anyone can request water from any well as they move with their animals over Boranaland. Even enemies must be given water. However, some people have priority access. “If you are directly related to the original owner or builder of the well, then you will have greater priority of access than if you’re more distantly related,” Professor Lane says.

On a daily basis, communities manage water access in a formal way too. Dr Freda Nkirote M’Mbogori, country director at the BIEA explains: “It’s not just about who gets access to the well, but it’s about which animals go to take water at particular times. For example, sheep, goats and cattle are given water at least every third day and are brought to wells and pasture in circuits.” Each animal can drink up to 40 litres in a single visit, so drawing enough from wells for them is a big task.

It is typical for groups of people to start drawing water early in the morning, so troughs are full, according to Dr Tiki. “Women collecting water for domestic use come before the arrival of the herds and collect water, then the watering of the animals starts,” he explains. Small livestock drink first, followed by mules, then cattle. “Camels will be the last.”

However, this is not always the case and sometimes animals are prioritised over women and children. “The owners of the wells are men and they are the managers of livestock and any other person so they determine who gets water first,” Lesepen says. “Animals [are sometimes given water first] because they [the men] believe that once their livestock are okay, the lives of their women and children will be okay, since they depend entirely on water.”

Quenching a thirst for community

The wells bring communities together and shared rituals, such as singing, help their members work as a team to complete arduous tasks. Chains of men standing at different levels in wells sing while passing buckets of water to each other. Some deeper wells require 10 or 12 men to pass the buckets. Their rhythmic chanting and singing ensures the smooth flow of water as well as soothing the animals and encouraging them to drink, shortening the queue for the next thirsty creatures or members of the community.

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Singing also brings communities together and energises workers while maintaining the wells. This is an ongoing task dictated by governance rules passed down from generation to generation. By educating younger members about the responsibilities of well management, elders promote a sense of unity and identity, so that managing wells contributes to social cohesion, Dr Tiki explains.

For the Borana, water is more than a physiological necessity. It’s vital to their identity and is sacred. “Water sources have religious values,” Dr Tiki explains. “They are sacred and in terms of this specific Borana situation, wells are centres of political gathering, and religious and ritual performances.” Sometimes, animal sacrifices are made around the wells for rituals where people gather to pray for rain, the wellbeing of their families and livestock, as well as peace. “Women also come to roast coffee there, which is seen as a kind of a ritual and this too brings people together,” Dr Nkirote M’Mbogori explains.

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“Women also come to roast coffee there, which is seen as a kind of a ritual and this too brings people together”

Change is coming

Despite lasting centuries, the customs and rituals that pastoralist communities use to manage water resources, and therefore the wells themselves, are under threat. Livestock economies are dwindling so there is not much money to spare to fix wells, while better access to education means some younger members of pastoralist communities are pursuing careers outside of herding and moving away.

“If the customs governing water access are not preserved, competition for water will increase, and at the same time wells could fall into disrepair if people move away from the wells and there are no labourers,” Dr Tiki says. “Coming back after two years is difficult because the wells will already be collapsing. Regular maintenance is very important, so the challenge is huge,” he adds.

Customary systems of water management are also being eroded by forces outside communities’ control. Well-intentioned governments and NGOs have dug new wells and boreholes to provide additional sources of safe drinking water, but their efforts can prove problematic. “For example, sometimes projects focus on technical and scientific solutions to water scarcity and ignore indigenous knowledge,” says Dr Tiki. When this happens, new wells and boreholes can fall into disrepair because communities lack the ability to repair solar-powered pumps.

“It’s good to make them [pastoralist communities] participate and be part of the plan, otherwise it will look like a foreign project with no sense of ownership,” Lesepen says. This is important because with ownership comes responsibly for maintaining the wells, while full cooperation has big benefits for NGOs too. “Communities know the terrain of their land and places where wells will do best, unlike outsiders,” she says. Working together from the start of projects means the risk of wells being neglected or even conflict, is reduced.

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“Communities know the terrain of their land and places where wells will do best, unlike outsiders”

Learning from the past

Indigenous resource governance structures, and the deep history that underpins them, have a fundamental role to play in planning for resilient, sustainable futures in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

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“If you want your water points to be recognised as important resources for the community, it’s critical to talk to the community about how they understand water… and introduce solutions that meet their cultural and physical needs,” says Professor Lane. “Water is not just a neutral resource. There’s a lot of heritage associated with it that has to be taken seriously, because it’s through that attachment to heritage, that communities have an ontological sense of wellbeing.”

Experts hope that a better understanding of the region’s archaeology such as the tula wells, and an appreciation for their cultural importance will lead to more culturally-sensitive and ultimately successful projects.

“The wells are something of critical importance to a sense of literally wellbeing among pastoralist groups. At the same time, the archaeology and our knowledge of the traditional practices and the indigenous knowledge that it exposes provides insights of ways in which people can survive and live within these landscapes, even in the face of current global warming,” Professor Lane says.

Planning for the future

Unfortunately, water scarcity is set to worsen due to climate change, with half the world’s population forecast to live in water-stressed areas by 2025 . Rising temperatures are bringing more intense rainfall and flooding, as well as more intense droughts, so any lessons that can be learnt from communities that already cope with water scarcity, like pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, could prove very valuable.

“The record of the past offers a laboratory filled with completed experiments in natural resources management, and processes of adapting to changing climatic, environmental and socio-cultural conditions,” says Professor Lane. Archaeologists, historians and environmental scientists have the data and tools needed to document how communities and regions have changed in response to societal and environmental challenges, and can therefore offer valuable insights into how communities may adjust in the future.

Lesepen says that while pastoral communities endure water scarcity and their ancestors have weathered droughts before, they need education on how to better manage their resources as the climate crisis worsens. “They need boreholes since patterns of rainfall have changed due to the effects of climate change.

Every pastoral community has its own unique problem, and they need help to change for the better,” she says.

“Pastoralist communities don’t need saving, they need support.”

This article has been reviewed by Renaud Pourpre, freelancer science communicator and Elvis Bhati Orlendo, International Foundation for Science.

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