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A 22-year-old student is working to help a Corvallis sister city cope with a devastating water shortage.

One of Corvallis’ two sister cities, Gondar, Ethiopia, has insufficient drinkable water for its population of 250,000.

Deforestation and soil erosion has caused massive silt build-up in the local reservoir, which is Gondar’s main water source.

Courtney Holley, 22, a third-year student majoring in ecological engineering at Oregon State University visited the region this summer and is working to find solutions.

“The reservoir was intended to last at least 20 years, but now it’s cut down to five years because of erosion,” Holley said.

Over-population in the region has forced many families to farm in the upper steeps of the watershed, Holley said. Most farms are very small —  1.85 acres — and used for subsistence farming. So almost every bit of land is tilled to grow a local grain called teff as well as wheat, barley, beans, corn, potatoes, eucalyptus and various other trees.

Adding to the problem, wood is the main source of fuel for cooking fires in the region, which is so impoverished that trees are logged both for timber income and wood fuel, which leaves hillsides denuded. Torrential rains during the wet season have eroded an alarming amount of soil from the upper watershed in recent years.

This summer, Holley spent six weeks studying the agro-forestry practices of rural farmers in the Angereb Reservoir region surrounding the city of Gondar.

Holley’s internship agenda was developed and planned under the supervision of Badege Bishaw, a professor in OSU’s Department of Forestry and the forestry/watershed expert for the Corvallis-Gondar Sister Cities Association and Chris Bennett, the regional director for Africa of the IE3 (International Experience, Education and Employment) global internship program.

Holley arrived in Ethiopia at the end of the annual 2½-month rainy season to find a lush landscape that belied the serious droughts that the area faces. That short wet season creates a serious challenge to produce enough food each year.

“Everything has to happen in a really finite time,” Holley said.

Holley asked farmers their concerns and their opinion on which kinds of trees would be the most beneficial to them to build the most community support.

“The idea was to ask people there,” she said. She and a translator went out almost every day to visit farmers in the watershed and interview them in their native Amharic language.

“I just had to pick it up as I went along,” she said.

In all, she completed almost 30 surveys, each taking about 90 minutes. She also led group discussions on Gondar’s watersheds and subwatersheds. But some days, Holley and her translator traveled for up to seven hours — only to find nobody at home to interview because everyone was working in the fields.

Her solution: a plan to reduce the need for fuel wood in the first place as an “indirect path to controlling erosion.” Holley wants to empower women in the Gondar community to replace the traditional three-stone fire method with more efficient stoves that use half the wood.

Holley is working with the Ecological Engineering Student Society and the OSU Engineering Club on the new stove design project using low-cost materials such as plastic buckets and clay. She’s also raising money to send a student delegation to Gondar next summer to help families build the stoves.

“I’m really excited to get more students involved in it. I’m trying to facilitate future internships,” she said. “We found that we need someone on the ground ... and it has to be someone that is only focused on (that project). There’s only so much you can plan that will actually get implemented.”

Since her return, Holley has been involved in work with Ray Williams, Bishaw, Mike Smeath, Don Prickel and others to create a total watershed plan for Gondar.

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