The Death of A Lake: Nobody Took Care of It; A Cactus Rises Where Fishing Boats Once Bobbed

By Sarah Stuteville

HARAR, Ethiopia - Girma Moges is angry. He was here in eastern Ethiopia four years ago when the pump he managed for a decade stopped forever. And he’s still here now, just outside the ancient walled city of Harar.
As the chief of the Haramaya Water Supply, he still has his office in the old pump house with its cracked dials and rusted gears and broken windows, the pump house that once brought water to Harar from nearby Lake Haramaya.  And he’s still angry.
The pump house might have kept going for years. But there was less water each year.  Finally, there was no water at all, and nothing left to pump.

“Nobody took care of this lake.” Mr. Moges said in a recent conversation. His frustration showed in his face and his voice rose in fury.
“Nobody cared for the lake or cleaned it,” he said, waving his arms in all directions to include everyone he could think of, his neighbors, the farmers, the herders, the town officials and the powerful people in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.  Instead, Mr. Moges said, people used the lake until it was no more.

Lake Haramaya, set in terraced hills roughly 300 miles east of Addis Ababa, is an extreme case. Around the world, many lakes that people have relied upon for centuries are shrinking. But Lake Haramaya is no longer shrinking. It is gone. The old lake bed, now dry and cracked, is an empty, shallow crater, pocked with patches of dusty, sunburned grass.

The lake was a victim of converging forces that read like a nightmare laundry list of 21st century environmental ills: erosion, population increases, wasteful farming practices, government mismanagement and climate change.

In Central Asia, the freshwater Aral Sea was almost completely drained by Soviet mismanagement. Lake Chad in central Africa has been shrinking for decades because of overuse and continuous droughts. In the United States, the water level in Lake Superior in Michigan and Lake Okeechobee in Florida has reached record lows.

Lake Haramaya, once more than 10 miles around and 30 feet deep in places, was not a huge lake. But for decades it provided water for Harar, one of Islam’s holy cities with a population today of about 100,000.  It is known for its silversmiths and fine basket makers and has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Nearby Haramaya University was named for the lake and a still active university website says the campus overlooks “beautiful Lake Haramaya.” But the website is dated 2000. Back then, fishermen worked the lake and farmers relied on it to irrigate their fields.

Now Harar gets by on water drawn from what remains of an underground pool beneath Lake Haramaya’s bone-dry basin as it awaits completion of a new system that will pipe water from 30 miles away.

But the new system will not provide water for the region’s farms.  Some farmers have found water by drilling into Lake Haramaya’s dry basin. But they have had to buy pumps.   Farmers without extra money have watched their crops suffer.   Most of the fishermen have moved to another shrinking lake over the next range of rolling hills.

Mr. Moges, a middle-aged man with a gravelly voice,   tried to halt the retreat of the waters of Lake Haramaya. He built long pier-like structures and he extended pipes further and further toward the center of the lake. But nothing worked. The causeway of sagging pipes and corroded supports remains as a sad memorial to his failed efforts.

Negusu Aklilu is the director of Forum for Environment, a non-governmental organization that is working to reduce damage to the environment of Ethiopia and to prevent other lakes from disappearing.   As a first step, he is trying to change attitudes.

“We need to green our politics, because right now development is happening at the expense of the environment” Mr. Aklilu said in his office in Addis Ababa. “We need to get people thinking about the future and to get politicians thinking 20 years down the line with every decision.”

For now, though, extreme weather is on the march around Lake Haramaya. A flash flood killed hundreds in the nearby city of Dire Dawa two years ago. Rivers that once flowed year-round have become seasonal, running dry for months at a time, then surging after heavy rains.

The remains of Lake Haramaya are stunning. As I watched the sun fade one evening over child herders grazing livestock on what used to be the lake bottom, my sense of loss was overwhelming. Ten years ago, little fishing boats bobbed near where I stood.  Today a single cactus rises from the lake bed.

Mr. Moges worries that Lake Haramaya has died in vain and he bitterly predicts that other Ethiopian lakes will follow its trajectory.  “When a man is a little sick, nobody wants to give him medicine,” he said, as a hot wind rattled the corrugated tin roofing on his pump house. “Once he’s dying, maybe they give him a little medicine, and once he’s dead, they are sorry.”

—Travel for this reporting project was sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. For related project materials, please visit: Water Wars: Ethiopia and Kenya.

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