Chasing water from space

An innovative approach to finding fresh water underground in drought-affected areas in Ethiopia.

If you happen to drive by it, the steel pipe standing at attention in the middle of the desert doesn’t look very impressive. Yet, this pipe and the borehole beneath it currently form UNICEF Ethiopia’s most innovative and exciting project in the Afar region.

Volcanos created the large flat area covered with sand and soft sandy peaks sprinkled with black ashes from millions of years ago. The region is currently experiencing its fourth consecutive year of drought, exposing people to critical shortages of water. Neither the dwellers, the animals nor the plants have enough water to survive.

Numerous companies and NGOs have tried to drill for water, only to succeed 30 percent of the time. The wells are either dry or filled with salinised water, due to the high concentration of salt in the ground. The solution has been water trucking, which is expensive and unsustainable. Now, sharp eyes from space have come to the rescue.

Water gushes out onto the desert floor from a hanging pipe embedded into the earth
©UNICEF/Ethiopia/2018Satellites imagery shows water trapped between layers of rocks, as deeps as 600 meters. The water is now pumped up to the surface, benefiting Afdera town. This is currently one of the most innovative and exciting UNICEF projects in Afar region, Ethiopia.

Before letting you in on the secret, I want to take you to Assia’s house to understand the importance of the project. Her four kids are clinging to her in the makeshift house made of a wooden skeleton, tarpaulins and a few patches of corrugated iron. The expensive water from the desalination plant nearby is too heavy on salt and minerals for the youngest ones. They just lost their brother, her son. A few months ago, his tiny body gave up and he passed away at only nine months old. Neighbouring mothers have had to go through the same gutting experience, due to the lack of drinking water. “The doctor recommends bottled water, but I can’t afford it”, she said.

This problem will soon be history, due to an innovative approach to water finding. With support from EU Joint Research Centre, UNICEF has used satellites to identify reservoirs of ground water as deep as 600 meters below sea level, and to pinpoint exactly where to drill. Because of the constant inflow of water, this is a sustainable solution for the drought-prone area. The approach has a 92 percent success rate, resulting in 11 boreholes delivering fresh water, thanks to support from the German government and the Italian Development Cooperation Agency (AICS). The new water source will replace current water trucking, which costs around USD 260,000 annually, making this solution sustainable from a financial point of view also.

Woman in multi-colored attire sits with her son on her lap with her two young daughters looking on from behind her.
©UNICEF/Ethiopia/2018Assia (35) with her youngest son Hussein (3) on her lap; and two daughters Halima (4, in pink) and Hamdia (6, in green). Assia lost her baby boy to acute diarrhoea due to drinking water heavy on salt and minerals, in Afdera town, Afar region, Ethiopia.

The generator rumbles to life. The pounding noise develops a steady rhythm when the pipe spits out water that becomes a steady flow. Soon, the pipeline down to the town is finished. Assia and other families can buy safe water for a fraction of what they pay for the dangerous water today. UNICEF calls it innovation for children.

Helene Sandbu Ryeng is Communications Specialist at UNICEF Norway.

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