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UNESCO Heads East Africa Water Search

A Somali refugee girl waits for her turn to collect water from a tank at the Ifo extension refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, July 31, 2011.
NAIROBI - The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) and officials from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia Tuesday launched a regional initiative to identify and improve groundwater resources in the region.

UNESCO's “Strengthening Capacity to Combat Drought and Famine in the Horn of Africa” project aims to ease the water and food shortages faced by some nine million people who are still struggling to recover from last year’s drought and famine, the worst in 60 years.

It aims to do so by identifying, assessing and developing groundwater resources in the three countries using leading-edge technologies.

“So we have satellites in orbit right now that can let us know what is going on 20 meters even below the surface of the earth. We can see buried drainage systems [and] rivers, we can see structures, fractures that are there, which is an indication for us where is the water,” explained Saud Amer, a water resource specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

He says scientists cannot see the actual aquifer from the satellite images, but, through remote sensing, can infer the location of underground water.

There may be a lot of water. John Rao Nyaoro, director of water resources in the Kenyan government’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation, estimates that his country has 60 billion cubic meters of underground water.

“What we want is a confirmatory test through this kind of project that will be able to tell us here is where that groundwater is seated, at this depth. Once we have known, we have the technology to exploit that groundwater,” Nyaoro said.

Ethiopia’s director of groundwater, Tesfaye Tadesse, estimates that Ethiopia may have at least 40 billion cubic meters of underground water, or even double that, especially in the highlands and the central part of the country.

He says his country has poor drilling facilities and little know-how on locating groundwater sources. But Tadesse has high hopes for the UNESCO initiative.

“Now we want to use this advanced technology - the remote sensing technology - to look for [water in] the remote parts of Ethiopia, where access is very limited," Tadesse explained. "You can very easily gather information without the need to go into the field.”

The region’s ecosystems are all inter-connected stressed consultant Yassin Salah Ali.

“If, for instance, drought strikes in Ethiopia, the drought in Somalia will be more severe because Ethiopia is upstream. All the water in Somalia originated from the Ethiopian highlands,” Ali said.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Amer warned that the groundwater needs to be managed sustainably so as to avoid future droughts and the resulting catastrophes.