Arba Minch, Ethiopia

Contrary to any preconceived notions of “parched African savannah” you may have, Ethiopia is both mountainous and ridiculously green. It’s no different in the area surrounding Arba Minch: surrounded by Lakes Chamo and Abaya with the heavily forested and lush Nech Sar National Park in between, this is not what I had in mind when I was invited by HOPE International to visit their projects providing water to communities. As I was taken up remote, mountainous roads surrounded by cultivated fields of wheat, banana trees, sorghum, and sugarcane, I still naively wondered where it was we were going to that needed water.

Of course, the problem isn’t just access to water: it’s access to *clean* water.

HOPE International is an NGO based in Vancouver, with additional funding offices around the world, and regional branches doing direct development in Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Where and what they don’t directly do themselves, they fund other smaller NGOs that do (in Latin America, East Africa, South Asia, and so on). HOPE’s primary focus is providing access to clean water, but they also provide sanitation education, support schools, establish women’s cooperatives, and more. Through a string of connections starting from my sister all the way to the office in Addis Ababa, Frehiwot, the Ethiopia regional manager, suggested that I take a site visit rather than just a visit to their office. An eight-hour bus ride later to Arba Minch, I was met by Wosen, the project manager. Over the next two days, he and hydraulics engineer Fetene (both of them took time from their weekend and a weekday just for me!) guided me through several projects in various stages of completion.

Lake Abaya from Arba Minch

Driving hours from Arba Minch, starting from asphalt then getting progressively bumpier from there, we passed through some stunning topography and countless settlements belonging to the Gamo tribe scattered around the mountainsides. Woredas (districts) are subdivided into kebeles, which usually contain about five or six villages each. HOPE typically works in one or more kebeles at a time, with two goals in mind: provide access to clean water, and reduce the distance the women (usually the ones who transport water, but sometimes the men too) must carry their water. In this region, rather than digging wells, they take advantage of the numerous mountain springs by capping them and having gravity bring the water down towards settlements. In general, this water is first gathered into a 50,000L reservoir, then piped to 20-30 water points around each kebele, depending on need.

Water point

With that in mind, I was first taken to Gezeso, one of three adjacent kebeles (along with Yela and Trosha; total population of the three kebeles being 70,000) whose project was funded by HOPE Canada. My first stop was the health center — in addition to water points within a community, HOPE installs water points outside or directly inside schools, health centers, and health posts. This is where the gravity of the situation really hit me: here is a government-opened health center that didn’t have clean water until about a year ago when HOPE came along. (As Frehiwot says, the government is stretched beyond capacity. NGOs are there to fill the gaps.) This health center is primarily responsible for baby deliveries, maternal health, and surgeries (though it does take care of other issues as well), and it often did not even have water available. The water that it did have before was carried in from the river; now, the health center has sinks. (All other places have a tap installed at their water point, where people collect water.)

And that’s how it usually is for most communities without clean water: they walk 30 minutes to 2.5 hours down to a riverbed, then carry it all the way back up. These rivers are often contaminated by human waste, dirt, any effluent from upstream, and are often just ad-hoc water sources formed from rainwater flow. As Wosen told me, 85% of all diseases afflicting communities here are due to contaminated water. Imagine going to a hospital with one of these diseases, only to be treated with the same water that caused the disease in the first place! Or having to treat wounds with dirty water, or clean surgical tools with dirty water, or take medicine (pills or powders) with dirty water, or… the list goes on.

With the new water points installed, women walk no more than 300m to the water point, taking approximately 10 minutes to get clean, drinkable water. It’s pure — I tried some myself, tastes great! The daily consumption limit is 25L, for personal drinking and hygiene use. If a reservoir, usually centrally located within the kebele, is full or the capped spring has more water than the pipes bringing it down can handle, there is an open pipe for overflow, which is often used by people passing by who want to gather more water or wash their dishes, as well as for small-scale irrigation.

HOPE’s camp in Gezeso

Capped spring

The project for the three kebeles, costing 10 million birr (US$500,000 or C$670,000 circa 2015), was funded primarily by HOPE Canada. Roughly 7 million goes to the materials (galvanised metal being the most expensive) and transport (bringing in all these pipes and concrete-making materials for the water points can only be done in 4x4s on very terrible roads), 2 million goes to education campaigns and women’s cooperatives, and 1 million is the local labour contribution during the project. (There is always a local contribution in HOPE’s projects, so they’re invested in its success nd efficiency.) HOPE Ethiopia has a very small skeleton/permanent staff of just 4 in Addis and 8 in Arba Minch (or less, I may be wrong!), with a laudable goal to reduce overhead costs by contracting labour (around 45 more people) on a per-project basis instead of keeping idle permanent staff. (Their overhead is typically 10-20%, whereas government projects in Ethiopia tend to be around 30%.) Though they accept foreign volunteers at times, they prefer to use local expertise and also remove the necessity of hiring translators, who have occasionally been unreliable in the past.

Capping four springs for the three kebeles means a lot of pipes to bring the water down for the people: a whopping 90km! Most of the pipes must be buried in order to cross under roads, farmers’ fields, and people’s property, and pipes are also buried to prevent breakage — mostly at a depth of 75cm. So 90km of pipe 75cm underground… yet it took them only 8 months to get it all done. Though the people now have water, HOPE has been running an education campaign for 18 months and counting: they’ve been teaching people to construct latrines rather than defecate anywhere out in the open, to wash their hands after they do their business, and also to maintain personal hygiene in general. Believe it or not, old habits die hard: this task has been far more time-consuming than anticipated, and much slower than the arduous construction process! They’ve also educated water commissioners in each kebele in charge of unlocking and locking up the water points each day — they’re fenced due to government bylaw: to protect from playing children, passing cattle, from anyone wanting to take more than their daily allotment, and also to prevent people from other villages to swarm in.

