01 July 2013

Gumuz People water-use on Blue Nile (Abay) River

I am going through my research notes while writing my dissertation, and want to share some interesting things about the Gumuz people who live nearby the GERD damsite in Ethiopia.
Local-level water resources use:

Gumuz woman and children, Blue Nile Valley © Jennifer Veilleux 2012
Background: The Blue Nile River basin accounts for about 48% of all Ethiopia’s freshwater. This is a significant amount for a country of 80 million, a geographic area of about 1.1 million square kilometers, and a place with frequent drought and food shortages. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project will harness the power of the Blue Nile River to produce a potential 6,000 MW of electricity. In order to do this, the Ethiopian government must relocate some 20,000 local residents. The project has an official plan in relocation place. There is an onsite team to handle the entire operation. A previous survey evaluated property and identified household size. I spoke with some of the people who will be relocated during my research.

Who are the locals? Most of the population targeted for relocation are from the Gumuz ethnic group. From what I have read, this ethnic group has been marginalized and historically relocated several times through slave-raid pressure and land seizures. I have also read and witnessed that these communities are some of the most economically poor in Ethiopia. However, there is an abundance of resources from the river. The communities have lived far away from outside pressures, until now. Most people I spoke with have little to no education, and until the recent roads were put in for the dam project, little to no contact outside of the Blue Nile River Valley.

River-use: Before I get too much into this, I have to say this: it was astounding to me that the river use of the two separate subsistence communities I am currently researching - Gumuz people on the Blue Nile River and the Lao people on the Mekong River – who live on separate continents, on separate rivers, are almost exactly the same. Aside from the types of crops grown, the habits are similar – flood recession agriculture in the dry season and highland planting in the rainy season. Though the landscapes are different, the people use the river for 3 primary things: planting, fishing, and gold panning. Transportation is in there, but used mainly for trade and not heavily reported in the interviews. The communities have had zero contact with one another. I am a geographer, so I find the similarities fascinating because of the spatial component. Could this mean that place dictates way more than we give it credit for? Perhaps another form of globalized culture...? Perhaps other people have studied this and it is old news...? Are there only so many ways to use a river?

The Gumuz people follow the cycles of the water for their lifestyle. Until now, everything seems to hinge on these cycles. Planting, of course, but also fishing, gold panning, transportation, markets, and communication between villages are dictated by the ebb and flow of the river. Even matters out of their hands, such as waves of disease - malaria for one - follow the cycles of the river. The Blue Nile River itself is highly variable; the water fluctuates greatly from the big rainy season to the dry season and then the little rainy season to the dry season. I don't have exact numbers, but the flow ranges from contributing more than 60% to the greater Nile River in the wet season to almost 0% in the dry season. Some people say that altogether, the Blue Nile contributes 85% of flow to the Nile River, which is found in Sudan and Egypt. From what I saw, the river goes from a very strong, very high flow, overflowing the banks, to a trickle at the start of the dry season, retreating about 100 meters from the banks. Since there are no hydrologic flow stations in Ethiopia, it is hard to compare what I saw to any measured data.

What the Gumuz people plant and eat depends on the season. They switch between rain-fed agriculture either near their homes in the rainy season, to planting in the riverbed itself during the dry season. The crops range from things like maize and tomatoes to tobacco and okra. The crops do very well in the riverbed - as would be expected from all fertile the topsoil being eroded from the highlands and depositing downstream. There is no irrigation used in either farming technique.

The fishing changes as well - for some, it is impossible to fish when the water is very high, cutting down the ability to obtain protein for part of the year, unless cattle are slaughtered or men go out hunting. During the transition periods and the dry season, fishing is an everyday activity. I witnessed 15 families benefitting from the catch of one large catfish. The smiling man who caught it chopped it up to sell then immediately went back to the river in hopes to catch another. Families began immediately cooking the meat. Most Gumuz people use a hook and line, though I was also told that women use their clothing wraps to catch fish in the shallow waters.

The gold panning mainly occurs in the dry season, and for some people, in the transition seasons. This activity must occur when the riverbed is exposed, but it is a dangerous activity. Dangers come from aquatic species, like crocodile and hippo, and because of unpredictable riverbed collapse. One village lost 11 people in one moment last year from land collapse. Some people tie stones to their torso to mine sediment from the river bottom and you can imagine how this is dangerous. Gold allows for cash economy. Cash economy allows for goods such as salt and fabric purchases or payment of school fees.

The river water is used for drinking water by many villages, though those who can use cleaner and clearer water from the tributaries. Women tend to fetch water up to 3 times a day. They do this mostly by hand - jerrycans attached to a stick places along the shoulders of the back. Some women have children or donkeys help the effort. In some of the villages, the government or some long-ago project had installed water pumps. I am happy to report that these were still working. And that the water taken from them was of better quality than river water.

My translator, who is Gumuz from a town 5 hours away, told me that he remembered coming to this part of the Nile only once. Years ago he accompanied a Catholic Sister on the road to Bamza. For some reason they had to turn back. But he recalled the absolute remoteness and was so happy to see a road that allowed us to move more freely from village to village. The remnants of old bridges over tributaries were visible from the new road. I didn't think modern vehicles could use them, but he said that is how they drove in.

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