Updated: Tuesday 25 July 2017

In search of water

Sinidu and her community, who were once badly hit with the greatest famine of 1983-1985 in Northern part of Ethiopia, crisscrossed the country in search for water and food until they finally settled in Nebar Keshmando kebele of Benishangul Gumuz region. Even there the access to safe water remained spiky until the construction of CMP water point.

 By Benti Ejeta

It was the eve of Easter in 2015. As usual, at 1 a.m., Sinidu Mohe, 49, was queuing up her yellow Jerry Can at the only water point in Nebar Keshmando. Until the tap attendant opens the water point which is four hours later, she wanted to go home and continue the preparation for the next festive. Halfway home, suddenly a roaring and groaning sound overtook her. The fiercest, and apparently starving hyenas as she calls it, are attacking her from left and right. “At once fear conquered me. My jaws shaking with fear and my knees are trembling under me. I was freezing to death,” Sinidu recounts. The guy from a neighbor who was accompanying his wife to the same water point helped her escape the attack.

This was not for the first time Sinidu caught a snapshot of her death for reasons related to the provision of water. In 1984 when the deadliest famine that inspired the song ‘we are the world’ inflicted millions in Northern Ethiopia, Sinidu, by then only 18 and pregnant with her first child, nearly died of starvation and thirst for she had gone a number of months without enough to eat and drink. No water. No food. Hundreds of thousands lost their life. Many more left homeless clinging desperately so hard to this life. Others such as Sinidu were forced to relocate.

For some, water is the cheapest resource. In fact that is the way it should be. The creator’s gift for free. Unfortunately, for some such as Sinidu it is the most precious item that cannot come along so easily. Indeed that has kept Sinidu roaming from one place to the other.

Earlier on, that blazing drought of 1983-1985 which totally consumed all the earthly resources including the streams and springs- the main source of water of that time- displaced her. “Dergue (i.e. Government of Ethiopia by then) informed us that it is a severe famine and we should relocate to other place. We left our home in Wollo.  Neither of us knows if we would return home anytime sooner or later. Government relocated us to Salga of Assosa district in Benishangul Gumuz in 1985,” she recalls.

In foreign land

Salga was mostly unoccupied. Now it became home to tens of thousands of newcomers. Despites its vast geographical reach, the new place is not much better off. The land does not yield much produce. Lack of access to water is still rampant. It is degraded and washed out land. To say the least, Sinidu and her community have never felt at home. The need to move in search of water and food arose again. “Lack of water and food drove us out once more. After 16 years in Salga, the incumbent government moved us to Nebar Koshmando in 2001,” says Sinidu whose countenance tells the tragic story far more than the words she utters.

Another time another place but still in search of the same resources. Sinidu’s account is the story of this community who now moved to Nebar Keshmando of Bambasi district. They found a cultivable land. At last, all the agonizing hardship with the relation to food items appears abated. That makes Nebar Keshmando different from the previous places.

However, water is still the scarce resource. It is a hard hit area with the lack of access to safe water. Other than the ponds that sprout every now and then, this community heavily relied on a hand dug-well which was constructed in 2000 by government. Primarily, this water point was supposed to serve very small group of natives. Add some more communities such as Sinidu’s, the capacity of the water point falls far too short. “The situation worsens as population grows,” says Walelign Demise, chairperson of the kebele.

This water point is open from 6-10 am. Yet lining up starts from 1 am. Everyone knows too well that the scheme would run out of water anytime. At that point, ponds are the next and final stop. That underpins the immense sense of urgency to be among the lucky ones of the day. That is so, particularly during the dry season. “If you are a bit late, you have already missed out. To get a 25 liter Jerry Can just for drink only, I should be there between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Especially, during the dry times and holidays it gets very nasty. The day hyenas attacked me, I was already at the water point at 1 a.m.,” says Sinidu who nearly lost her life to the wild beast on the eve of Easter 2015.

Woefully, old people, persons with disabilities and new moms are mostly neglected during peak times Sinidu admits. These groups and the other unlucky ones who could not make it to the water point turn to the stagnant ponds which are totally unprotected and filthy. “This water is used for all purposes including drinking,” says Temesgen Melese, the kebele manager. Surprisingly, this instance is not the only time the ponds are used. For food preparation, all kinds of washing and bathing, these ponds are the main source even for those who were lucky to get water from the old hand-dug-well. They are allowed only a Jerry Can a household a day which is used only for drinking purpose.

Unsafe water leads to poor health. In this kebele, abroad range of water borne diseases are the most prevalent. “Most of our patients are children and women who have got acute vomiting and chronic diarrhea. Lack of safe water supply and improved sanitation and hygiene services is the main cause of this health hazards,” says Benchiayehu Tefera, health extension worker at the kebele health post.

A case in point might be that of Sinidu’s elder daughter who has fallen sick with chronic diarrhea and recurrent typhoid. Another cruelty for which Sinidu paid 1000 birr that topped all the medical expenses of her household at one instance. This amount for a household who barely makes that much in a month, entails huge economic impact.

Saving these medical expenses would mean buying an improved seed and fertilizers that surely doubles the yields. It could also be translated into replacing the ox that died of thirst over the last dry season. Her children school costs would have been covered with that amount. It would have been enough to cover the cost of a new roofing where a member of a household gets his head under after the excruciating heat in the field. The list goes on. Sadly, these all weren’t meant to be.

The living condition depletes to its worst and lowest level when the lack of access to safe water, or the unsafe one for that matter, claims the life of the main workforce. Cows, oxen and other domestic animals often die from lack of water. Quite simply, it is the mutilation of the mainstay of economy. In the months of May and April when all but only two ponds and each wetlands blow with dusts, the community was running out of water to quench not only its thirst but also that of its cattle. “We have two major difficulties in here. Lack of access to safe water results in water borne disease and the unavailability of water leads to the death of our cows. Our economy is heavily reliant on them. Nothing left with us to get rid of this hurdle,” says Temesgen Melese, kebele manager.

