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Ethiopia: access to clean water – a fight for life

20-03-2007 Feature

The consequences of the armed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia that ended in 2000 are still felt by many of its people, not least in the difficulty of gaining access to clean water supplies. Vip Ogola reports.


© ICRC / Seyoum Dehre 
A boy fetches water from an unprotected well in Mezabir. 
    The consequences of armed conflict go way beyond the destroyed buildings, the abandoned tanks or even the presence of uniformed armed personnel still dotting areas of Tigray, the most northern province of Ethiopia.

The evidence of the destruction is muted by a spectacular landscape and the generosity and the willingness of its people to rebuild what has been lost. Even though the full-scale war between Ethiopia and its neighbour Eritrea officially ended in 2000, tension is still palpable in the villages close to the border.

A lot of de-mining work remains to be done. But some of the most lethal dangers could come from an act as natural and simple as sipping water or bathing.

“Five of the top ten diseases that we deal with are water borne.” says Milu Atsibaha Nerie, Head of the District Health centre in Adig rat.

”Diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, malaria, lung and skin diseases and intestinal parasites have been reported regularly in the villages served by this centre. These diseases can lead to complications which may then become fatal.”

He confirms the claims by the communities that clean water is still not adequately available. The war not only caused a high number of casualties and displaced over a hundred thousand people. It also resulted in the destruction of habitation and water points. Because Tigray has a low annual rainfall of between 200-500 mm, is overly populated and mountainous, urgent interventions were needed to prevent further loss of life due to a lack of access to clean water.

The ICRC, present in Ethiopia since 1977, has used its unique mandate to assist war affected communities in areas where other humanitarian organisations may not have ready access.

Part of its work implies the construction and rehabilitation of water supply systems. In the border town of Zalambessa for instance, the organization provided water in tankers for as long as 18 months, before the system was fully restored in 2005. In this unique urban project, the ICRC in close cooperation with the Regional Water Bureau and the Ethiopian Red Cross reconstructed the entire water supply system for a population of about 30,000 people.

Most projects of the ICRC however, are carried out in rural areas, where 85% of Ethiopians live. The criteria for choosing a location are based on the vulnerability of the people. The village must have been affected by the conflict and have limited access to clean water. The water sources the ICRC constructed or rehabilitated in Tigray in 2006 have benefited at least 135,000 people. Techniques applied are as diverse as the construction of boreholes, hand dug wells, rain water catchments and solar pumping systems.


© ICRC / Seyoum Dehre 
A solar plate close to Mezabir produces 600 watt energy, enough to pump 8000 litres of water daily up to the village. 
    The selected community is consulted on the type of water point most suited to the area. A water committee comprising respected local opinion leaders is then trained on the value of clean water and how to operate and maintain the source.

" The more a community is involved, the better a project will succeed " , explains José Ferreira Domingues, an ICRC water engineer based in Tigray.

" It ensures that the projects outlive the presence of the ICRC. Rain water catchments if well maintained can last at least 50 years. "

The organisation provides the communities with the necessary skills, know-how and equipment. Labour and much of the raw material are obtained locally.

Part of the responsibility of the community is to ensure that water sources are not tampered with. Before the ICRC hands over the source the community has to fence it, set access hours and if necessary hire a guard.

In Tekeze, a village of 2,500 people for instance, though the hand dug well is ready the commun ity is still using the river, since the fencing has not been completed yet. A pile of stones around the pump shows that the work is in progress and the members of the water committee confirm their commitment to the project.

Not least, because the dangers of using the river water go beyond falling sick. Frawine, a mother of six children reports, " During the rainy season when the river bed rises a common problem is, that crocodiles eat those who fetch water. "

Many of the communities targeted were served by water sources requiring many hours of travel. Moreover, most of these sources did not provide clean water making the community vulnerable to water borne diseases.

ICRC water projects completed in Tigray in 2006 
  • 3 boreholes dug for 9,500 beneficiaries
  • 1 hand dug well for 2,500 beneficiaries and their livestock
  • Maintenance of 62 hand pumps for 35,000 beneficiaries

    Far West
  • Maintenance of 16 hand pumps for 15,000 beneficiaries

  • 1 solar pump for 8,000 beneficiaries
  • 1 berkat for 5,000 beneficiaries
  • 2 rainwater catchments for 8,000 beneficiaries
  • 7 boreholes for 35,000 beneficiaries
  • 2 hand dug wells for 5,000 beneficiaries

In Mezabir for instance, a village high up in the mountains, people walked approximately ten kilometres to and from the river to meet their water requirements. Women used to leave at three o'clock in the morning and only returned 7 hours later.

Today a solar pumping system installed by the ICRC provides the village with 8,000 litres of drinking water per day benefiting 2,500 people. Seventy-one year old Wuldai Kahsay from Mezabir says “It was hard before the ICRC came. For those of us who are elderly and sick, we often had to go without food for days. I like that the water point is now close enough for me to fetch water after I begin cooking.”

To improve the health of the population the ICRC complements its projects with a hygiene training programme. This equips the communities to use the available water in ways that enhance the quality of their lives. Lessons as simple as washing hands before a meal, using latrines or mapping the village in such a way as to keep the disposal areas as far as possible from the food processing and storage areas are crucial.

Alan Braham, a member of the water committee in Tekeze says “The training taught us to stop open defecation by the river. At first, the community was resistant to digging latrines and the slabs provided by ICRC remained untouched for two weeks. Now we can't keep up with the demand.”

His colleague, 40 year old business woman Abeba, corroborates this by saying “I realised how important it was to learn how to use the water supply safely, this is why I attended the training. We are much better off now. “

The ICRC is carrying out similar water projects in other parts of Ethiopia. Seven water engineer expatriates and 24 national water technicians are employed countrywide. Apart form Tigray, they also initiate projects in rural areas of Afar, Gambella and Somali Regions, as well as in some places of detention throughout the country. Wherever they work, they need the support of the communities, an indispensable element for the success of their projects.