Village wells with hand pumps improve lives of Ethiopian women

By Doe-e Berhanu

Share this story:

Ask any mother what she wants for her children and she will undoubtedly state that nothing less than the best will do for her precious ones. She is one to sacrifice everything in order to make sure that the needs of her children do not go unmet.

Alami Bera is one such woman living in Ethiopia's Bacho district, about 50 miles southwest of Addis Ababa. A mother of twelve children, Alami and her husband toil on their farm to support eight of their unmarried children. Sometimes they are elated with their plentiful harvest, but other times they struggle to feed their large family. They work on their field year round to grow wheat and teff, and make the two-hour trek on foot to sell what they have harvested at the nearest open-air market. This is the same market that Alami walks to every week to purchase items for her family's consumption.

Up until the time Oxfam America partnered up with Oromo Self Reliance Association (OSRA) to launch the Sodo Liben Water Supply and Sanitation project, Alami, her family, and the other 3,000 people living in Sodo Liben locality had no access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. Waterborne diseases and other illnesses caused by lack of hygiene were rampant.

With heavy clay water pots on their backs, women and young girls traveled great distances on foot to fetch water from polluted streams. The hardship of fetching water increased as the dry season advanced, with the water levels dropping and the streams running dry. Women then would have to trudge down deep gorges and climb back up, lugging six gallons of water—about 50 pounds—on their backs.

For the 80 households living in Alami's village, the only near source of water was an ella, or traditional well, located at the heart of the village. The well, about 82 feet deep, had never been fit for drinking, but Alami had no choice other than to let her family drink from it. When the seasonal ella ran dry, Alami and the other women in her village walked two hours to fetch water from the nearest stream. One trip was never enough to meet the daily water needs of a family of 14. In a society where the burden of fetching water falls on women and young girls, Alami had to travel to the stream two or three times a day to fetch water.

"I knew the water I was giving my children was making them sick, but you have to know that I had no choice," said Alami. "I had only two choices. Either give my family filthy water to drink and bathe in or don't give them any water at all."

Plentiful water but limited access

Ethiopia is known as the Water Tower of the Horn of Africa—a place with 12 river basins and vast underground reserves of water. Yet, the country has not been able to harness that potential. Countless traditional songs, poems, and proverbs praise the country's great rivers but lament the fact that the children of the mighty Blue Nile go thirsty while the river traverses boundaries to flow to far away lands and turn deserts into oasis. The irony is not lost on anyone.

Oxfam America set out on this project to provide a supply of clean drinking water and sanitation structures to improve health conditions and boost the productivity of people living in10 different sites within the district. Through this intervention, Oxfam America also intended to reduce the toil on women and young girls who had to walk great distances to fetch water. Oxfam and its partner constructed shallow wells, pit latrines, and washing stations and provided training to the communities on how to use them.

"Only a woman can fully appreciate what it means to have clean water near by," said Alami, pointing to the well and hand pump located only five yards from her thatch-roofed hut. "It now only takes me two minutes to pump out 7 gallons of clean water."

The hand-pumped well, which stands proudly in the middle of the village, is available five hours a day and the 80 households each get turns filling their jerricans for their daily use. The community imposed the five-hour limit to reduce wear and tear on the pump.

"What mother wouldn't give up everything she has to see her children's health restored?" asked Alami. "For the first time in our lives, our family is drinking and washing with clean water and using pit latrines."

Women in communities with the new wells are seeing some changes in gender role dynamics as more men are taking the initiative to fetch water for their families. It is a cultural taboo for a man to fetch water from a stream and carry it home on his back, so even the most helpful of husbands would only fetch water if the family owned a pack animal that could do the job.

"Imagine my husband sharing the water fetching responsibility with me," said Alami chuckling. "But he does it now, and I happily let him."