23 October 2012

Bale research relevance - watershed management

I traveled to Bale Mountains National Park to visit with the US Peace Corps couple I met, to see some Ethiopian wildlife, to hike, but also to do some research. I want to improve my understanding of conservation programs in Ethiopia and of current watershed management approaches. Bale sits at a high altitude, the mountains are the source of several important domestic rivers, and two international rivers, the Shebelle and Jubba Rivers, the collective watershed of these rivers crosses the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.

The watershed of the Blue Nile does not currently have a comprehensive watershed-wide management plan. This does not exist for the entire Nile, but it does not exist for the domestic piece of the Blue Nile, or Abay River. I am told that one is currently underway at the Ministry of Water and Energy. But already there are Federal plans that serve to manage the watershed as a general watershed through land-management practices, mainly focused on agriculture/food security, tree planting, and soil erosion mitigation - nothing in specific to the Blue Nile topography, geography, geology, biology, ecology, hydrology, sociology...

The importance of a watershed management plan is to have the right water quality in the right quantity, available at the right time. The geographic designation of the watershed, as opposed to a community or particular soil type, may have to do with the system approach - finding a way to bound a system. A watershed is a contained geographic system where all of the water is connected, so it is bounded by its geography and the limits of the water system. In the case of the initial definition of watershed management plan importance (this is also, by the way, an acceptable definition for water security), the modifying word "right" can be determined by decision-makers for their desired purposes.

For example, grey water can be used for agricultural irrigation, whereas safe drinking water standards can require much more rigorous steps to ensure the level of water quality. Specific water quality standards can be planned for and achieved if the plan is integrative - if it takes into account both the human and the natural systems, both the biotic and abiotic systems.

Regarding a big watershed like the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, there are many different uses of the water that may now be competing, but with this holistic approach, proper management, and effective enforcement, these water uses can instead be cooperative or at least complimentary. The first step is defining the watershed, not exactly easy, but doable. Then identifying possible competing uses, this takes time as it requires detailed analysis. There are many NGOs and other groups doing various projects in the basin that may or may not have to do directly with water, but involve and impact the water system. These disparate efforts should be coordinated through the government of Ethiopia through the overall watershed management plan.

For example: Tesfaye is taking water to irrigate crops that he, his family, and his community will eat, and another community, led by Jenny, upstream of Tesfaye's crops, is using this same waterway  for her small scale leather industry. Downstream from Tesfaye, Getachew is using the waterway to dump human and animal waste in as a type of "sink" or way to get rid of waste, and downstream of Getachew is a community of 10,000 that relies on the water for a drinking water resource with little technical means to filter the water.

What could be the problem? Tesfaye needs water for his crops, it does not need to be absolutely pure, but if there are chemicals produced by the leather tanning operation upstream, those chemicals are for sure getting into his soil and into his crops, and ultimately, into Tesfaye. Depending on what the leather industry is dumping, Tesfaye could have major health problems as a result or even crop failure. Jenny needs to be accountable for the waste-water she is generating from her industry - she cannot just profit off of the water while creating a problem for the other users. These two operations are both using water in different ways, but within the same system, so they should be coordinated by an overarching authority.

Where there is money and ability, situations can take technical fixes - providing Getachew's community a wastewater facility to protect the community of 10,000 downstream. Where there is less money, creative solutions can result in practical fixes - Getachew's community could build simple platforms for manure that are contained and then recycle the manure and sell it as a fertilizer to Tesfaye's community, or relocate some of the waste facilities so that they are naturally filtered through the soils before they reach the waterway. The community of 10,000 could be provided simple, yet low-cost and effective means of purifying their drinking water. I am always a fan of prevention rather than engineered solutions after the fact. A watershed management plan can help stop problems before they start, as long as the plan is informed of what the problems are.

When I worked in the Lake Ohrid Watershed in Southeastern Europe, I came across a brand new, well-equipped, small wastewater treatment plant on the shores of Lake Prespa. The project was sponsored by USAID. It did not work. I asked the local community leader what was happening with this plant. He told me that the facility required more electricity than the collective communities could afford to pay and supply, so as a result, it did not function. Never mind that electricity was inconsistent in this area. This is an example of the need for appropriate applications of technology. In another part of the watershed, on the Lake Ohrid shore in Albania, another wastewater treatment project was underway. Native wetlands plants were being planted to act as a filter and buffer between the mouth of a wastewater pipeline and the lake. It was a low-tech, low-cost solution to the same problem of wastewater. This project was functioning.

