Having access to water is a matter of survival in conflict-affected areas in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

Published: May 9, 2022 Reading time: 6 minutes
Having access to water is a matter of survival in conflict-affected areas in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

People in Need (PIN) in partnership with Alliance 2015, has since May 2021, been improving access to WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) services in Samre and Sahrti woredas, in the south-eastern zone of the Tigray region. Communities in this area are highly affected by both the conflict in Tigray and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The conflict in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, erupted in November 2020 and continues to affect millions of people. Tigrayans have been subjected to displacement, and the collapse of livelihood opportunities and infrastructure has led people to even greater impoverishment and the threat of violence. This delicate situation has deteriorated further with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Water crisis in Samre and Sahrti woredas 

The most critical crisis resulting from both the conflict and the pandemic is water scarcity. In Samre and Sahrti woredas of the South Eastern Zone in Tigray, 103,000people in rural kebeles live with acute water shortages. These shortages are due to the non-functionality of water points (between 56% and 59% of existing water points have been damaged or destroyed during the conflict). Few water points remain functional to serve host communities, internally displaced people (IDPs ), and returnees. The lack of water means that women —culturally responsible for this task— must walk ever longer distances to fetch water. This puts women and girls at greater risk of violence. It also overburdens them further with household tasks. Thus, the cultural demands on women to provide water exacerbate the existing deep-rooted gender inequality in the region.

Azmer Gebru, a mother of four (including a newborn), lives in Nebar Hadinet Kebele, 20 km from Samre. She had to walk 28 kilometres per day to collect water from the Bizen river. ”I had to travel half a day to fetch water, leaving the baby at home with my ten-year-old daughter; since there was no schooling until recently, I had no choice but to leave my younger ones with her. When I came home from fetching water from the river after hours, most of the time I found my two young children crying from hunger,” Azmer explains. "If I had not managed to get to the river, I would have to save the scarce water for drinking only. There were times when I had flour but no water to make food out of it,” she adds. Furthermore, Azmer notes that she is afraid to fetch water early in the morning or late in the evening for security reasons as there is a heightened risk of rape by soldiers. As Azmer explains, the daily travel is really difficult for both her and her family’s well-being. The journeys for water cause her so much stress, fear, and additional burdens. “The major problem is that water from the river is not clean and safe. Local people wash their bodies and clothes in the river, and shepherds bring their animals to drink water,” she explains. 

The lack of access to safe water and health services nearby —virtually all the health posts are non-functioning— and lack of hygiene and sanitation awareness in the area make members of the community especially prone to a wide range of waterborne diseases. There is the additional problem that alternative water sources can be contaminated by the practice of open defecation. Of note, Samre and Sahrti woredas were identified as one of the hotspot areas for Acute Watery Diarrhoea (AWD) and Scabies among children. Additionally, malnutrition is also prevalent in children in the region, a fact attributable to these issues.

Improving sustainable access to drinking water

During the confluence of Covid and conflict, PIN came to perform a life-saving role in these communities. We focussed on improving access to clean water by restoring existing non-functional water sources and seeking to establish and strengthen water source management through an emergency intervention program in Samre and Sahrti Woredas. The project rehabilitated forty-one non-functioning hand pumps in twelve remote kebeles. This allowed 15,000people to regain access to safe water. To ensure the sustainability of the rehabilitated water sources and foster a sense of ownership within the community, WASH committees were also re-established with a focus on women’s participation in selecting the committee members who participated in the renovations. 203 caretakers were provided with theoretical and practical training in the management and maintenance of the water points as well as good hygiene practices.

We aim to go further than a purely humanitarian response to the crisis. We aim to contribute to providing more durable solutions to problems faced by Tigrayans. We hope that our solutions will support future recovery and development in the region. Our activities are designed to reinforce local capacities and build resilience. Specifically, the project has contributed to improving the population’s living conditions, reducing their exposure to water-borne diseases—by restoring safe and equitable access to safe water, and improving their access to primary health care services. The project has strengthened the preparedness of six health facilities serving the vulnerable, displaced, and host populations. It has also facilitated the prevention of infectious diseases—including Covid-19—by improving WASH facilities and enabling health extension workers and health development volunteers.

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We have rehabilitated latrines in two health centres and installed handwashing facilities. These latrines are now serving 8000 people. Hygiene and cleaning kits were provided to six health centres. Routine hygiene promotion activities are also ongoing, including a door-to-door campaign by sixty-seven health extension workers and health development volunteers trained by PIN. This campaign underlines the importance of correct WASH practices, promotes maternal and child health, and reduces the vulnerabilities linked to low access to clean water. 9400 households (52,800 individuals) have been reached through ongoing hygiene promotion activities, including door-to-door campaigns.

Regaining safe water access near their homes has improved the daily lives of children, women, the elderly and the community in general.

No more walking long distances for water

The rehabilitated water source has made Azmera’s life better as she no longer has to walk long distances and has more time to meet her family’s needs. She now spends less time on chores and can properly breastfeed her child. ‘’I don’t have to walk long distances to fetch water anymore, I can stay home with my children, and my girl has started attending school. We also have the possibility to discuss health issues with health extension workers who give us precious information on how to stay healthy” she says.

While this is a positive outcome that Azmera and PIN are happy to see, it is essential to acknowledge that thousands of people still lack access to clean water. Thus, a lot more needs to be done to solve this problem and reduce the existing gender issues that overburden women and girls. 

Autor: Katerina Gabrielova, PIN

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