Downstream panoramic view of dam axis for Mekaneselam water supply dam, Ethiopia.

The federal government of Ethiopia, through the regional government of Amhara, has been involved in the development of various water projects both for drinking and irrigation purposes to ensure water security in the country. However, many of the towns and cities within the Amhara region still experience water shortages. Mekaneselam, located in the Borena Woreda, South Wollo Zone of the Amhara region, is one such town.

In a bid to find a solution for the population of about 100,000, several groundwater wells were dug, but their yields were insufficient to support the town’s development. With a projected annual population increase of about 7% and a high potential for the expansion of industries, universities and other services, the water shortage is bound to escalate in the absence of a long-term solution.

In 2018, the District Government of Borena approached the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), now part of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, to carry out a pre-feasibility study to identify a suitable dam for drinking water. The Alliance, along with a professional team on dam construction from Mekelle University, visited the site to study options and provide suggestions. Organized by Wollo University, Mekdela Amba University, and the Mekaneselam town administration, a technical team led by the Alliance and experts from Mekelle University conducted this reconnaissance survey in June 2018.

The team presented findings and recommendations to the council of delegates from the preliminary studies showing:

  • Groundwater potential of the area is inadequate for large-scale water supply (current and projected);
  • Surface water potential is high with different available options;
  • Water harvesting through the construction of dam is the best alternative to supply drinking water for the town;
  • Integrated watershed management to reduce erosion and siltation is critical to sustain the water supply.

Following an assessment of the hydrology of the catchment and the overall surface water resources available and the availability of construction materials, the team identified an appropriate site for a water supply dam that met the required technical qualities (adequate runoff, a good foundation, suitable spillway site, stable abutments, and suitable and sufficient construction material for dam, appurtenant structures and infrastructures). “Hydrologically, the proposed site receives a very high amount of rainfall and is dominated by typical afro-alpine grasses (guassa), resulting in a high amount of surface runoff as well as quality water that can reduce treatment cost for drinking water,” noted Dr. Wuletawu Abera, landscape hydrologist at the Alliance.

In addition, the team also evaluated and documented other issues which would require due attention before and after the construction of the dam.

Mekelle University has been collaborating with the Alliance team in the Africa Research in Sustainable Intensification for the Next Generation (RISING) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) projects in Africa for some time and provided invaluable technical support in the overall pre-feasibility study assessing the overall geotechnical and geohydrological setting of the area and water supply condition of the Mekaneselam town.

Layout of dam axis and spill way options for the proposed Mekaneselam dam site, Ethiopia.
Alliance team and partners attend the discussions on the Mekaneselam site with the district and community leaders.

Following the positive results from the study, the team identified a suitable site for the dam and advised the regional government on how to proceed. The regional government of Amhara received the report and assigned USD 1 million for a detailed feasibility study of the sites identified by the Alliance team.  Accordingly, the government assigned the Amhara Design and Supervision Works Enterprise (ADSWE) to undertake a feasibility analysis, which has been completed. After conducting detailed site investigation, ADSWE approved the location proposed by the Alliance team and gave a green light for the construction of the dam.

Accordingly, the government of the Amhara region has allocated approximately USD 10 million for the construction of the dam while the total estimated budget for overall project (including dam, pipeline, and treatment plant) is about USD 30 million. This marks a significant government investment to support the community and a big contribution by the Alliance team by supporting informed decision making.

“We have all been involved in such various undertakings including feasibility and design study and construction of big dams, but have never seen such a rapid impact. We think the gratitude and blessings of the elders who appreciated our work supported us to be successful so quickly,” said Dr. Kifle Woldearegay from Mekelle University.

Appreciating the government’s commitment to the region, zone, and Woreda administration as well as the city council and local communities, the Alliance team and partners continued their engagement to provide technical support during the dam’s construction and to plan and implement integrated watershed management.

Considering the shape and complexity of the landscape, siltation was noted as a real threat that could undermine the sustainability of the water supply. Consequently, the team reached out to the relevant partners to start landscape restoration works before the dam’s construction was complete.

The Amhara National Regional State (ANRS), Bureau of Agriculture (BoA), Natural Resources Conservation and Management (NRCM) Directorate appreciated the work of the Alliance who took heed to the call and commenced the initiative to start ‘on-the-ground’ implementation of soil and water conservation activities. During a recent field visit this year, the team discussed with various partners on the ground such as KfW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau), Amhara-Saint National Park, Menschen für Menschen Foundation, and others who showed commitment to support the landscape restoration effort.

During the recent stakeholder meeting held in March 2020, the partners and stakeholders mapped out the next steps required for long-term sustainable management of the watershed. The positive discussions culminated in the team re-affirming their support for the initiative.

“We are very excited with the support and we want to develop a model watershed that would be an example to demonstrate what can be possible with integrated landscape management approaches aimed to create multifunctional landscapes,” Dr. Lulseged Tamene from the Alliance noted.

The local community also expressed their appreciation for the team’s work that had yielded fast and positive outcomes and the construction of the dam.

Mr. Assen Assefa, one of the elder residents of the town, reiterated the importance of continued support of the team on the watershed management to reduce the risk of siltation “At this point, our only priority is solving the water shortage of the town. You have helped us to start the construction of the dam. Our concern is that the dam will be affected by sediment due to high erosion in some upstream parts of the watershed. We believe, with your support, we will do all our best to treat the watershed and reduce the risk,” he added.

Part of the watershed intended for the Hocheche water supply dam construction.

The Alliance team is currently developing a detailed and integrated ‘landscape master plan’ for smooth operationalization and implementation by 2020 and will continue to update and improve the plans. In addition to water supply, the dam will also provide the co-benefit of irrigation and reduce the risk of drought to smallholder farmers in the downstream areas. This will also be a source of income generation as it is foreseen as a tourist and recreation center for the local people, given its proximity to the Borena-Sayint National Park.

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