EU’s Satellite images provide life saving water to drought affected communities in Ethiopia

By Samuel Godfrey

An ongoing UNICEF supported borehole drill in Musle Kebele of Kore Woreda.
An ongoing UNICEF supported borehole drill in Musle Kebele of Kore Woreda. The borehole drilling site was identified through combined remote sensing technology with conventional methodologies (hydrogeology and geophysics). © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Ayene

Ethiopia is in the middle of an El Nino induced drought which has left 5.8 million people across the country without access to adequate water. More than 220 districts of Ethiopia are facing water related emergencies that arise due to either a lack of availability or quality of water.

As the WASH cluster lead, UNICEF supports the Government of Ethiopia and other partners in the rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of new water supply systems, provision of water purification and treatment chemicals, scaling up of water trucking activities, and provision of sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools. In addition, UNICEF is exploring innovative ways to use satellites to detect deep groundwater for large scale, multiple-village water supply systems. As part of the overall drought emergency response, UNICEF supports programmes in child protection, education, health and nutrition.

Groundwater, compared to rivers/lakes or other surface water, supplies 80 percent of all drinking water in Ethiopia. Water from the groundwater aquifers supports emergency water supply, urban water supply and livestock watering. With limited rains, many of these shallow groundwater wells have run dry and these communities rely on expensive commercial trucks to haul in water.

The more sustainable groundwater is located at extremely deep depths. In some cases, more than 300 metres below the ground which is the equivalent in height of the Empire State Building. To locate water that deep and then to drill and extract it is a major challenge.

Satellite image of Afar Elidar woreda Potential drilling sites
Satellite image of Afar Elidar woreda potential drilling sites

To tackle this problem, the European Union and UNICEF have selected 9 of the worst affected districts across Ethiopia to use ‘satellite’ technology to locate groundwater. The EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) are providing their expertise by availing ‘no cost’ satellite images which depict the physical and topographical characteristics of the districts from satellites 100s of KM in the sky. These are then combined by UNICEF hydrogeology experts to locate appropriate sites for the drilling of essential deepwells for drought affected communities.

Results to date are extremely encouraging that it should be expanded to a larger scale of the country. On a recent visit to a well sited using this technique in Afar, the UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake said “This approach is very cost-effective, compared to delivering water by truck. Indeed, every permanent well costs the equivalent of only three deliveries of water by truck.”

Mr. Lake added “This is only the beginning. With our partners in the European Union and the Government of Ethiopia we are expanding this effort through out the country, distributing water to villages, schools, health centres and cattle troughs.”

UNICEF would like to express its thanks to the European Union Delegation and the EU-JRC, for their establishment of a remote sensing partnership with UNICEF and providing the un-reserved support so far, which we believe to be strengthen and extended further in the future.

Innovative approaches like these are already showing results for boys and girls in the hard to reach areas of Ethiopia.

Dr. Samuel Godfrey is Chief of WASH for UNICEF Ethiopia, and has a PhD and MSc in Civil Engineering and Water and Waste Engineering.

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