By Paul Schemm
When the drought came to the remote kebele (sub-district) of Gonka, Ababa Abraha’s family held out as long as they could, in their picturesque village set among the sharp mountain peaks and deep valleys of the Tigray Region.
With no crops and food, however, they finally had to leave to find temporary work in nearby towns and pulled 14-year-old Ababa out of Grade 7 to work as a house cleaner.
Then came word that there was water being supplied and a Government feeding programme at the Gonka Complete Primary School, a rough stone building in the village, and Ababa was allowed to return.
“I like school a lot,” said Ababa, who dreams of studying finance at university one day. “But I can’t learn without food. If there is no food, I have to work to help my family.”
Gonka Kebele, which is near the arid Afar Region, was hard hit by the drought affecting much of the country. With its two wells failing, it received a 10,000 litre-capacity water bladder that is refilled every other day by a truck that makes an arduous journey over the treacherous gravel road.
Trucking water for the hardest hit
The current drought has rendered some 5.8 million people nationwide in need of access to safe water. As long term solutions to water scarcity are developed, the Government of Ethiopia, supported by UNICEF, has started trucking in water to the most severely drought-affected communities.
UNICEF’s 100 trucks are operating in the Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, SNNP and Tigray regions and have already delivered 15 million litres of water to 300,000 people in the last month.
“It is the first of its kind, UNICEF providing full water services to beneficiaries,” said Getachew Asmare, the UNICEF Water and Sanitation Specialist in Tigray, where 110,000 people including school children have benefited from 4.6 million litres of water in one month.
In some communities, people are surviving on just 5 litres of water a day, a quarter of the Government-recommended 15 litres a day and a far cry from the 100 litres a day consumed by the average citizen of a developed country,” said Getachew.
The case of Gonka Kebele shows how water scarcity doesn’t just affect hygiene and crops but also education.
A lifeline for the school
Haftu Gebreziher, the 26-year-old director of the Gonka Complete Primary School described how he was losing students by the day before the start of UNICEF-supported water trucking and Government feeding programme. Some were spending the day walking for hours fetching water at the distant river, others couldn’t pay attention in class.
Students also complained about the difficulty of getting a drink and the lack of regular showers due to the water scarcity
“There was a drop in attendance and a rise in tardiness,” he said, estimating a 60 per cent absentee rate. “This was interfering with school but now with the water and feedings, that has stopped.”
The large yellow water bladder donated by the Government of Ireland sits right outside the school, next to the hut where the children’s midday meal is prepared. The students swarm around the water taps connected to the bladder and drink whenever they want instead of taking a long trek by foot or camel to a river in the distant valley.
The €110,000 (ETB 2.6 million) worth of donated water containers marks the latest support from Ireland, which so far has given Ethiopia €9.1 million to combat the drought. The water tanks and jerry cans will be used by UNICEF in the worst affected woredas (districts) nation-wide.
As the WASH cluster lead, UNICEF also supports the Government of Ethiopia and other partners in the rehabilitation, maintenance and construction of new water supply systems, provision of water purification and treatment chemicals, and provision of sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools. UNICEF is also exploring innovative ways to use satellites to detect deep groundwater for large scale, multiple-village water supply systems.
These efforts are helping ensure that students affected by the drought don’t have to forfeit their education. For 14-year-old Silas Hagos at Gonka Complete Primary School, this means that she can once again work towards her dream to become a pilot for the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines. When the drought came, she had to leave the eight grade to work.
She sold soap and packaged biscuits in nearby town for weeks until the feeding programme and the new water bladder allowed her to return and once again dream of flying.
“If we get the opportunity to learn, it is good – an educated person is better than an uneducated one,” she said with a smile.