Courtesy of Muzeyen Turke
I decided to take a look at some water and land management practices in Bale. When I was traveling with Muzeyen, he showed me a personal project he started to build a concrete structure next to the river, to allow for women to wash their clothes in diverted water rather than directly in the river. The diverted water would then filter through a series of plants and sand before it reentered the river. His hope was that this small project would serve as a pilot idea for other communities in the area. The problem of people washing clothes and cars in the waterways of the park causes high level of phosphorus to enter the water system, which alters the nutrient load, and can potentially damage and change the chemical and biological aspects of the natural system. It became clear though, that the national park was being encroached upon by the local people and that the local government was turning a blind eye to this. The locals allow their cattle and animals to graze freely in the park, encourage their cattle to cross the boundaries of the park to get at better grazing, and all of this activity causes further problems with erosion, loss of topsoil, soil compaction, and pollution of the streams and rivers. The scouts in the park are meant to control when they see local people illegally harvesting wood or grazing animals, but they have no real enforcement ability. Sometimes they are able to build fences to expand the visible parameters of the park, but in many cases, the fences are knocked down or not feasible in the first place. I have a photo of a donkey hauling wood that the owner was embarrassed about because he knew he was taking the wood illegally.
There is awareness, but no enforcement.When I arrived at the park lodge, there was an information session going on sponsored by the park staff, well attended by local farmers, to educate them further on how to live in harmony with the park animals. Luckily, there is no illegal hunting of bush meat here. I am told that this is because the population is largely Muslim and it is not hallal to eat these wild animals. But, regardless of the lack of hunting, if these animals environment continues to be taken over by farming, they are not going to be able to continue to thrive.

When I met with Ramona and Tracy, I asked about their local forestry project. They were optimistic about their efforts with their counterparts, but the larger picture of the preference for the local government to encourage cattle fattening by further grazing into the park, usurps their efforts to preserve stands of bamboo for the elusive Bale Monkey and other species in the fragile system. Also, they pointed out that the farming practices of the local people, who are not the original inhabitants of this region, in fact, their village of Rira does not appear on many maps as it is entirely too new, are not in harmony with the forest environment. The local practices to clear forest for cattle grazing is not found in other places in the world where the people have evolved their practices to reflect their forest environment. Because the Oromo people are coming from more of a savannah environment, their approach to the forest is devastating - trying to make it mimic a savannah. So, culturally, there are problems with land management.

It appears that there is no comprehensive conservation program for the park that gets enforced. People are building new illegal dwellings in the park borders as well. There are nation-wide land-management practices, like tree planting programs. In the newspaper you see stories about so many hundreds of thousands of tree sapplings transplanted in different districts. The sapplings are usually fast growing trees like invasive eucalyptus. On a general, national level, these stories are fantastic. Many trees are being replaced, that will keep the soil in place, reduce erosion, and serve as a source of fuel wood. But, there are problems with the plantings when you dig down to the local level. The tree planting itself is faulty. The federal government is paying for so many trees to be grown, transplanted, and cultivated. But, the local governments may not be honest about the numbers, are planting at the wrong time of year, planting at the wrong soil depth, sometimes the farmers even leave the plastic on the roots when they put the trees into the ground. I am told that there was also tree-planting schemes during the derg, and that people would purposely plant the supplied trees upside-down. Some of it may be pure mistake, some of it may be resentment, but in the end, tree planting is not the only approach to watershed management if the management is to be effective to preserve the quality, quantity, and availability of the water.

The Frankin Zoological Society has partnered with the Ethiopian government to run this park. Although I am listing some of the potential causes for problems to the overall park ecosystem, the park itself is still very impressive. The employees are very knowledgeable not only of the park assets, but the behaviors and locations of the animals and birds. The herds and packs of animals are healthy and numerous - though the Ethiopian wolf numbers sound low at 500, this is a steady increase from numbers only a few years ago. Research is active and much has been gained by having this area designated as a park for the understanding of the endemic species. It is, like the Blue Nile valley, very remote and not easy to reach. But, there is now a paved road from Addis Ababa to the park that was completed last year. So, the main part of the park, the Dinsho area, is accessible now in one day from Addis, whereas in the past it may have taken two days of rough travel. Currently, the park only receives about 5000 guests per year. In the future, perhaps with increased visitors to this remote and absolutely stunning place, more rigorous practices can be put in place to deal with park encroachment, water contamination, illegal timber harvesting. Also, the economic gain of making such remote and breathtaking locations available for tourists will increase the ecotourism revenue. You can take a horse on a multiday trek in the mountains and camp out, waking up to wolves and mole rats, raptors and songbirds. If marketed correctly, this could become a very desirable destination. Ethiopia has many hidden marvels for the eco-minded traveler, but there is an importance to preserve these treasures - only possible if the right management practices are implemented on the national, state, and local levels.

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