First Person

Reducing the distance traveled for water in East Africa

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Kenny Rae traveled to Ethiopia in March to support relief efforts for communities in the Bale zone who are struggling to overcome the East Africa drought and food crisis.

Every morning Yenee leaves her two children in the care of her sister and ventures off to collect water for her family. After walking for two hours she arrives at the spring–the only source of water for miles around.

She is not alone. In Laga Hidha, a remote district in southeast Ethiopia which hasn’t seen rain for over a year, collecting water for drinking, cooking and bathing can be an all day affair–every day. At mid-morning at the spring there can sometimes be more than 100 women, some of whom have walked for more than seven miles. She will wait patiently in line for another two hours to fill her  jerrycans. She then returns home, carrying 30 liters (66 pounds weight) of water on her back.

Women walk several miles in Ethiopia to collect water for their families and livestock.
In some parts of Ethiopia, women like Yenee walk several miles  to collect water for their families and livestock. Photo by Kenny Rae / Oxfam America.

It wasn’t always like this. Nine years ago a well equipped with a hand pump  was installed in her village which provided water for all. Twice yearly rains would replenish the open wells and ponds that provided water for livestock, for bathing and  for laundering clothes.

The hand pump has been broken for over a year, and a promise to replace it by an aid agency has yet to be fulfilled. The prolonged drought has caused the open wells and ponds to dry up, and the cattle and goats that benefited from them have been sold off or have perished. Where there was once pasture, there in now only dust. Those determined to hold on to a couple of animals for milk must venture further and further from home to find food for their animals.

In Hidha Hunda village, an elder told us that one of the few remaining cows had, the day before been taken in search of food  and water and, miles away, had collapsed from hunger. Its owner left it where it lay and returned home. In every village we visited here, and in the neighboring district of Sawena we learned of the hardships that people are dealing with.

In  Gale  village all the  livestock has been sold. Families were unable to  keep one or two animals for milk as the surrounding pasture is long depleted. No crops have been cultivated for over a year. Collecting honey used to provide additional income for the villagers but, without water and flowers, the bees are gone.

While the first rains will be welcomed, there is a real concern in these communities that when even when it arrives, their problems will not be over. As an old man told us “Even if the rain comes now there is no pasture left to water.”

In the Bale zone of Ethiopia, herders say their cows are collapsing in hunger. Photo by Kenny Rae / Oxfam America.
In the Bale zone of Ethiopia, herders say their cows are collapsing in hunger. Photo by Kenny Rae / Oxfam America.

With their animals gone and with their grain stores  consumed,  Oxfam is supporting 1,600 families in Sawena and Laga Hidha with emergency cash and food distributions. For a few days per month, those that are physically able, undertake work such as rehabilitating traditional wells and ponds in preparation for when the rains finally arrive, hopefully to provide enough water to meet needs for a sustained period. To ease the burden of collecting water in the short term, Oxfam is rehabilitating water systems including replacing broken pumps to reduce the distances traveled.

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