High tech to quench nomads’ thirst

A technologically advanced reverse osmosis desalination system delivering abundant pure drinking water for free has just been inaugurated in Semera, the new town in the Ethiopia’s hot and arid Afar Region. The project, undertaken in the name of INYGO Malta Foundation – the Jesuit Youth Network – cost approximately €100,000 and was part financed by the Malta Government Overseas Development Aid fund. Project Leader Fr Joseph Cassar and Water Engineer Julian Mamo were in Ethiopia between 7 and 13 December for the final installation and handover.

The project is a natural development of Fr Joe’s links with Ethiopia – going back more than 25 years – and of the dedicated service that so many groups of young people whom he and later University Chaplain Fr Michael Bugeja have led to that most interesting country since 2001 in summer voluntary work experiences promoted by INYGO. INYGO volunteers regularly assist the Missionaries of Charity – better known as the sisters of Mother Teresa – in their work among the poor and the sick, both in Europe as well as beyond.

The pure drinking water that has begun to flow is the end product of almost three years’ work to identify, source, finance and deliver the most cost-effective and sustainable solution for the harsh climatic conditions of Semera. Daytime temperatures in the long hot season can often exceed 50°C.

The Afar Depression, a vast desert expanse between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, is an area of ongoing seismic activity, with newly forming volcanoes and boiling mud holes dotting the landscape where the African and Arabian tectonic plates are shifting apart. Afar nomads trek across the hostile landscape with their herds of camels and goats and little or nothing else. Even in this new town clean, safe drinking water remains a luxury poor people cannot afford.

Shortly after Semera appeared on the map and was designated as the new capital of the Afar Region, the Missionaries of Charity established a new mission in 2004. One year later, their rudimentary house was destroyed in an arson attack but they stayed on undeterred. They had drilled a borehole to extract water from a deep underground aquifer but like many similar attempts in the region the water turned out to be brackish.

It did not take the Sisters long to become aware of the adverse affect on human health of water that contains exceptionally high levels of naturally occurring dissolved chemicals. Hence their request to Fr Joe to help them find a way to provide safe drinking water for the surrounding and nomadic people.

Meanwhile, the compound of the Missionaries of Charity has flourished to include a residential clinic with three separate blocks for women, children and men, a new kindergarten, a warehouse to store food and other items for emergency distribution and, most recently, a new water tower housing water storage cisterns and the brand new desalination system.

The unassuming taps located both within and just outside the gates of the compound of the Missionaries of Charity are a dream come true, delivering one of life’s vital elements that is conspicuously missing in the region. The temperature of the ground water pumped up from a depth of 150 metres at 38°C was one of the technical hurdles that had to be overcome. Others related to the intense heat and the frequent heavy sandstorms that sweep forcefully across the terrain.

The project had to contend with logistical issues regarding the transportation of the equipment from its Swiss manufacturers and onward by land and sea from Germany, via Djibouti, to Ethiopia, as well as with endless bureaucratic delays for the final release of the container from customs. A newly installed wind turbine sits on top of the new water tower to deliver renewable energy to a series of batteries that keep the equipment fully operational throughout frequent power outages.

With an output of 600-800 litres of high quality drinking water per hour, the system is more than adequate for current and foreseeable needs of the local and nomadic population for whom the Missionaries of Charity are the only source of free, safe drinking water.

Mr Julian Mamo provided expert advice throughout all stages of the project. The technical study and the delivery of the turnkey project was entrusted to the German consultancy firm DWC-Water. The top-notch system is manufactured by Trunz Water Systems AG, of Switzerland. The system is self-cleaning and requires little maintenance, which will be carried out by a trained worker on the spot and periodically by a newly set up NGO called SMART (Sustainable Management of Alternative Renewable Technologies).

For Fr Joe, the words “I thirst” that customarily accompany the crucifix in all chapels of the Missionaries of Charity worldwide, have never sounded more real.

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