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Shoring Up Riverbanks - and Confidence

Somalia, October 25, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Osman, the village chairman, stands on the levee being built to protect families when the Juba River spills over its banks. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Women carry dirt to fill the levee that will protect them from the Juba River's storm surges. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Bandarjadid, Somalia — Driving off-road toward this riverside village, there are hints of its past glory: the rusted remains of a tractor, a long-abandoned granary.

Twenty years ago, this part of the Juba River valley was a thriving agricultural hub. Big banana and cotton plantations, sorghum fields, a major food processing plant, and a grain mill provided jobs and income for people from miles around.

But after the Somali government fell in 1991, the Italian owners of these enterprises fled, the properties were looted and the area's livelihood collapsed.

"Life was much better back then. Everyone had a job," says Abdi Mohammed Osman, chairman of the village committee, as men dump wheelbarrows of dirt on the river bank behind him. "Now we have lots of problems."

Chief among those problems is the river itself. Twice a year, the Juba overflows its banks, flooding the village of Bandarjadid and the farmland that feeds its roughly 1,800 residents. Crops fail. People go hungry. Families are forced to leave their homes.

It need not happen this way, says Mohammed Wardere, who oversees Mercy Corps' projects in southern Somalia.

"This area is very rich in clay, and if the people here built up the levees with a clay core instead of with sand bags, they will withstand the rising water," says Wardere. And he ought to know: the Kenyan is a civil engineer who has spent the last two decades doing infrastructure projects throughout East Africa.

As part of its cash-for-work program in southern Somalia, Mercy Corps went to Osman, the village chairman, and his fellow community leaders to see what infrastructure projects were the highest local priority. After consulting with the community, Osman said it was clear that flood protection was the first order of business.

Standing at the top of a levee-in-progress, he points to the field below us.

"If we hadn't done this project - this embankment right here - this whole field, all the way to the village, would be flooded already," he says. "We never knew about this clay core approach that Mercy Corps showed us. It's the first time we've done it this way, but this is clearly better than using sand bags and we're already doing it this way at other spots along the river."

The program is also providing much-needed income for Bandarjadid's most vulnerable residents.

The village leaders worked with Mercy Corps staff to identify 40 of the neediest households in the village and employ members of those families on the embankment project.

"The wages from this project are helping these people sustain their daily lives," Osman says. "They're buying food, clothes, other items. These are people who are just getting by."

And that gets to the heart of the challenge, Mercy Corps manager Mohammed Wardere says.

"Cash-for-work in and of itself is not a sustainable mechanism for economic development, but it's not meant to be," he says. The project is currently funded through August 2008. "These people are in crisis, and cash-for-work provides them income at a time when they need it badly."

That doesn't mean the program doesn't lead to lasting, sustainable change.

"There are really two important lasting impacts from this project," Wardere says.

"First, as the chairman told you, this community has already learned an important engineering lesson about using clay to build their levees. They never knew that before, and now they're replicating it all along the river. That's an important lesson.

"Second, and maybe this is even more important, is this: there is no government support here. Therefore these village committees have an important role of bringing people together, identifying common goals, and mobilizing people to get them done. Through the cash-for-work program, the people here in Bandarjidid have set up a way to help govern themselves."

"And that," he concludes, "is a success."