Ethiopia’s walk over water

A short life-span for water pumps in Ethiopia can threaten the very well-being of those who rely on it to survive.

Women in Langano, Ethiopia rely on the local water committee to perform maintenance checks on the well [Leah Harding/Al Jazeera]

More than 40 million Ethiopians are unable to tap into a sustainable water source just metres below their feet.

Tshay, an Ethiopian mother of three, relies on a broken waterpump to sustain her family. Using her shirt, she filters the worms from the water in an attempt to make it less horrific to drink.

The pump of the hand-dug well next to the mud-lined walls of her home broke.

Retrieving water from a river, her alternative water source, requires that she spends hours carrying the burdensome 20kg of water several kilometres a day.

Her children suffer the consequences of drinking the contaminated water: Their bodies wracked with diarrhoea. But she has no choice. Filthy water is better than no water at all.

Water politics

The well by Tshay’s home was a gift that was taken away; a healthy source of life terminated because of a broken pump.

In Africa, there are an estimated 31 million hand-dug wells with about 500 people benefiting from each source. But after five years, up to 70 percent of those pumps will break, leaving frames of a source once tapped.

As much as water is a source of life, it is also the epicentre of complicated and tense political debate.

Government offices cannot handle the maintenance at the required level, because on one hand they do not have enough manpower and logistics and on the other, they do not keep parts in their office due to budget constraints.

by - Kebede Fekede, Ethiopian hydrogeologist

Kebede Fekede is an Ethiopian hydrogeologist who consults for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and private organisations within Ethiopia on the development of groundwater resources.

Fekede said the government first approved the actions of an NGO in Ethiopia, but once the NGO installed the pump and trained locals on how to use it, the regional water committee takes control.

A statement to Al Jazeera from the Ethiopian embassy in London (sources in Ethiopia declined to comment) said that low-maintenance pumps were expected from NGOs, along with training, to assure the pumps can continue functioning after the wells are installed.

“In Ethiopia, the relationship with NGOs is based very much on partnership,” the statement said. “This means that when an NGO operates it does so on the understanding that it will pass on skills and know-how to the local communities so that the projects they initiate are sustainable.”

However, Fekede said even partnerships do not ensure well pumps will remain operable.

“Government offices cannot handle the maintenance at the required level, because on one hand they do not have enough manpower and logistics and on the other, they do not keep parts in their office due to budget constraints.”

Fekede told Al Jazeera that some NGOs use old bike and car parts for the internal structure of a well. He said this can help keep the well running longer and can prove to be an easier fix, if (and when) the system breaks.

“These pumps are cheap and could be easily manufactured locally,” Fekede said.

“It’s two times cheaper to use these parts than imported materials … The most important thing is for people to know what kind of pump they have and to be trained on how to fix that particular system.”

Women and water

Women across the world spend a collective 200 million hours a day collecting water.

For millions of women and girls across Ethiopia, fetching water is a full-time job and consumes time that would otherwise be used for attending school or advancing in a professional career.

Women like Tshay, along with younger girls, are primarily impacted by the lack of clean drinking water because they not only have to drink it, but are also responsible for transporting it.

UNICEF estimates 71 percent of the burden of drinking water is carried on the shoulders of women and girls, sometimes causing growth defects and developmental problems.

The Ethiopian embassy in London said the impoverished country is making strides with water development that stretches into classrooms.

“Lack of water is a factor in education provision in that if girls [who traditionally do this work] have to collect water, sometimes far from their homes, they are less able to attend school. Ethiopia now provides primary school education to over 98 percent of children – both girls and boys.”

Alternative sources

The Ethiopian embassy in London also stated that alternative water supplies are being utilised to combat the prevalence of broken wells. “There has been a radical increase in small – and medium-scale irrigation from captured rainwater and from groundwater,” the embassy said.

In a five year report published in 2014 by the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, 10 million people have benefited from an expansion of water supply in the 2013 fiscal year.

The ministry said this only happened in part because of joint relations between the government, NGOs and donor agencies. But even the embassy said that has not been enough.

“Nonetheless, to meet … the target of universal access to potable water supply, the efforts of all these actors have to be redoubled.”

The Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and Economic Development’s plan was to increase potable water supply coverage 66.5 percent in rural and 81.3 percent in the urban areas by 2013, construct 25,121 wells and maintain 10,747 rural water sources.

The Ethiopian embassy in London said, “The targets were ambitious and, though they were not met, the results were still significant when compared to those from when the plan period started (2010) – a 20 percent increase.”

I am really happy, because there is such a big difference. Previously the water directly from the river was without treatment and made us very sick. From this well, we are now really healthy.

by - Gidessa Gisha, Ethiopian farmer in Baitu community

It said the next target “is to increase the potable water supply coverage to 98 – 100 percent by 2015”. That’s a benchmark the United Nations Development Programme has been pursuing since 1990.

Still, about 30,000 Ethiopian children under the age of five die from  each year, and worldwide some 760,000 children under the age of five die from diarrhoea linked to use of contaminated water every year – a problem Tshay no longer has to face.

Recently, an NGO provided Tshay’s village with a pump made from spare parts. Tshay gave 50 birr (about $2.50) to contribute to the cost of the well’s installation. The NGO asked the community to give a total of 600 birr ($30), to encourage ownership and responsibility in using the well.

Gidessa Gisha, 45, is a farmer with a family of 11 who serves on the local water committee in the Baitu community of southern Ethiopia. He was made responsible for maintaining the fence around the well to protect it from livestock and tends to a community garden fed by the well.

The community’s 600 birr contribution also gives Gisha a job and ensures the well remains operable.

“I am really happy,” said Gisha, “because there is such a big difference. Previously the water directly from the river was without treatment and made us very sick. From this well, we are now really healthy.”

Gisha is an instrumental leader in his community. Thirty households use the well that fall under Gisha’s authority as he ensures his community remains healthy.

With a budding sense of responsibility, Tshay even calls her new water pump “my well,” and no longer relies on the pit of worm-infested water next to her home.

“My family is now healthy. The whole community is healthy,” Tshay said. “We are saving time [not filtering water] and now have more time to take care of our kids.” 

She gives two birr (about ten US cents) to her community’s water committee every month, to ensure upkeep continues for her only source of healthy and precious water.

For Tshay the contribution is insurance that keeps her family from becoming one of the 768 million people worldwide who lack access to a reliable faucet or pump.

Despite the progress that has been made, the World Bank estimates roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians continue to sift out worms and rely on water like that which devastated Tshay.