Compound with a drying rack

Buried pipe

It’s great to see the positive effect on the community first-hand. There aren’t giant lines of women with those yellow water canisters at water points here. There are drying racks everywhere outside family homes, and water points around the corner. There’s little if no refuse littered around, and there are latrines. And as we walked through Gezeso past a funeral towards a capped spring, Wosen and Fetene (and by proxy, me, as part of their group for the day) were warmly welcomed even as people were grieving. (It appears to have been a local hero who passed away, since people were carrying ceremonial spears and shields.) Passing by later, I could see people fetching water, washing dishes at the overflow pipe, taking sips… and it’s so heartening to know it’s all clean.

Reservoir and overflow

Passing through Laka, recipients of a fully complete 7 million birr project funded by HOPE Japan, and Wusamo, recipients of a single clean water point courtesy of a Catholic aid mission (thus, the difference between HOPE’s work and other NGOs — HOPE distributes the water to multiple points to reduce distance), we were going to visit a new project. But as a testament to the conditions that the HOPE staff regularly face, we were unable to reach the kebele, stopping 5km from it after an already punishing road threatened both a downhill slope too steep and slippery to safely navigate, and a river not crossable by car that just formed around the bend. In cases like this, HOPE drops off their construction supplies, and locals carry it to their kebele, up and down some pretty steep hills. They try to bring everything in during the dry season, so that work can continue with all their materials and supplies even during the rainy season. (It’s currently dry season and already the roads are bad — you can imagine how much worse it gets.)

End of our road: steep drop

The terrain really varies. We drove past Shara the next day, a project funded by HOPE UK and Canada. Rather than spread across the mountainside, this was a settlement straddling both sides of a busy road. With 10,000 residents and a spring with limited capacity, personal consumption is limited to 8L a day. While they now have accessible clean water, they still have to walk to a river several kilometres away and use it for washing. There’s only so much that can be done.

But no matter what, something can always be done. HOPE goes through a pretty rigorous project planning process, doing feasibility, land surveys, engineering, and funding evaluations, as well as the most important — community consultations, to see what their need is. Wosen says there hasn’t been any place that turned out unfeasible, and given their extensive work alongside each community with personalised approaches, projects really do make a significant improvement.

Take Dorze Bele for instance, a village of 5300 people. Well past the throng of tourists visiting Dorze Hayzo to see their two-storey bamboo-woven houses, down a road that really is just grass, is an incredibly steep mountainside settlement spread out so far that it spans a valley and the opposing mountainside 3km away. As Fetene explains, instead of just using gravity, water flows down and up the valley due to the immense pressure of the 50,000L reservoir. Construction has taken only 1.5 months to complete, but most of the taps have yet to be turned on, fences need to be constructed around the water points, and some of the pipes have yet to be buried. They’re educating the local water committee first on how to manage their new resource. They’ve got the keys to open the taps, and the faucets themselves, and they’re currently learning how to install them and doing a little trial run. HOPE guarantees their construction work will last for at least 15 years, and it’s up to the locals to maintain it routinely.

Foreground: Dorze Bele. That green mountain in the middle? Still Dorze Bele.

Fence unfinished, tap remains closed underground

Long way down and up again from the spring!

With the taps yet to be opened, locals use the overflow for now

They’ve really got everything covered. So the one question that remained for me: what can the rest of us do? While HOPE does take people on volunteer trips to help out, as my sister did in Guatemala, those experiences tend to be more beneficial for the volunteer. Yes, the volunteers fundraise their way there and learn a lot and have a story to share back home to many multitudes who gain awareness and contribute, and yes, a well is dug or a spring is capped and a community wins, but the typical effort and cost to implement a project locally is far more efficient than sending overseas volunteers. (Still, never a bad thing to go out and volunteer, if it’s an option! You get far more exposure and insight into the people’s plight and the projects than I do just visiting for a few days!) And around the world in their other projects too, they may need some staff. But really, back to the last point — they could always use the funds, especially here at HOPE Ethiopia. They do so much with what they have and their incredibly lean staff already, but there are so many more places they could cover.

I only wish that for others, it takes less than physically going out to the field and seeing everything firsthand with people taking time out of their schedules to show everything to understand the important work they’re doing. I admit I’ve personally been a bit jaded hearing about so many different water providing NGOs yet knowing so little about how they work; this short tour has shown me that HOPE is really a small but efficient operation and accountable to their donors. (It’s boosted my admiration for all related NGOs too.) I know how important this work is, but it’s also good to know what specifically challenges them and creates a hitch (like a longer-than-expected education campaign), what works, and what goes into each project plan.

If this post has piqued your curiosity at all, you can learn more at their website, which I’ll link again:

HOPE International Development Agency

They also have a personal story from the kebeles I’ve just covered, currently the first post on this page. There’s further development information on their more often-updated blog, with this post and this post covering some of the places I visited. (Wabe Shore is the name of the spring for Gezeso, located in Wabe’s backyard.) You can find more by clicking around.

Thanks again to Frehiwot, Wosen, and Fetene for arranging everything in Ethiopia, and Elaine, Alem and Alma, and Brian in Vancouver for connecting me! Aside from seeing the projects, I had a great time enjoying the scenery, having coffee, moaning about waking up at 2 am everyday by the six-hour chants from the church loudspeakers next door to my hotel room, being taken to a crocodile farm, and of course, watching Wosen go crazy everytime he saw fruit and raid some random person’s plum tree or buy like 20 avocados or bananas from the fruit sellers for the equivalent of a dollar. 🙂

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