Czech water management expert reflects on over three decades in Africa

Jiří Šíma, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Czech hydrogeologist Jiří Šíma is a leading expert in the field of water management. Since the mid-1980s, he has been involved in various water management and environmental projects in Africa, mainly in Ethiopia. He created a series of hydrogeological maps documenting the country’s water resources and has been cooperating on various projects with the Czech Development Agency and the NGO People in Need.

Jiří Šíma,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Mr. Šíma was one of this year’s recipients of the Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. I caught up with him during his visit to Prague to talk about his work and first asked him how he ended up in Ethiopia:

“I finished my studies at Charles University in 1978 and started to work as a hydrogeologist in one of the biggest Czechoslovak companies, Stavební geologie. There was a chance to participate in a program of international support to developing countries, particularly the socialist ones.

“In 1984 I was offered to go to Ethiopia based on bilateral agreement between Czechoslovakia and the socialist military government of Ethiopia. It was 1984 when I started to work as a hydrogeologist in a geological survey of Ethiopia and our group was mainly involved in the mapping of ground sources mapping.”

You created a series of hydrogeological and hydro-chemical maps. What purpose do they serve?

“When I joined the group of Ethiopian hydrogeologists, there were only about two or three hydrogeological maps of Ethiopia. Czechoslovakia in the 1960s was covered by a series of hydrogeological and hydro-chemical maps in a 1:200,000 scale, while Ethiopia was covered by topographical maps of a 250,000 scale.

“It was obvious that we could transfer our know-how to Ethiopia and start compiling hydrogeological and hydro-chemical map of Ethiopian territory. Those maps are used for general planning: where to start with drilling, what will be the expected quality of the ground water, if it possible to use the water for drinking, for irrigation or industrial purposes.”

Ethiopia has always been struggling with droughts. Has the situation changed over the past thirty years since you have been working in the country?

“One of the reasons of the Czech development assistance to Ethiopia is the transfer of know-how.”

“The problem of Ethiopian drought and subsequent famine is related to rain-fed agriculture. There are usually two rainy seasons in the Ethiopian highlands: small rains in February and March and big rains during July, August and the first half of September. If some of the rainy seasons are missing, there is no harvest. And that is of course a problem.

“This seasonality in weather has a direct impact on agriculture. But if we speak about ground water, about hydrogeology, it’s a little bit different. Ground water is available in Ethiopia, despite the fact that there is no rain. In this respect, we focus mainly on ground water resources, assessment of the quantity and quality of those resources. There are also programs for using ground water for irrigation which could help the agriculture during droughts.

“We are are not able to able to influence the weather extremes that we can see in Europe and in other parts of the he world but we can take some adaptation measures to decrease the impact of such extremes.”

You were also involved in establishing the very first Czech-Ethiopian company called AquaCon engineering. What is its main aim?

People in Need in Ethiopia,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“I work in a consulting and engineering company in the Czech Republic and our work in Ethiopia follows the same trend. This is why we formed a joint venture about three years ago and received an investment license and a special license for water management consultancy issued by Ethiopian ministry for water resources.”

You also cooperate with the NGO People in Need. What sorts of projects do they carry out in Ethiopia?

“People in Need have been working in the country for 15 years, and since we have been working on the same territory, we agreed that we would cooperate on the water management projects. We are supporting People in Need with our consulting and engineering knowledge and they are working on other parts of the project.”

How important is it to cooperate with the locals to establish mutual trust, when it comes to projects like these?

“One of the reasons of the Czech development assistance to Ethiopia is transfer of know-how. It means that we sit together with Ethiopian people, to work together and to learn from each other. What we are able to give them is our knowledge and our long-term experience from our environment, from our working system, from our education.

“This is the only chance how to cooperate. We cannot force people to accept what we think is important for them. The most important things are joint projects done together with the Ethiopian government which can be used by other institutions and the Ethiopian people.”

“We cannot influence weather extremes but we can take certain measures to decrease their impact.”

You have worked in Ethiopia for more than 30 years. Do you consider it your second homeland?

“I do. I know very well Ethiopian people and culture. I have no problem to live with them in the capital or in the small villages. I also like Ethiopian food, which is very specific. Ethiopians adopted Christianity in the year 330 and Ethiopians think in a very similar way to Europeans. I think it is because of their Christianity.”

Does that make the cooperation easier than in other African countries?

“Definitely. I was working in South Africa or Namibia and it is not easy to understand each other, despite the fact that we speak the same language. The way of thinking is really important and if it is similar, you feel comfortable. And I can say that I really feel comfortable working in Ethiopia.”

With rising temperatures all over the world, Europe is also facing longer periods of drought. Can we apply your know-how from Africa here in Europe?

“Of course, because Africa, and particularly Ethiopia, has been facing droughts and subsequent problem with food supply for several thousand years. We can learn how serious these problems could be and what impact they can have on agriculture, mobility and migration. We can also learn what measures can be effective.”

Ethiopian women,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
You are one of this year’s recipients of Gratias Agit award for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. What does it mean for you, receiving this award?

“This award was surprising for me. Of course it also belongs to the several thousand people I cooperated with, as well as to the Czech Embassy in Ethiopia which nominated me for the award. I have cooperated with the embassy for the past 34 years.

“Pieces of this award really belong to everybody I met at the university, and to my colleagues in the Czech Republic and Ethiopia, and finally I have to say thank you to the minister for awarding me.”