Praying for rain: Sustainable strategies deliver water, hope to East Africa

How one man's faith is helping end famine with help from LDS Church

Published: Saturday, April 14 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Abdulahi has a new idea. During a previous drought in Ethiopia, in another village far from here, he supervised the construction of birkits, or cement-lined storage tanks designed to catch water. The plastic tanks the villagers are using to store water are fine for now, but they won't stand up to the harsh elements of the desert. He wonders if they can do something more long-term and sustainable.

He presents his plan to the IRD office in Washington D.C., which in turn approaches the LDS Church and asks if it will pay for the building materials. Church officials agree, and construction of the birkits begins.

Not long after, the first rain in three years falls in the Horn of Africa.

Rebirth and hope

It's late February 2012, five months later. The rains weren't enough to dramatically change life in Somalia (a few hundred people are still crossing over every day), but it did make things better.

The UN has just declared an end to the drought and here in the desert there's a sense of rebirth.

Abdulahi is sitting in the passenger seat of a Land Cruiser, barreling down the dirt road that leads to Sala-Jama. The windows are open, the wind whipping through the cab, the air outside rich with the smell of the deep red soil.

Water is trickling down riverbanks that had long been dry and boys and girls are pushing herds of goats in search of pasture. As the Land Cruiser crosses a bridge, Abdulahi looks down and sees a group of children playing in muddy water. They swim to the other side and sit on the beach, spreading the white sand over their legs to get warm.

Things are getting back to normal.

When the Land Cruiser arrives in Sala-Jama, Isaaq greets Abdulahi with a warm embrace and then leads him to a gaping hole in the ground. It's about 40 feet long, 15 feet wide and nearly 10 feet deep.

This is the birkit and it's nearly done.

Men and boys work in its bowels with pick axes and shovels. As they work they sing an old Somali folk song to keep their mind off the monotony of digging and crushing rock.

Isaaq leads Abdulahi to the other side of the pit and shows him a bucket full of broken pick axes and shovels.

The ground is so hard they've had to order a jackhammer, he explains, which someone is operating down in the pit. The materials for the concrete should arrive soon, which they will use to line the birkit. They will then build a roof on top of corrugated steel and attach a pipe that functions like a rain gutter to catch the rain. When the next drought comes, the people will be ready.

That night, after Abdulahi has visited other villages, he returns to his compound, where a dinner of rice and cucumbers is waiting for him. His work will not stop at the birkits. IRD is now helping twelve villages start an irrigation project to help them cultivate fields of corn, weight and sorghum. These crops will not only provide feed for their animals, and food in times of crisis, but a new source of income and sustainability for the villages.

"It is a hard work, it is a difficult work," Abdulahi says. "This field work, you're away from your family, but it is a satisfying work to help your people. At least I can say that I am making a difference, I am bringing people water who didn't have it before."

He wishes he knew how to thank the people who made this project possible. They belong to a church he has never heard of, in a country he has never visited.

He sits on a white plastic chair in the courtyard of the compound, staring out into the blackness of night. He knows the crisis is not over. The refugees are still coming every day. The Ethiopian military is at war with Al Shabab, which has been kidnapping tourists and aid workers.

This is the story of this land, and the story of his life: drought breeds famine, which leads to civil war, which forces people to move. There will always be something to fix.

He rolls out his mattress on the concrete floor and slips off his black plastic sandals. Before long, the call to prayer will echo across the rooftops and this city will slowly shudder to life. He will kneel to pray, asking God for help, and then he will go back to work.

Coming Sunday: Helping Amina

Not far from Somalia, on a barren, windswept plain, Amina gathers firewood in the fading light of late afternoon. The wood is for home, and home for Amina is a sprawling refugee camp that sits at the base of a mountain in the Horn of Africa. From where she stands she can see the rows of white tents stretching to the horizon, a small, teeming city of some 40,000 souls. It is here that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought its philosophy of self-reliance to build partnerships in humanitarian aid.

Read Part 2: Building hope: How the LDS Church is helping thousands fleeing war and drought

Report on KSL: Famined Africans build water tanks, aided by LDS Church

Editorial: Water of life

View video at left: "Reporter's Notebook: Inside Ethiopia with staff writer Jesse Hyde"

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