The New dawn

Fast forward to 2014. Community-Led Accelerated WASH (COWASH), a bilateral project between the Governments of Finland and Ethiopia, started supporting the implementation of Community Managed Project (CMP) approach in Benishangul Gumuz national regional state. In Ethiopia, CMP is one of the four approaches through which rural water supply is implemented. Under CMP, unlike other implementation modalities, water supplies, and sanitation and hygiene facilities are initiated, planned, implemented and managed by the community with the technical support from the local government. More importantly, it is the community who manages the construction and the fund which is transferred directly to it through the regional micro financial institution.

Based on the decision of the regional steering committee, COWASH is commissioned to assist the implementation of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) using CMP modality in four districts in two zones of the region. CMP management training which is the first among a series of capacity building activities was organized in December 2014 by COWASH “It is the forum that brings heads and WASH experts from across the sector bureaus and offices together. Besides its awareness raising purpose, it also aims to create understanding that enables common target between these groups who at times seem to have different priorities,” says Melaku Worku, capacity building specialist at COWASH. Technical parts of this training were reserved for the experts who would be directly involved in the construction activities of the projects.

Taking CMP to the grass root level is the role of the district WASH technical team along with kebele WASH team. Promoting the approach to generate community’s interest and belief in CMP is the responsibility of this team. Interested community elects water, sanitation and hygiene committee (WASHCO) to manage the construction and supervision of the project and finally takes over the operation & maintenance responsibility of the water supply. This committee mobilizes the community to contribute the compulsory upfront cash which is deposited in the saving account opened at the local microfinance institution and later on collects the tariff of the water supply and deposits to the same account.

Gott One, translated as village one, of Nebar Keshmando kebele is no exception. The notion that they are implementers of the project beds well with this community whose reputation for hard work reverberated across the borders of this kebele. “I have not noticed one community member that had hesitation over the approach. It was an easy decision for all of us who had been in a despicable situation. We were quick to make the upfront contribution and application for the project,” says Jemberu, chairperson of WASHCO who represents 335 people of 87 households.

At the district level, the application documents is reviewed for compliance and compatibility; it is a process which otherwise called desk appraisal. It was soon followed by a reality check or field appraisal which is conducted by the district WASH technical team. Applications are rejected if appraisal team finds discrepancy between the application and the situation at the ground. True to their words, no inconsistence was found in the application of Got One.

Following the go-ahead decision from the approval team, the new safe water supply is only a few weeks away. The unrelenting support from the district CMP supervisor coupled with the commendable dedication of the WASHCO, the community has reached the point to commence the construction of the much talked water supply. Now site selection is onboard.  In CMP, though experts have the strong say, the opinion of the community is keenly sought and regarded highly. In this instance, both science and preference meet perfectly. Experts’ site selection is the most preferred place by the community. Hand-dug-well is the viable option.

Construction fund is transferred to the community. Under the close supervision and support of the district water office, WASHCO hired Worku Bogale, an artisan to construct the facility, and purchased the construction goods and materials. From community’s point of view, the implementation process progressed seamlessly. “Community was very committed. They divided themselves into groups of seven members. There was always a group working at the construction site each day until the end. The turn kept rotating. Community covered 32% of the investment cost which is about 51,000 Birr in total,” says Jemberu Birhanu, chairperson of the WASHCO. “We transported stones and sands to the site. We removed soil and water from the well during the well digging,” states Sinidu.

The construction of new water point with 8 and 4.5 meters depth and water column respectively was completed. Nebar Keshmando became the first kebele in Bambasi district, even in the region, to officially inaugurate a safe water supply facility supported by COWASH on 28th of July 2015. The inauguration event was celebrated colorfully at the presence of invited guests from federal, region, district and the host community.

On this occasion, WASHCO presented the achievements and challenges of the implementation process. Community was made aware of the detail performance activities including the total construction cost which is the sum of contribution from Governments of Finland, Government of Ethiopia and beneficiaries. It was during this ceremony when the community passed a decision to rotate guarding the facility among user households.

“These are the projects that you planned and nicely executed right from the start. Other parties such as government has only been assisting the project technically and financially. We are very proud of your accomplishment,” says Beshir Nugura, representative of the district administration, addressing the community who were booming with happiness and confidence. “For us, this safe water supply is as important as the blood in our bodies. Now we have safe water. Yet because of our sheer number, we still need more water,” says Workine Kebede, beneficiary of the project. 

With safe water in the village a glimmer of hope which wasn’t there rises above the once darken horizon. It is a hope to be healthy and productive community. This way they are able to send their kids to school. “I think it addresses most of our challenges related to safe water. I hope I will not need to get up at midnight again. It means I will not risk any attack anymore,” sighs Sinidu during the inauguration ceremony.

According to Walelign, chairperson of the kebele, the significance of this water point transcends beyond the borders of the kebele. Nebar Keshmando is becoming a service center for at least nine neighboring kebeles. It is home to primary and high school. People from different places visit the health post in here. Farmers’ Union, farmers’ training center and grinding mill are also located in this place. “Although it is meant for 335 people of 87 households, it serves far more than that. Most of the kebele’s population which are about 3100 have no access to safe water. It is difficult not to share this water with the others particularly during the desperate times,” concludes the chairperson.

This is the community who toiled a lot in search for water before arriving at Nebar Keshmando where they now found one CMP water point. Although, this scheme does not guarantee safe water for all, community is confident to implement another and reach the rest with safe water. That is the legacy of CMP- skill transfer, improved service level.