We’ve been in the car for a long time in the last couple of days. We’re in Gashamo, a small town in the desert. A couple of days ago we drove for nine hours drive on bumpy sandy tracks from the Somali Region capital of Jijiga.
The drive was long and uncomfortable, captivating and bone shaking. We drove through areas of acacia woodland, the dry, prickly trees providing animals much-sought shelter. Tiny dik diks often scampered across or away from the road, startled by the car. Their spindly legs barely seem strong enough to carry these miniature deer, but they dart almost as quickly as the car.
The trees flattened into shrubs, other acacia. Two grey foxes with bushy tails crossed the track in front of us. Shrubs thin. At times the road is so thick with sand that it crashes like waves over the car as we drive. The windscreen wipers push it to sand banks at the bottom of the windscreen. As we approach Gashamo, the sand becomes steadily redder until shrubs disappear, leaving only occasional tufts of grass, pushed into mounds where the termites are demolishing it before livestock can graze.
Early the next morning, after a breakfast of Somali injera doused in sesame oil and glasses of thick sweet tea, we head another hour out of town. We pass the village of Samatar. Ahmed Osman — our incredibly smart, dedicated Natural Resource Officer — explains that he conducted a process of natural resource mapping in this kebele (village) and the community described how during the rainy season the village is cut in half by floods.
It’s hard to imagine that in an environment so parched, but the evidence is there to be seen. The roads that we’ve been traveling on the last couple of days are literally tracks in the desert. For a while, a particular track is used. After a time, someone takes a detour and others follow – a new road is forged. The old roads, with their packed sand and furrows, become gullies. At first sight it appears that the area is fortunate enough to benefit from seasonal streams but, under the tutelage of Ahmed, I learn that these are the old roads, filled with sand washed down by rain.
As part of the natural resource mapping process, the community from Samatar had designed a community action plan detailing how they will address the challenges they currently face and the assistance they would like from Mercy Corps. They detailed the soil and water conservation structures they’d like to build, to prevent the rain and sand from washing to their village and to get more benefit from the rain where it is most needed — on the rangeland, to generate pasture. Last week, Ahmed began these soil and water conservation activities as part of a cash-for-work program. Members of the village are paid according to the amount of work completed to undertake this valuable task.
Five kilometers outside the village, we reach the area that’s been carefully designated to trap the run-off. As soon as we get out of the car, the work is visible. There’s no immediate sign of anyone around, but a mesmerizing sound of rhythmic singing carries on the wind.
We follow the trenches and freshly dug soil bunds and approach the voices. A workforce of 60 people have been working on the 55 acre site. Men are hard at work with axes and shovels. They have dug five water diversion channels, with rows of soil bunds in between. These bunds are semi-circles of nearly two-foot deep trenches, with soil piled up on the far side of the water flow. The rain will be stopped here, allowing time for the water to soak back into the soil and regenerate pasture.
Soil degradation and recurrent drought have decimated pasture in recent seasons, leaving livestock wanting and demolishing seed banks. The community will protect this area from livestock until it’s regenerated so the full benefit can be felt by pastoralists and their livestock.
In this way, this simple cash-for-work activity will protect the environment, the livestock that feed on it and the people who rely on the animals for their livelihoods.