Leveraging affordable water-harvesting solutions to combat climate change: A cost-effective path to building resilience

Lotiyan Sub Surface Dam (1)

Sub surface dam in Lotiyan South Sudan

Ole Stokholm Jepsen was Team Leader of the Dutch-funded and NIRAS implemented Water for Eastern Equatoria project in South Sudan, a long-term development project focused on integrated water resource management and water-, hygiene-, and sanitation-related (WASH) interventions for people as well as the agriculture, livestock, and fisheries sectors. In this blog, he examines the role of affordable water harvesting interventions – driven and owned by the community – as a response to climate change adaptation-needs refinement to emphasise the urgency and practicality of these solutions in the face of growing demands for climate adaptation funding.

February 29, 2024

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In the wake of COP 28's landmark decision to establish a 'Loss and Damage' fund, the conversation around climate adaptation has taken on a new urgency. However, with the vast scope of climate change impacts, the funds currently allocated, though significant, may not suffice to meet the global demand for adaptation and mitigation efforts. This reality brings into sharp focus the critical need for affordable, effective, and community-driven climate change adaptation interventions, particularly in water-stressed regions.

As part of the work we did in the Water for Eastern Equatoria project, the NIRAS team spearheaded the implementation of innovative rainwater harvesting techniques in the arid landscapes of Kapoeta, South Sudan. We were able to showcase how traditional methods, when paired with community involvement and ownership, can lead to sustainable and impactful solutions. These interventions, rooted in practicality and local engagement, demonstrate the value of investing in existing, successful strategies that not only provide immediate relief but also build long-term resilience against climate change.

Charco Dams: a testament to traditional wisdom and modern needs

A traditional rainwater harvesting method utilised by pastoral communities across East Africa, charco dams epitomise the synthesis of indigenous knowledge and contemporary adaptation needs. Constructed in natural depressions within watersheds, these dams are further dug out by hand or – sometimes with machines – and designed to collect and store rainwater, providing a critical resource for livestock, agriculture, wildlife and human consumption during dry periods. They are compacted with clay or stones as a bottom layer so the water does not seep into the underground.

In order to have a wide range of charco dams contributing to sustainable water conservation in this way, pastoralist communities must have legal rights to use the water. Additionally, for them to take ownership of and feel responsible for the dams’ maintenance, they should be involved in the earthwork – the digging and filling of the dam – and pay in a matching grant arrangement for the necessary machinery, thereby enhancing their sustainability.

Cattle Drinking At A Charco Dam In Kapoeta
Cattle drinking at a charco dam in Kapoeta, South Sudan

Subsurface dams: harnessing hidden water resources

In contrast to the visible charco dams, subsurface dams offer a stealthy yet equally effective method of water conservation. In parts of seasonal rivers where there is rock at the bottom, a concrete wall can be constructed across the river with perforated pipes at the bottom and covered with sand. The perforated pipes are connected to shallow wells established on the riverbanks. When water flows in smaller or larger quantities in the river, it is obstructed by the wall and stored under the sand; this water then flows to the shallow wells where the user communities have access to it. The great advantage of this type of intervention is that the water is filtered through the sand with very limited evaporation. This technique not only secures water for communities during dry spells but also promotes water purity and conservation, making it an invaluable asset in the fight against climate change.

South Sudan
Sub-surface dam construction and a shallow well on the river bank where the water can be drawn in Kapoeta, South Sudan

A call to action: expanding reach through partnerships

In large parts of the Horn of Africa where there is already a tradition of such interventions, it could be part of the solution to assist the pastoralist communities and local authorities in a collaborative arrangement to multiply such rainwater harvesting interventions by combining them with drainage water from feeder roads into new or existing small dams. Public-private partnership service centers could provide the necessary support for dam construction and maintenance, and local road maintenance centres could provide the initial public support input into such centers. 

By fostering such public-private partnerships and leveraging local road maintenance efforts to enhance water conservation infrastructure, we can amplify the impact of these interventions. The proposed matching grant funding model further solidifies community investment and ownership, ensuring that these climate adaptation solutions are both sustainable and aligned with the users' needs.

As the global community grapples with the escalating demands for climate change adaptation funding, the focus must shift towards scalable, cost-effective, and community-centric solutions. Rainwater harvesting interventions, with their proven track record of success in challenging environments, offer a viable pathway to resilience. By prioritising these interventions, we not only address immediate water scarcity challenges but also contribute to a broader strategy of climate change mitigation and adaptation, ensuring that communities remain at the heart of sustainable development efforts.

You can connect with Ole on LinkedIn.