Gripped by drought, Ethiopia drills for water

With
Ethiopia in the grip of its worst drought in decades, the government has
appealed for aid to help 10-million people living in Africa’s second
most-populous nation.

But in
the town of Wukro, surrounded by the rocky, arid mountains of the northern Tigray
region, the government is investing longer-term efforts to ensure a supply
of fresh water that will go far beyond the immediate needs of aid.

With a
mushrooming urban population, water needs are only set to grow as the number of
people living in towns soars from 70-million today to an estimated 100-million
by 2050.

In a bid
to anticipate future need, the government is stepping up construction of wells
to pump ground water in a project backed by both the United Nations and
charities. 

“Lack
of water affects everything: food, health, education and children’s
futures,” warns the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), which is working with the
government to boost access to clean water and health in new, rapidly-growing
towns.

“Urbanisation
must be accompanied by access to water and improved hygiene,” says Tamene
Gossa, an urban hygiene expert with Unicef, warning that without it, new
districts risk becoming slums.

For
Wukro, a town of some 43 000 people, new wells have been dug some 18km away, tapping into major groundwater supplies. Late last year, clean
water emerged from a well some 200m deep which now supplies
the town.

“We
supply 50 litres per day, per person, which means the population in Wukro is
now … safe,” says Tesfalem Hagdu, deputy director of water resources for
the Tigray region.

Limiting erosion
Floods and failed rains caused by the El Nino weather
phenomenon have sparked a dramatic rise in the number of people going hungry in
large parts of Africa, with southern Ethiopia an area of special concern.

Food
insecurity is a sensitive issue in Ethiopia, which enjoys near-double-digit
economic growth, but which has struggled to change its image following the
famine of 1984-1985 which followed an extreme drought.

While
northern Tigray has escaped the worst of today’s El Nino drought, it has still
seen water shortages, and the area around Wukro is dry and dusty. 

But there
have been huge efforts to change the situation, with the authorities planting
acacia and eucalyptus tree seedlings in a bid to limit erosion, to help water
infiltrate the soil and feed underground springs.

Water
experts hope to be able to supply the wider region within the next two decades.

“The
water coverage for 2035 will be 100% – not only for Wukro, but for five
other villages around,” says Abdul Wassie, technical chief of the
region’s water resources.

Growing
hygiene awareness

But the city has also gone further, with hygiene-related
programmes to increase awareness about sanitation issues. 

Two years
ago, a primary school in the town created a water and sanitation club to
promote basic hygiene.

In a
remote town like Wukro, where health services are limited, basic tasks such as
washing hands regularly can make a big difference to cutting overall sickness.

“Before
this programme, viruses spread as well as parasitic diseases,” says water
club leader Selamawit Tamerat.

“Since
then, everything changed and sickness decreased,” Selamawit says, praising
the educational impact the project has had on the wider community.

As well
as raising awareness, there has also been the construction of sorely-need
infrastructure, such as toilet blocks for the school which were built last
year.

Last
year, Ethiopia celebrated the achievement of halving the number of people
without access to safe water since 1990, with 57% of the population now
using safe drinking water.

But the
challenges remaining are huge.

According
to Unicef, 180 000 children under five die each year – 500 a day – in
sub-Saharan Africa from diarrhoeal diseases due to poor access to water and
inadequate hygiene conditions. 
– AFP

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