When the ponds in the central Ethiopian village of Deyata Dodota ran dry for six months of the year, the women would set out at 4am on a long, back-breaking journey. The daily hardship of carrying water weighing up to 18kg over such a long distance – and the fear of hyena attacks along the way – together with the grinding poverty of subsistence farming in the region, have left a grim legacy. Today there are many in Deyata Dodota left crippled by years of water-carrying, and the village graveyard is full of women who died young, exhausted and diseased by poor water.
By John Vidal
Deyata Dodota was transformed almost overnight in 1994 when the ngo WaterAid, backed by the Ethiopian government and an army of volunteers, laid 20 miles of pipe from the water source, and a further 68 miles of distribution lines. They also built three new reservoirs, capped several springs and installed 122 water points. It was a huge community effort, costing £1 million, but it now serves 70,000 people in the town of Iteya and 23 villages, including Deyata Dodota. The investment of about £13 per head has had astonishing physical,
social and cultural results.
The women of Deyata Dodota unanimously say that they have been freed. “Woha hiwot newu (Water is life)” says Radia Aman. “The arrival of the water has changed everything. All our lives have been greatly improved. We used to get diarrhoea and other diseases. At that time we could not clean the dead, our children would be dying for food while we were collecting water and you can imagine the change it has made for nursing mothers” she says.
The nearby town of Iteya has changed beyond recognition. “No one wanted to live here eight years ago because we had no water, and the town was very poor” says Haji Gebi, chair of the community water management board. Iteya has doubled in size since the water arrived, there are trees growing in the streets and real prosperity in the cafes and agricultural shops. Last year the first two-storey building was constructed. “Now people and businesses and money are coming. A school has been built and our children are healthy. Children
go to school who never would before. This is like a new town. It is because the water has stimulated business, farming and social life” says Gebi. “People now grow vegetables
in their gardens so their diet is better. There is no hunger where there is water” he says.
But WaterAid’s work has had other unexpected benefits. Technical, managerial, health, hygiene and financial jobs have been created, and new skills have been learned. And because the whole scheme is run by and for the community as an independent non-profit-making project, it has given people a sense of shared ownership.
The 23 villages and the town elect a board, which annually decides the price the water should be sold at, where services should be extended, and where the money taken in charges, should be invested. They also train and employ technicians to manage the pipes, and community workers to oversee all 122 water points and advise everyone using the taps about sanitation, hygiene and general health. “The rich pay more and subsidise the poor. We have £8,000 in the bank, some of which is going to take water direct to the school, and we are hoping to help build the new health clinic. We have loaned money for the construction of a church and a high school, and paid for the water to go to the school. This is development” says Getu Bedo, also on the board.
“With water, everything is possible” says Meselech Seyoum who works with WaterAid. “But people have to contribute; we cannot just impose solutions on people. We try to find the solutions with people. That is what is unique.”
John Vidal has been a journalist at the Guardian newspaper in the uk for 14 years, and the newspaper’s Environmental Editor for the past eight years. He has four times won Environmental Journalist of the Year in the uk and in 1999 he was awarded the World Food Prize for writing. He also writes for bbc Nature magazine. This article is reprinted with permission from The Guardian, 14th April 2003.