CASE STUDY: supplying clean water in Africa

Working alongside the people of Ethiopia, WaterAid is helping bring clean water and safe sanitation to drought-hit areas, as Leonora Oppenheim discovers

Kidan Hagos is trying to tell me what she knows about water, but I am distracted from her animated face by the enormous swelling in her neck. Kidan diverts momentarily from her theme to explain that she has been suffering from what we know as a goitre, an enlarged thyroid gland, for 30 of her 50 years, but while the swelling is causing breathing problems and it hurts when she drinks or eats, she is more preoccupied by the need to access clean water. ‘The water sanitation officer has been teaching us our illnesses are because of the dirty water we drink from this river,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately we do not have safe water yet.’

We are standing at the bottom of a dusty Ethiopian valley under the burning African sun beside a trickling stream that must at one time have been a river. Cattle and donkeys mill around; some women on the far bank are busy washing clothes, others are strapping weighty jerry cans filled with water to their backs and beginning what looks like an unimaginably arduous journey up the hill.

Kidan may have mistakenly attributed her thyroid problem to dirty water, but there is no mistaking the fact that this stream is polluted, causing a myriad of health problems for her, her children and her community. ‘We have never seen white people, but we know you have come to see how we are suffering,’ she says.

I am travelling in the northern region of Ethiopia, Hintalo Wajerat, with WaterAid, the international NGO that works in developing countries on safe water and sanitation projects. We’re here specifically to see projects that are being funded by the eco-friendly detergent company Ecover, which shares WaterAid’s objectives of providing sustainable solutions for cleanliness and uncontaminated water.

Kidan knows all about WaterAid’s work, not only thanks to its sanitation officers visiting her village, but also because her brother Keleay lives in Adiger, a village a few miles away where WaterAid has completed a project. Kidan says of Adiger, ‘they are already using clean water and we hope that they will come and serve us here too.’

Although they live in neighbouring villages, the difference between Kidan and Keleay’s quality of life is stark. Kidan has to walk 5km to this unprotected stream to collect water contaminated by other communities upstream, parasites and animal waste. This is also where she washes her clothes and body. It takes more than two hours to climb back up the hill with the 25-litre jerry can of water on her back. She does this twice a day, leaving little time for any other activities.

In contrast Keleay, a teacher and community leader, benefits from clean water on tap from a capped spring in his village. His is the first household selected to trial a biogas toilet, the latest sustainable technology adopted by WaterAid, which uses animal and human waste to power lamps and cooking stoves. Keleay is so proud to have this new technology on his doorstep that he gives demonstrations to villagers and visitors, explaining how and why the biogas toilet is better for their environment than the oil they used to buy. Now, he says, everyone wants one.

For any WaterAid project to be sustainable it must first have the co-operation of the community. The sharing of information and education is the foundation model by which WaterAid works. While the disparity between Kidan and Keleay’s lives might seem grossly unfair, their proximity does allow information to spread. When a village is approached by the NGO many of the residents may already know about its water projects, but the village as a whole is informed that no work will start until the community is fully dedicated to the project and has elected a water committee. The committee is usually made up of seven villagers, four of whom must be women.

Educating communities

In general it is the women’s job to wash clothes and collect water for drinking and cooking; they are assisted by their children, while the men farm the fields and look after the livestock, so it makes sense for women to take a leading role in water and sanitation projects. Part of WaterAid’s work is to empower women such as Kidan who, unlike her brother, is not used to holding a position of influence or being given opportunities to speak out and take on responsibilities within the community. When WaterAid is ready to work with her community she is ready to be on the water committee.

Although Kidan’s enthusiasm is apparent, the process of bringing the whole community on board is not always smooth. Brhane is a water sanitation officer whose job is to explain to villagers why safe water and sanitation are important for their health. Sometimes it can take a couple of months of regular visits to gain their trust. She says this stage of the process is the hardest part, but persistence is everything. If the community is not fully involved in the implementation of the water project then they will not be able to look after the protected water source; whether a hand-dug well or gravity-fed scheme, they will not be able to fix equipment and, most importantly, will not be able to pass their newfound knowledge on to future generations.

