27 March 2003

Ethiopia: "Silent Water Crisis"

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

WAJA, ETHIOPIA, 27 March (IRIN) - Twice a day Abinish Dawto used to lug a heavy 20-litre jug - filled to the brim with brownish, dirty water - for one kilometre, so that her family could wash and drink.

Her backbreaking work - performed by millions of girls in Africa each day - often made her younger brothers and sisters sick, despite first sieving the water through their clothes.

But today Abinish holds a clay pot under a new hand water pump just a few hundred yards from her parents' straw hut in Waja village in Guraghe, a once-fertile area in Ethiopia's Southern Nations and Nationalities People's Region (SNNPR).

Clean water overflows from the brim and runs around her bare feet. "I used to pick the worms out of the water before we drank it," she told IRIN. "Now it is clean and safe."

Abinish, 15, has been collecting water for her six siblings and her parents since she was seven. She never went to school, too busy with domestic chores, she says.

CRISIS OF MANAGEMENT

Her plight, says the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), is part of the "silent water crisis" that affects millions of people around the globe. The scale of the crisis is enormous but there is a global commitment to tackling it.

In Ethiopia, less than a third of the 67 million population have access to clean water. The UN has underscored the importance of safe, clean water by calling for the number of people without clean water to be halved by 2015 - a Millennium Development Goal.

Yet in Ethiopia the water crisis is not one of resources - rather it is a crisis of management. Abundant supplies can be found in many parts of the country. Ethiopia is often referred to as the water tower of Africa - yet recurrent droughts blight the lives of millions.

Underdevelopment of Ethiopia's water resources is demonstrated the lack of irrigable land - just 4.8 percent has been developed. Almost the entire country relies on rain-fed agriculture.

And just a tiny fraction of its hydropower potential has been tapped - evident in the increasing power cuts hitting cities as water levels drop due to the drought.

Experts argue that a massive increase in investment - some 70 percent - is needed to improve water and sanitation supplies in Ethiopia.

TAPPING WATER RESOURCES

Officials from the ministry of water resources say that a 15-year plan aims to utilise the potential within the impoverished country.

The scheme, which requires some US $7.6 billion, will harness rivers and aquifers in the country. It will also promote water-harvesting schemes for domestic use.

Yet officials within the ministry acknowledge that they haven't secured the funding and that is the major hurdle they face.

Aid agencies are playing a role in developing water points in Ethiopia for rural communities. In just 47 days UNICEF, working alongside the Ethiopian government, drilled 22 new ground water wells in Guraghe - which, it says, is a record. Tens of thousands have benefited from the scheme.

UNICEF water and environment head Hans Spruijt says the solution to the water crisis in Ethiopia is readily available. Effective water management is the first step of development, he points out.

"We are putting in wells because you cannot take water from rivers, given the distance and the quality, so you would have to treat it at tremendous cost," he told IRIN. "For me there is no doubt that there are tremendous benefits. We are talking about a silent crisis because people do not have water for all the essentials of life."

Spruijt said that Ethiopia lags some 15 to 20 years behind many other countries in the world in tapping its water reserves.

"Rural Ethiopia today is about a lack of water but you do not have to look far as ground water is a solution and it needs to be made available," he said.

"Ground water is deep and safe and clean," he added. This makes a vast difference to people's lives. People are often walking two hours to get the water and so children do not get to school."

In Waja, some 800 families pay less than US $0.02 a month for unlimited supplies of water. The well itself, drilled by UNICEF and which drops to a depth of about 50 metres, cost just under US $2,000. The entire project totalled US $37,000.

The villagers of Waja say the pump - which can produce half a litre a second - has revolutionised their lives.

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