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Conserving water for livestock in Butana, Sudan

The green grass and watering holes of the rainy season don't last long in Butana (Rashid Musaad)
The green grass and watering holes of the rainy season don't last long in Butana
Rashid Musaad

Livestock have always been fundamental to life in some of the world's driest places. Able to travel, gathering water and energy from far and wide, grazing animals can support livelihoods where crops struggle to even survive. As climate changes and dry places become even drier, however, more livestock compete for less water, and rangelands fail to provide food through the year. The Butana region of Sudan is one such place, and the Butana Integrated Rural Development (IRD) Project is an attempt to help communities there make the most of their small share of resources.

Butana lies on a dry plateau east of the River Nile. While it sits outside the narrow band of fertility watered by the legendary river, the region is still considered relatively green - relative, that is, to other areas of Sudan, a drought-prone country straddling the Sahara. Butana has a reputation for prime grazing land, but the greenery is highly seasonal, with rainfall limited to only a brief period in the middle of the year.

As climate change increases…

As in other dry regions people cope with seasonal changes through transhumance, yearly migrations with their cattle, sheep or camels in search of water and forage. Butana is crossed by many such transhumance routes, which can make life difficult for the local people. After a few months of herds passing through, water supplies and plant cover regularly fall short well before the end of the long dry season. With the climate becoming drier by the year and concentrations of livestock continuing to grow, the shortfall is turning into a serious problem indeed for the people of Butana.

Butana's reputation for green pastures still holds true in the rainy season - for a short time, at least (Rashid Musaad)
Butana's reputation for green pastures still holds true in the rainy season - for a short time, at least
Rashid Musaad

Signs of rangeland degradation are most apparent in areas around sources of drinking water, which are extremely localised. With no perennial rivers, streams and ponds are quickly drained after the rains, leaving livestock and people alike to rely on a variety of specialised man-made water sources, the most widely used being a very old technology: dugout reservoirs called hafirs, which harvest water from surrounding land during the rainy season. Hand-dug surface wells and newer boreholes also dot the landscape.

…regaining control is vital

The Butana IRD Project is an initiative of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).. Rashid Musaad, the project's Director, has seen changes not just in climate but also in the social structures that at one time controlled access to water and rangelands. "In the past, the government depended heavily on the local tribal administration in implementing and enforcing legislation and dealing with natural resources and environmental protection," he says. "Although limited, the tribal leaders' administration had judicial power, which enabled them to protect the natural resources quite effectively. But the government abolished the tribal administration in 1970."

Hafirs, traditional water collecting reservoirs, are the most common man-made source of dry season water (Rashid Musaad)
Hafirs, traditional water collecting reservoirs, are the most common man-made source of dry season water
Rashid Musaad

Along with supporting and developing ancient water harvesting technologies, the strategy of the Butana IRD Project has been to try and restore some of the communities' control over their resources. Getting communities involved is central to the project, as it hopes to help build sustainable systems of stewardship that can continue far into the future. Already, some solutions have evolved through a multi-stakeholder participatory process, which has fostered the formation of new community organisations to manage natural resources. Also, the project's participants are using tribal gatherings during the rainy season as a forum for discussion and agreement on stock routes for the following season, on areas allocated to grazing and drinking, areas excluded for incoming herds, and dispute arbitration mechanisms.

Saving for June

Pilot communities have worked with the project to demarcate around 25 square km of land in each of their areas as a reserve for the dry season, protected from both local and migratory livestock during the initial rainy season rush. Surveys of these reserves show that one such area can sustain between 1,000 and 7,625 sheep for a full year, or if left untouched after the rains, can support the entire livestock of the community through the critical period from March to June. The project is providing assistance for the rehabilitation and development of water yards and improved hafirs along transhumance routes and rich grazing areas.

Sheep change hands at a traditional Butana livestock market (Rashid Musaad)
Sheep change hands at a traditional Butana livestock market
Rashid Musaad

The resources to actively protect and develop their reserves will hopefully be gathered by the communities themselves by collecting fees for the use of water yards, boreholes equipped with motorised pumps, water storage tanks, and human and animal watering facilities, and the proceeds will be used by community organisations to patrol reserves and develop rangelands by seeding some of the better forage plants that have become scarce with overgrazing. In this way, visitors to the region in the fertile rainy season can help the locals make it through the dry times.

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: July 2010

 

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