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‘We will speak out against this project, even if they kill us.’

When community leaders in Gambos county in the Huila province of southern Angola wrote a letter vowing to defend their water supply, they made it clear that they meant business.

According to the UN, at least 2.3 million people are affected by drought in southern Angola, with both food and water in short supply. July to September are the driest months of the year.

Gambos is a dry, remote area, home to communities of semi-nomadic pastoralists – cattle herders who move with their herds between seasonal grazing pastures. Now other herders are coming from further and further afield – including from neighbouring Namibia – in desperate search of water. People and cattle are having to share diminishing water supplies.

The escalating drought in Gambos has led to higher levels of malnutrition and disease and is exacerbating social problems among the communities, with school dropouts, rising migration – especially among young people – and increasing domestic violence.

There is little government help for small scale herders here, even though they are the backbone of Gambos’ livestock industry, owning 96% of local cattle. For big landowners, however, it’s a different story.

Throughout the driest months, landowners’ lorries have been taking tankfuls of water from the community spring in Santo Antonio parish, and diverting it to their own farms nearby, as part of a government-sanctioned water project. Several government officials are also big landowners.

Around 600 families from 14 different communities depend on this spring for water for drinking and for their own livestock. Before the drought worsened, they also drew water from it to irrigate their vegetables.

As the drought progressed, the local government stepped up its efforts to siphon off community water for powerful landowners. On August 19, the situation took a dramatic turn for the worse, when the government sent in construction workers to start connecting the spring’s waterholes directly.

As the construction works began, our local partners Chiange Gambos Network (CGN) and the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy (AJPD) immediately stepped in to provide emergency legal and advocacy support to help the communities defend their water.

On 30 August, community leaders issued a letter to the local government, police chiefs and human rights groups, outlining their legal position and stating their intention to hold a public protest on 5 September.

‘When will the government start valuing us more highly than it values landowners’ cattle?’ they demanded, adding that ‘we will not accept the water from our spring being diverted to the farms, because our water is already scarce.’

After intensive local advocacy, supported at national and international levels, the government has backed down, and the project which authorised the water seizure has now been cancelled.

Although this may protect the spring for now, the communities are also seeking long-term guarantees from the provincial governor, as this is not the first time that Christian Aid Ireland partners have had to support these communities to defend their water.

A key part of Christian Aid Ireland’s work in Angola focuses on supporting people who would otherwise be forgotten or overlooked to make their voices heard. At times of crisis, empowering poor communities to defend their rights is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, due to climate change, the frequency and severity of the droughts affecting southern Angola, and other countries across southern Africa, are set to increase

CGN and AJPD have been raising awareness of the impact of the current drought, urging the government to take timely emergency action, including food distributions, and to improve its advance drought planning. Their efforts have included advocacy, media and television work, and the creation and sharing of a short film highlighting the crisis.

Christian Aid Ireland is supporting CGN, and is providing funding – from Irish Aid – for partners’ emergency advocacy work.

Author: Sian Curry