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Rural Ethiopians use mobile phones to ring the alarm on drought

In the arid Shinile region of eastern Ethiopia, pastoralist communities are now using mobile phones to monitor water points and provide early warning of droughts before they strike.

Ali monitors a water point with his new mobile phone. Photo: Alun McDonald / Oxfam
Ali monitors a water point with his mobile phone

Every morning since he was a young boy, Elmi Farah has walked his family’s animals from their mountain home to the local water point. He’s seen good times and bad, some years of plentiful pasture and some years of drought. During the severe 2011 drought, half of the family’s 200 goats and sheep died. This year has been better, he says – but there are warning signs the situation could take a turn for the worse.

“In the past few months the number of animals coming here to get water has increased a lot.” This, Elmi explains, means there must be poor rains and a shortage of water in other areas, forcing people to come here to find water for their livestock – the main assets of people in this region.

It’s this kind of information and local knowledge that Oxfam hopes to capture more effectively using mobile phones – a new opportunity as phone networks spread to remote areas that still have few basic services, and where droughts are a fact of life.

“We used to write letters when things got bad,” says Ali Mohammed.

Elmi with one of his camels. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Elmi with one of his camels

The letters laid out the local concerns – poor rains, decreasing pasture, weak or sick livestock – and a village representative took them by truck and hand delivered them to local authorities and aid agencies in Dire Dawa, the nearest big town. The process could take several days, and the response could take weeks or months as the information slowly filtered back up to head offices and decision makers, who could alert donors to the situation.

“Now we can send the information by mobile phone in two or three minutes,” Ali says. Holding the Nokia smartphone given to him by Oxfam, he shows me how each day he enters data into the phone’s specially designed software, which sets out questions in the local Somali language. Easy to fill in, the questions identify the location of the water point and record key indicators such as how many people are using it, how many hours a day and how many cubic metres of water it is pumping, and how many livestock are there. Ali also records any changes in the price of water and fuel.

Ali collecting data on his phone as women gather water. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Ali collecting data on his phone as women gather water

Every day around 4pm he texts the data and it arrives simultaneously on the computers of Oxfam experts in Dire Dawa, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, helping them monitor the situation in real time and assess what kind of response is needed.

After a short training programme, Ali is now responsible for gathering data from water points in Shinile town. Many of the pastoralists worst affected by droughts live in small villages or isolated homes many miles away, but when times are hard they have to come into town. Monitoring the usage of the water points here can show trends across the district. “If there is rain and pasture where they live, then people stay away,” says Ali. “But if there’s no rain, this is where they come.”

A woman walks through a dry valley in Shinile. The region is very arid and often faces the threat of drought. Photo: Alun McDonald / Oxfam
A woman walks through a dry valley in drought-prone Shinile

The mobile project began in late 2012. Abdelmalik Sidad, an Oxfam public health engineer overseeing the project, says, “At that time there was rain and very few people were coming to town. Now there’s an increase. We know that when there are over 250 animals at the water point each day then the situation is getting serious.” At the moment the data shows around 200 animals a day. “It’s quite serious, but not yet a crisis.”

The software means Oxfam staff can provide a better and quicker response. Ali texts photos of broken parts or malfunctioning water points, meaning engineers can quickly assess the problem and respond appropriately. The information can be shared with local government, donors and other agencies.

“Without good information there is no response and people don’t get water,” says Ali.

An Oxfam and Save the Children report found the response to the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis was vital but late, costing lives and money across the region. “In that drought, better data might have meant a quicker response,” Ali adds.

As he fills up jerry cans of water to carry home to his family, Elmi agrees: “During the rains we have plenty of water and pasture, but when it is dry there are big challenges. Anything that can increase the information available can only be good.”

The project is being implemented in drought-prone areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. The first phase of this project has been funded by the Mariposa Foundation

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