The Gash River Basin supplies water to Kassala city in eastern Sudan, but wells are drying up as the swelling population and agriculture use up precious water, leaving officials debating how to avoid thirst, desertification, and aridity.
Kassala city and its rural areas depend on the Gash River’s groundwater reserve which flows from the Eritrean highlands and is known as the Gash River Basin. This aquifer, or underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock, extends almost 50 kilometres into the Sudanese territory in the border village of Laffa, following the river downstream near the Gash Delta.
Kassala and its neighbouring areas including Aroma, Makali, Wad Sharifi and Wagar are reliant on the basin for their water supply, according to Engineer Mohamed Abdel Hay, Head of the Groundwater and Valleys Authority in Kassala State, under the Ministry of Water Resources and Electricity.
But this water source is increasingly erratic. The water level sunk in recent years, affected by a sharp rise in population and unregulated agriculture. The amount of water flowing into the basin every year is estimated at 98 million cubic metres, which fails to keep pace with an estimated annual consumption of 174 million cubic metres.
Abdel Hay explained that in some years decline reached a low record of seven metres, or 8 million cubic metres, imperilling the local access to water. “More than 60 wells completely dried up last summer,” he said.
A council of water users
This drought season was followed by strong rains in autumn which caused a rare 20-million-cubic-metre boost in the water reserves. But experts were aware that this unusual event was unlikely to recur in the near future. “So we decided to sound the alarm and suggested a number of urgent solutions,” Abdel Hay said.
The Groundwater and Valleys Authority in Kassala proposed a number of solutions including the creation of a canal from the Setit River, about 100 kilometres away, to help recharge the renewable aquifer. Another solution was to replenish the main aquifer through the creation of large basins which would store river water during the season when the river flows, thus helping provide more water for the main aquifer. The authority also said it was necessary to form a council composed of all concerned parties.
Adding to the pressure on water is the fact that Kassala’s horticulture extends more than 600 kilometres, making it the largest area of horticultural cultivation in Sudan. Experts say this water-intensive land use could be rationalised by concentrating on crops, which require just small quantities of water or, by introducing modern irrigation technologies, including so-called pivot and drip irrigation systems.
The union of fruit and vegetable farmers in Kassala State are trying to end widespread wastage of precious water, according to Kerar Sayed Ahmed, the Union’s Secretary. “As a union we signed agreements with Kassala’s state banks to provide the needed loans for farmers to enable them use of modern irrigation systems,” he explained, adding that the union is launching awareness programmes aimed at educating people about the best ways to use the Gash River groundwater reserves.
Yet despite having referred these proposals to the Kassala State government and the Federal Ministry for Irrigation and Water Resources, Mohamed Abdel Hay said he had not yet received any response. He feared that the Groundwater and Valleys Authority’s ideas to prevent a regional water shortage would remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.