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Cold air whirls from the shaft of a deep and empty well. A mother limits her children to just three cupfuls of water each a day. Herders trek for hours with their emaciated animals in search of water.
Across Ethiopia, these are the images tied to cycles of drought that plague one of the poorest countries in the world. Most recently, a drought triggered a humanitarian crisis in early 2006 for more than 2.5 million people. Many of them were herders dependent on the rain to nourish pastureland for their animals—their central source of food and income.
Oxfam and the local organizations with which it works respond to these cycles of drought with both emergency assistance to ease the immediate suffering of people and their animals, and with programs aimed at longer-term solutions to address the region's severe water shortages and to improve the health of its livestock.
For example, in Afar, one of Ethiopia's northern regions, a water shortage in 2005 forced some people to walk up to four hours one way in search of the critical resource. Irregular and weak rainfall in the previous few years had caused pastureland to shrivel and water sources to disappear. About 90 percent of the people in Afar are herders, and many of their animals died as a consequence of the drought.
To help families survive, Oxfam and one of the local groups with which it works, the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), launched a project to truck water to three sites in Afar's Dubti district. The agencies set up 12 large tanks that could each hold 1,321 gallons of water. The trucks made daily deliveries to the tanks—the furthest of which was 70 miles from the well that provided the water.
Though only a temporary solution—and a costly one—the water trucking substantially relieved stress on the herders. Women who had been walking for eight to 10 hours to fetch water from a neighboring district had their trek cut to just a few kilometers.
In another area of Afar, Oxfam provided APDA with an $83,000 grant to offer veterinary care to 410,000 animals. The goal was to prevent the spread of common diseases such as Anthrax, Blackleg, and Pastereulosis.
More recently, in southern Ethiopia, Oxfam and another local partner, the Gayo Pastoral Development Initiative, worked on the restoration of a local pond so it could hold enough water to last between the sporadic rainy seasons. The pond is a central source of drinking water for the community's animals. As in Afar, many people in this part of the Oromiya region are herders.
The 2006 pond project did two things. It provided temporary work for local people hired to deepen the pond, thereby giving them a source of income to help tide them through the drought that was killing their animals. And secondly, the improvements will last into the future, ensuring that when the next drought comes the pond will be able to retain whatever limited amount of rain does fall.
Shortages of critical resources, such as water and pasture, can often spark conflict among different ethnic groups. A key part of Oxfam's work in parts of Ethiopia is peace-building—helping people find ways to resolve disputes without resorting to violence. Around the border town of Moyale in southern Ethiopia, for instance, Oxfam and the Research Center for Civic and Human Rights Education have established a series of peace councils whose job it is to intervene among sparring groups when tension begins to run high.
Elsewhere in Oromiya, Oxfam has been working with the Oromo Self-Reliance Association on a series of water supply projects that have improved the lives of 1,800 people in three communities about 50 miles southwest of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Oxfam contributed $42,000 to underwrite the cost of wells, pumps, bathing sheds, and laundry stations.
Before these improvements, women in one of the communities, Gura, were walking up to three hours a day to fetch water—and often it was dirty. The parasites that occasionally contaminated the water sickened the children who drank it. Now, for families in Gura, clean, cool water is just minutes away. A nearby pump taps into an aquifer 200 feet deep.
The water supply projects have made such a marked difference in people's lives that neighboring communities are now asking officials to make similar improvements in their villages.
Easy access to clean water, through projects like these, is critical in stemming the poverty that affects so much of Ethiopia. And they are part of the global drive to meet the Millennium Development Goals—a series of international targets aimed at cutting by half by 2015 the number of people around the world who do not have access to clean drinking water.