Rainwater Harvesting in Sub-Saharan Africa

Images of drought stricken lands in sub-Saharan Africa have appeared frequently in the past several months. The number of people in need of assistance is rising daily according a recent report from the United Nations.   

“This [the increase] is largely due to the impact of drought, worsened by high food prices, as well as conflict and insecurity in Somalia,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in an update, noting that the estimate of those in need across the four countries – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – was 12.4 million a month ago. UN Secretary  

Ban Ki-moon has called not only for responding to the current humanitarian crisis, but also for undertaking longer-term efforts to ensure that people will not be at risk when the rains fail.

“Across the Horn, a bold approach is needed that ensures both recovery and resilience while taking into account the environment, the economics of pastoral and nomadic livelihoods, population pressure, equity in development spending, good governance and the need to avoid dependency,” he told a meeting of regional leaders in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Spending on risk reduction recoups its investment many times over,” he added in his message, which was delivered by Sahle-Work Zewde, Director General of the UN Office in Nairobi.

Sub-Saharan Africa has an overdependence on rain-fed agriculture and a shortage of alternatives to deal with droughts such as the one that is currently ravaging the region. One possible solution for this region is rainwater harvesting.  According to a recent report issued by The Millennium Development Goals Centre for East and Southern Africa, the U.N. Development Programe Tanzania, and the World Agroforestry Centre, most sub-Saharan African countries are using 5% or less of their rainwater potential. The report, An Assessment of Rainwater Harvesting Potential in Zanzibar, determined that the recognition and utilization of greenwater – the water ignored in hydrological planning – may make it possible to improve food insecurity while also protecting the environment.

In an effort to help alleviate hunger and poverty, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency helped establish the Southern and Eastern Africa Rainwater Network in 1998. SearNet consists of 12 national rainwater associations that work together to publicize rainwater harvesting information and innovations throughout the region.

SearNet has worked with Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources and the World Agroforestry Centre to pioneer a method for upscaling trapezoidal-shaped ponds with water conveyance mechanisms that facilitate the supply of water for irrigation and livestock development.  An average pond costs approximately $800. Farmers often require subsidies, participate in cost-sharing, or receive microfinancing to afford a pond.

 Farmers are then encouraged to plant vegetables and fruit trees to improve nutrition for their families. Rural women and girls, who often spend 3 to 4 hours a day collecting water from distant and often contaminated water are free to attend school or pursue other revenue producing activities.

The harvesting of rainwater and implementation of conservation agriculture methods such as no-till farming, cover crops, and crop rotations will allow this region to increase food self-sufficiency, health, and improved rural economies. Prolonged utilization of such practices will help to mitigate the effects of extended dry spells, improve food security, and contribute to a more stable region.


About Kim Gideon

I'm an Educator, Public Speaker, and Sustainable Living and Wellness enthusiast who is seeking a more balanced way of living.
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