It has been 30 years since the BBC’s historic broadcast from famine-stricken Ethiopia, sparking Bob Geldof’s famous “Band Aid” appeal. Throughout the 1980s, Western eyes saw only destitution and poverty there, as the world was transfixed by images of mass graves and skeletal children. But as a frequent visitor to the country, it struck me that we were underestimating the skills of Ethiopian people.
It was a troubled environment. Our colleagues in the region described how the effects of famine were exacerbated by government blocking of food distribution. Very few aid organizations were allowed to work in Ethiopia at the time, while large sections of the population were forcibly pushed into food deprived areas. Some 400,000 people are estimated to have died as a result, according to a 1991 report by Human Rights Watch.
As international pressure mounted to relieve the people’s suffering, WaterAid was identifying local partners to help address the broader problem of water and sanitation access. In 1990, around 86 percent of Ethiopians did not have access to safe, clean water and a shocking 97 percent were without a basic toilet, according figures from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
Back then, we were a small team of 15 in the United Kingdom, but an additional network of experienced advisers helped establish our Ethiopia country office by 1991. One of them was Keith Salt, an engineer volunteering there during the famine who identified a pressing need to educate rural communities about hygiene.
Our way into the most deprived regions became working with the Orthodox Church’s education program. Its “worker priests,” who lived in the communities they served, could teach people about basic hygiene practices like washing hands with soap or ash and boiling water before drinking. WaterAid commissioned a booklet in the native Amharic language as a training manual for the priests.
We had also started funding small gravity schemes for supplying water alongside the Ethiopian Red Cross. These harness natural water sources with pipes to feed tapstands close to homes, reducing the need to carry water long distances.
Our engineers then proposed six large-scale gravity schemes, of which the first and biggest, the Hitosa Gravity Scheme, brought water to 50,000 people. I was amazed to see these areas transform into hubs of economic activity with newly bustling markets. Small hotels and cafes popped up thanks to a more regular water supply reaching rural places. The projects operated as mini-water utilities, with elected members and a policy of only hiring female tap attendants, boosting economic opportunities for village women.
These early interventions helped to set up Water Action in 1995, which is now Ethiopia’s largest, independent non governmental organization working in water resources management.
WaterAid has always worked in effective local partnerships, including our work in the urban slums of Addis Ababa with Jember Teferra, the wife of a water engineer who was former Lord Mayor of Addis. She and her husband had spent many years in prison for their political views, but later returned to Addis to set up an urban development program with our support. Sister Jember took me to a home in the slums where an open sewer had undercut the corner of the house, causing the side wall to collapse. The family were forced to live in one room with the sewer running straight through the middle. I was surrounded by malnourished children and jobless parents in desperate conditions. Sister Jember wanted to break this poverty cycle by addressing multiple aspects — water, sanitation, health, education and employment.
Today, Ethiopia still faces a multitude of economic and environmental challenges. Changing weather patterns are creating an uncertain future for its farmers, opening them up to water scarcity and keeping them trapped in vicious cycles of poverty. There is much work still to be done. Efforts to bolster local water and sanitation projects must be stepped up to achieve long-term sustainable change, particularly in light of recent corruption and aid scandals in the region.
But many things have improved in the last 30 years.
In 2011, the Horn of Africa was hit by what was considered the worst drought in 60 years. Though the management of water resources in Ethiopia still needs development, improvements to rural access at least helped to avoid a disaster on the scale of 1985. Last year, WaterAid’s Big Pipe project brought water to the people of the remote community of Adi Sibhat, removing the need for long, treacherous journeys to fetch water and improving the community’s health.
Huge challenges remain in Ethiopia today, yet over half of its people now have access to clean water, which has improved their health and household food security. As the United Nations finalizes a new set of post-2015 sustainable development goals next year, water and sanitation must be strong, stand-alone goals with ambitious targets to maintain strong political will and financing for these services.
This kind of progress must continue if we are to reach everyone, everywhere with safe water and sanitation by 2030.
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