How it works: Steam wells

A large cement looking block in the middle of the desert in Ethiopia

In parts of the world where the effects of climate change are severe and rains are dangerously infrequent, MCC is supporting innovative projects to improve access to water.

In the Afar region of Northern Ethiopia, MCC supported the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) to build and maintain a steam well benefiting 60 households.

A dirt road in a desert of Ethiopia

MCC's first steam well, constructed in Bidu, Afar, in Northern Ethiopia. MCC photo/Rose Shenk

According to Bruce Buckwalter, an MCC representative in Ethiopia, the Afar region is particularly dry and arid. Because of few livelihood opportunities outside of farming, many people rely on their herds.

“Traditionally, the Afar pastoralists have been largely dependent on surface water, like stream beds, shallow, hand-dug wells or traditional cisterns, for human and livestock water needs,” he explains. “Climate change is seriously affecting the pastoralists who have few options for access to water.”

This steam well in the Bidu District of Afar is changing things in the region. Here’s how:

Making use of geothermal activity

Geographically, Bidu District is located where three tectonic plates meet. Mild volcanic activity, such as steam vents, are common. Subterranean water that is relatively near to the surface is geothermally heated and produces steam. The steam moves up through a fault line in the earth and escapes through vents.

A steam well doesn't function like other wells. It's not a hole in the ground where water accumulates. Rather, it’s a dome built over steam vents. This particular dome is made of concrete and captures the steam from three vents. As the steam enters the dome, it cools and then condenses into water. The water then runs through a pipe to a large concrete cistern where it is stored for future use.  

This technology is adapted from traditional Afar water harvesting techniques.

Two people look into a covered, in-ground cistern
Sisay Kasu, left, project manager for MCC Ethiopia, and Hussien Edris, projects coordinator for Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), look at the sediment trap leading into an in-ground cistern. MCC photo/Rose Shenk

Supporting an age-old method

People from Afar have been able to harvest water for generations by capturing and cooling the steam in a stick and mud trap built over a circular rock well surrounding the vent.

“This steam vent is an improvement on a traditional technique that has been used for many years,” Buckwalter explains.

This vent is significantly bigger than an Afari steam well, and requires much less upkeep, he adds.

A man stands on a rocky hill
From where he is standing, MCC Ethiopia Representative Bruce Buckwalter can feel warm air escaping from underground steam vents. Notice the dried grass that grows from moisture making its way to the surface from the underground steam. MCC photo/Rose Shenk

Low-cost maintenance

The well, which was built in January and February of 2018, requires very little money for additions or maintenance, Buckwalter says.

All it needs is occasional cleaning and roaming animals to be kept away. There are no moving parts that need to be replaced.

Additionally, in times of emergency, the steam well cistern doubles as a water collection point for water that must be trucked in. The steam well provides another option for access to water in a remote part of the world.

Less stress on limited resources

Bidu is on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Because of the ongoing economic and political instability across the border, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Ethiopia since September when the border, which had been closed for 20 years, reopened.

Buckwalter says that can put added pressure on resources that are already very limited.

“A very fragile, water-stressed area is seeing an influx of refugees from Eritrea. This further stresses the land and the local government,” he explains.

But the steam well is helping to alleviate some of that pressure.

In addition to the steam well, MCC also is supporting an emergency water project in the Afar region. That included repairing and building traditional in-ground cisterns called birkats; helping contain an outbreak of cholera; and training water committees to oversee the upkeep and management of the steam well and water system in the communities.


Top image: MCC's first steam well, constructed in Bidu, Afar, in Northern Ethiopia.MCC photo/Rose Shenk