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Part 2: In Ethiopia access to water means access to education

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Villagers collect water from a rain-fed pond behind a new dam built to provide them with a reliable source. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
Villagers collect water from a rain-fed pond behind a new dam built to provide them with a reliable source. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Even as young teenager, Astbha Abraha knew there was only one way he could make a better life for himself and that was with an education. An interpreter, he told me the story of that schooling (see Part I) as we trundled in a truck through Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, on our way to the Raya Azebo district to visit a dam—one that holds a whole lot more than just water.

A remote place of rocky hills and plains, some of the district’s villages have been plagued by lack of water, and in 2008, the situation in Boye Gararsa became critical when rains failed to come, triggering acute food and water shortages—conditions Abraha knew well from his own childhood in Tigray. Together with the government and a local partner, the Women’s Association of Tigray, Oxfam America helped respond to the villages’ needs with a solution intended to solve the water problem for good: a micro dam.

Stretching across a gulch, the earthen dam stops precious rain water from rushing away, allowing it to pool into a pond and creating—at last—a year-round source of water abundant enough for more than 2,500 households and the 26,500 animals they depend on for food and income. Many people in the area also helped restore the landscape above the dam to prevent sediment from clogging it. In exchange for their labor, they earned cash to tide their families over through the hungry months.

Now, instead of trekking six hours roundtrip to lug water back for their families during the dry season, women like Samuel Abraha are able to save a huge amount of time—and bone-wearying labor—with this new water source just 15 or 20 minutes from their homes. That’s time they and their children, who often accompanied them to help port the water home, now put to far better use.

For the kids, the dam means more than just water for today: It means an education for tomorrow. Free of the daily burden of an 18-kilometer hike to Afar for water, they can now attend school regularly—an opportunity their parents list right near the top of the life-changing benefits the dam has brought.

“First we managed to get water for drinking in very close range and second, our children have time to go to school—consistently,” said Letebrhan Bayragergis. Even Samuel Abraha’s two oldest daughters—19 and 17—are in school, now working their way through ninth grade.

At the dam one day recently, two girls huddled together—oblivious to the chatter of the crowd of water-gatherers around them. What consumed them? Homework, I think. With head bent, one wrote in a school notebook while the other leaned close to help.

Nearby, in a school with walls made only of sticks, village children flipped through the pages of their notebooks, their voices calling out answers to questions their teacher asked. At break time, the students—many of them girls—streamed out together, the regularity of their school days now set thanks to the dam.

It was that regularity that Abraha craved as a boy too. But for him, on his own on the streets of Mekele, it was elusive. He realized that if he was going to finish school—“I had a very strong passion for education,” he said—he would need to find a way to spend more time on his studies and less time scrambling to live. For a  year he tried working in a hotel while squeezing in schoolwork, but the owners cared little about his true mission, he said, and those hard months were little better than the ones that came before.

With no other options, he finally turned to a friend—a woman with four children of her own. She stood behind him, and with the simple support she was able to offer, Abraha finished high school and made his way through university, earning a degree in economics.

“She took care of me,” he said. “She understood the way I was.”

And the way he still is.

Abraha now has his sights set on graduate school—after he has finished helping his half sister and his wife finish their schooling. His goal? An advanced degree in economics.

“It’s a good discipline for working on development issues,” he said as our truck drew close to Gararsa—a place, like so many others, that could surely use his help one day.

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