In the remote mountain village of Gem Asa I speak to Shwaynesha Hagos, a 30-year-old mother of seven. Brhane worked closely with Shwaynesha, teaching her how to build a compost pit latrine near her house. Sensibly they chose the same construction method Shwaynesha used for her house – mud walls and a thatched roof – meaning materials are local and some knowledge was already there.

‘When they were teaching me about the system and construction of the latrine I understood immediately and now I can teach others,’ Shwaynesha says. ‘Before I would just go in the bush around the house and would worry about whether people were looking at me or not. At times I felt ashamed, but now my children and I are safe to use the latrine at any time and I am happy about this.’ The plan is for each of Gem Asa’s 64 households to build its own compost latrine. Shwaynesha’s work provides a key example of how simple sanitation education can easily be replicated throughout the community and beyond.

While this education model is sustainable, unfortunately it has many limitations when it comes to larger-scale projects. Sanitation classes and compost latrines are relatively low-cost, but hand-dug wells and water pumps are not schemes communities can afford to implement on their own. Each well costs 13,000 birr (£820) to install. WaterAid asks that each community contributes 15-20 per cent of the cost through manual labour and donation of basic materials such as sand and stone. The community is taught how to build, maintain and repair the well and pump, but is not yet able to construct larger sustainable technology schemes without external funding.

Reassuringly, however, I see evidence that the community works to evolve schemes each time they are replicated by WaterAid. The biogas toilet built for Keleay Hagos in Adiger was built from expensive corrugated metal sheet. The second, recently built for the Hiluf family in the village of May Ayni, was made, like Shwaynesha’s latrine, from local materials. This not only halved the price of installation, but also means other households can copy it with ease, only needing WaterAid to install the biogas technology of a digestion tanker and pipelines. The new toilet is clearly prized by the Hiluf family, who have painted patterns on their facility inside and out.

There’s no doubt that WaterAid is dedicated to taking a sustainable approach; its model is one of inclusion, involvement and collaboration with every community. Through ‘software’, the education phase in villages and schools, it has been able to help many people understand why clean water is so important, and through ‘hardware’, the installation of sustainable technologies, it has empowered women in their communities, providing them with clean accessible water, which frees up their time to plant vegetable gardens and care for their children. If we zoom out to look at the bigger picture, however, we can see that WaterAid is having to run just to stand still: with thousands served there are millions more, like Kidan Hagos, who are left without.

On a darker note, wells dug only a few years ago are drying up, the water table is depleted, droughts are more frequent, the rainy season is shorter and sometimes doesn’t come at all. The threat of climate change is set to make harsh climates even more so, with flooding in some areas of the globe and increased desertification in already parched countries like Ethiopia. It is a sobering thought that, even with all the resources and funding in the world, WaterAid’s work and people’s survival depends on there being fresh water available in the ground. During a visit to one school’s sanitation club we saw just how theoretical the education model can be. Children are taught how to wash their hands and clean their bodies, but teachers have to use images on posters because there is no water at the school for practical demonstrations.

Leonora Oppenheim founded sustainable design consultancy Elio Studio and is a correspondent for

On the water board

Even with its rich cultural heritage there is only one word that sums up as Ethiopia in the public consciousness – drought – even 20 years after the terrible famine of 1984 when more than a million people died. Current water statistics do not bring any comfort that much has changed since then. Only 22 per cent of the population have access to safe water and only six per cent has adequate sanitation.

There is clearly more work than WaterAid can do on its own. In order to gain access to communities in the deepest rural areas it works with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC). In this deeply Christian country, where there’s a priest in almost every village, the church has connections everywhere. WaterAid and the EOC aim to provide 100,000 Ethiopians with safe water and 95,000 with sanitation and hygiene education by 2010.

More information on the Ecover/WaterAid partnership