Eye on the Dry

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

In the Gash Die water is hard to come by. Many people have shifted to live close to the Kassala-Port Sudan road for the simple reason that here they can order a water tanker to fill small drinking reservoirs. It costs about USD 50 for one water tanker to travel the distance to these preciously guarded storages and have them filled.

The Gash Die stands for so many dry remote parts of the world: far from the mainstream but not to be forgotten, home to millions.

The community walking along the Hafir (right side of the fence). Photo: Matthijs Kool The community walking along a Hafir (right side of the fence) in the Gash Die, Sudan. Photo: Matthijs Kool

It is not always easy to associate potential and innovations with inhospitable areas such as the Gash Die, but it does not mean the scope is not there. Solutions span from managed tree regeneration and building Ahwats (recharge basins) to better feeding the small shallow aquifers and Hafirs (surface reservoirs) as part of the allocation of water from the Gash, for instance.

Hafirs and Ahwats are over a century old tested local innovations; back in the 1970s, they were the oasis in the largely desert Gash Die supporting vast rangeland development and over a quarter of a million striving pastoralist communities. In the upper Gash area, including the main town Kassala, these innovations are still well and alive as the major water resource base for huge human and livestock populations.

Today’s attention by private and public investments is on the the so-called high potential easy to access areas; but we cannot escape from investing in remote areas far from centres of power such as the Gash Die if we genuinely care about uprooting rural poverty. This is why the Gash Die is an area of focus for a newly launched project titled Harnessing Floods for Enhancing Livelihoods and Ecosystem Services.

The Wild Gash

Situated in the far east of Sudan, the Gash Die is where the ‘wild’ Gash River comes to a stop in a desert territory – a so-called inland Delta. The Gash River has its roots in the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands.

When it rains in the uplands, it runs violently for three to four months on and off during which time its heavy silt laden floodwater irrigates 35,000 to 50,000 hectares of farmland just along and further north of Kassala Town. In years of heavy floods, some of the water reaches the Gash Die where it can sustain some small agriculture and feed scattered shallow aquifers that sustain the livestock population.

With only 100 millimetres of rainfall per year and blazing heat it has always been a harsh place, but the Gash Die like many other parts of the world, has seen better times. In the 1970's, the Gash Agricultural Scheme (GAS) was capable of timely deploying sufficient financial and skilled human resources. The extremely large floods that are nowadays causing significant damage to life and properties in the upper Gash region were guided in a better controlled manner to Hadalia, the last of the seven main off-takes and canals in GAS. From it filled Hafirs and Ahwats for rangeland irrigation and domestic and livestock water supply and supporting the diverse tree population.

Sustainable finance for Hafirs

Since the 1970's, however, the fortunes of Gash Die have been on a steep decline. There have been changes in the livestock population, the biodiversity and in the availability of drinking water. Being at the eastern tip of the Sahel zone, the drought of the 1980s had a severe impact from which the livestock population never fully recovered.

Investment into the rehabilitation and properly financing the operation and maintenance of the GAS floodwater diversion and distribution networks is crucial for the sustainability of Hafirs and Ahwats and restoration of biodiversity in the Gash die.

Hafir in the Gash Die. Photo: Frank Hafir in the Gash Die. Photo: Frank van Steenbergen

One prime example is the Etama Hafir, which, in the 1990s fell in decay as the entire GAS Hadaliya canal system collapsed when its main off-take was damaged. The thriving settlement around the Hafir was abandoned. However with the rehabilitation of the Hadaliya spate irrigation canal under a recent IFAD-supported project the water supply situation also improved.

There are other Hafirs in the Gash Die area, but there is also scope for more of these life support systems. Etama for instance sustains 5,000 people and much more cattle. Sustainable finance arrangements are deeply needed for the operation and maintenance of the Hafirs and Ahwats.

Optimizing floodwater allocation

The Harnessing Floods for Enhanced Livelihoods and Ecosystems Services Project is conducting research aimed at providing alternative options for optimum allocation and utilization of the most limiting resource - the floodwater - to the different benefit streams throughout Gash river ecosystem, including domestic and livestock water supply, agriculture, rangeland and forestry as well as groundwater recharge.  

Some of the specific interventions include regeneration of the native drought tolerant tree species; smart-revenue generation mechanisms to complement the dwindling government funding of the Gash Agricultural System (GAS); strengthening the GAS water user associations to fill the void in the critical mass needed to manage floods.

Gash die is remote, yes its climate is harsh, but it has vast virgin fertile land, a proud past of flourishing biodiversity and holds a very high promise of better livelihood for the unprivileged members of our society.

We should not forget and give up on these hardy places but rather keep an ‘eye on the dry’.

The ecosystem services of the Gash system in Sudan are investigated under the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystems project: Harnessing Floods for Enhanced Livelihoods and Ecosystems Services

For more information on water resources in the Gash Die, watch: Lifting water from a well in a hout