© | Luigi Piemontese

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A well is not enough

A case study in Angola reveals how adapting to climate change with technology alone is not enough, and that in the long run it could actually cause more harm than good.

by Giovanni Blandino

In combating drought in sub-Saharan Africa, building infrastructure for water on the ground could make populations too comfortable causing the erosion of valuable traditional knowledge that has been relied on for centuries to adapt to extreme drought events. A study by the University of Florence and Eurac Research reports: while alleviating the problem in the short term, the long-term consequences could be more negative than positive.

Periods of extreme drought affect millions of farmers and shepherds in sub-Saharan Africa causing deaths, famine and migration. After ten years of prolonged heat and drought, 2022 was one of the driest on record for the macro-region. In Southern Angola, for example, it is reported to be the worst environmental crisis in 40 years: rivers have disappeared, dusty the dry soils are cracked, pastures scorched by the sun.

Both NGOs and governments have attempted to aid the local population with the construction of small infrastructures to bring water to the surface to sustain the population, livestock and crop fields. By building these wells, reservoirs and small ponds these entities alongside volunteers, hope to enable the continued practice of agriculture and pastoralism.

It was precisely in southern Angola and during one such well-building campaign in 2021 that Luigi Piemontese, a researcher at the University of Florence and an expert in water management, was involved in the development of a cooperation project aimed at helping the local population of mainly nomadic pastoralists to survive in severe drought conditions.

Coping with drought: traditional knowledge or technological expedients?

Wells and other small water infrastructures: SWIs, are usually built in response to major drought episodes and have clear immediate benefits: in essence, they allow the population to survive without having to move to other, less arid places.

In English, such a solution is called a tech-fix, a technological gimmick to solve a problem. And that is also why Luigi Piemontese was involved: his task was to identify the most suitable places to build an SWI. The researcher had to travel through the endless dry and barren landscapes that distinguish the south of the country, in the direction of the Namib Desert which has been arid for more than 80 million years and is believed to be one of the oldest deserts in the world. It was also an opportunity to learn about the traditional knowledge of nomadic peoples: the ingrained and ancestral knowledge that comes from accumulated experience being handed down over generations.

What happens when a well around which a population has settled runs out?

“Coping with extreme drought events and climate change can be done in several ways. The one that people in southern Angola have used so far is nomadism,” explains Luigi Piemontese. Local people tend to know where to move when drought strikes in order to find water. “In the territory there is always a certain gradient of drought, there are extremely arid areas where, especially in the case of prolonged drought, there is no possibility of practicing any agriculture or pastoralism. There are, however, less arid areas where conditions periodically appear for planting something and grazing one’s livestock.”

The construction of wells is another way of coping with drought and certainly has greater immediate benefits than nomadism: the tribe does not have to move, but has water available for their flocks and also for practicing subsistence farming. During his visits to the villages, Luigi Piemontese noticed another consequence of this type of well construction: the population around the well becomes much more settled, which, among other things, is greatly appreciated by the country’s central government, which in this way can at least count and control its population better.

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A solar-powered well in one of the villages visited by Luigi Piemontese.© - Luigi Piemontese
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Subsistence farming by a river.© - Luigi Piemontese
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A villager in front of sandy but cultivated land.© - Luigi Piemontese

But what happens when a well around which population has settled runs out? Or if an even greater extreme heat event occurs?

The researcher could only hazard a guess based on his field experience since the scientific literature did not offer detailed studies regarding the consequences of building small water infrastructure to solve the problem of extreme drought. As a result, the University of Florence researcher petitioned Stefano Terzi, a water engineer at Eurac Research, for help in studying the matter in more depth. Together they built a more holistic model that analyzes the possible long-term consequences of field activities.

Systems dynamics to study consequences of well construction against extreme drought

To build the model, the researchers draw on an analysis methodology called “system dynamics.” This approach is used to understand the behavior of a complex system over time. A complex system could be anything from a particularly bizarre fluid, the Earth’s atmosphere, a flock of birds and, even, a population's adaptation to climate change.

“These are patterns that put together the different pieces of the complicated puzzle that is reality. And they help us look for counterintuitive relationships, hidden consequences and events that take the system away from its equilibrium point,” explains Stefano Terzi. “These models are fed with data: satellite images, global datasets and ones provided by local governments, trends from the scientific literature. And we talked to local people by interviewing pastoral communities.”

This approach allowed the team to highlight several things. For example, one of the findings was the correlation between well construction and increased settledness, also shown by satellite imagery: where wells were built, cultivated areas increased and grazing areas decreased.

“Systems dynamics allows us to put together the different pieces of the complicated puzzle that is reality, while also finding hidden consequences.”

“Resettlement of course is not a bad thing in itself. But it has consequences, especially when practiced for a long time in an extremely drought-prone area like some areas in southern Angola,” Stefano Terzi and Luigi Piemontese explain. “It thus increases the consumption of water resources, and if these wells fail to meet needs because they run out or because of the arrival of a further, even more pronounced wave of drought, the population that had relied on these SWIs could find itself in more serious trouble than before.”

Indeed, there is a risk that these communities may have lost the inclination to move to areas with more water, partly because they have invested economically in the areas around the wells in the meantime. In being sedentary, these populations may have also lost the knowledge involved to move, the so-called traditional knowledge. Ultimately, the construction of wells without this intelligence or knowledgeable governance, although it improves the situation in the immediate term, could worsen living conditions in the medium to long term.

Technology, governance and traditional knowledge

Studies of this kind highlight that when addressing complex issues such as climate change, long-term and more unexpected consequences must also be taken into account.

“Obviously one should not stop building water infrastructures in places like these,” Luigi Piemontese and Stefano Terzi explain, “but governance is also needed so that in these places, technological expedients are employed in a broader context, that also involves social variables such as maintaining traditional knowledge.”

Caution and increased awareness on the part of both the promoters of the intervention and the local population are needed so that the technology at hand does not change the way of life of pastoral nomadic tribes. Looking at it from the long-term perspective, nomadism probably remains the best strategy for adapting to drought in that area by making sure that water resources are not depleted in a certain location and that the aquifers are allowed to recharge. “If you don't have governance you risk reinforcing negative consequences that in the long run can be destructive to the resilience of the population. Instead, the implementation of infrastructure should be accompanied by a series of caveats to prevent technology from changing the way people live,” the two researchers suggest.

“For example, it would help to limit the amount and density of wells built to prevent them from being an incentive to settlement, or to have the foresight to build wells following the routes already exploited by nomadic pastoralists in their internal migrations,” they conclude.

icontechnical documentation

The scientific paper in the scientific journal Nature

The scientific paper titled “Over-reliance on water infrastructure can hinder climate resilience in pastoral drylands” was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Climate Change. It is available for open access here. Authors of the paper, in addition to Stefano Terzi of Eurac Research, are Luigi Piemontese, Giuliano Di Baldassarre, Diego A. Menestrey Schwieger, Giulio Castelli and Elena Bresci.

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