Tackling Ethiopia’s Water Crisis with Partnership

EWB-USA volunteer Larry Bentley writes about partnering with Project Concern International (PCI) to tackle drought in rural Ethiopia. Note: this post was originally published on PCI’s blog.

Clean water is vital. It is a key to a thriving community.

Blog ImagesI’ll never forget the exact moment when water started flowing through the pump and the Hale-Ale community members and their livestock started running toward the new water source. The look on their faces said it all – such gratitude, excitement and hope in their eyes.

Last July, EWB-USA’s Engineering Service Corps partnered with PCI to provide technical assistance for the Ethiopia Emergency Drought Response and Rehabilitation (ENDURE) project focused on Ethiopia’s Afar and Bale regions. I traveled with Mike Paddock, Engineering Service Corps Deputy Director, to the area and we were tasked to do a quick assessment of hand pumps and diesel electric powered submersible pumps at about 40 different locations across the two regions. We needed to help bring clean water to these drought-stricken areas. And quickly.

Ethiopia is experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades, due to the effects of El Niño. Hundreds of thousands of livestock have died from lack of food and water, leaving communities food insecure, malnourished and vulnerable. The ongoing drought and increasing water scarcity for the often nomadic population of the desert region of Afar and the migratory populations in Bale, rely solely on water points and return to them to provide the water needed for life for their families and herds.

There are many challenges for the Ethiopian government to keep these water points operational. For example, the water points are scattered widely in rural areas and the roads are comprised of gravel or dirt. The water points are often at the end of paths where four-wheel drive is needed, even in dry season. Needless to say, accessing these areas are difficult. An added challenge is a breakdown in communication because of inconsistent electricity and unpredictable mobile network service and Internet accessibility. It is easy to see how frequent breakdowns occur.

In rural areas without electricity, hand pumps are still often used and help provide better quality water versus other sources like dirty rivers and springs. Diesel electric pumps often serve larger communities, providing pump water to elevated storage tanks that provide gravity pressurized water distribution to an entire community.

Over a four-week period, the team did assessments on 48 water points, made temporary repairs on 16 pumps to get them working again, and made field water quality tests on the pumps we revitalized, as well as the spring systems.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fix all the broken pumps during the assessment phase where our mission was to get as much water flowing as quickly as possible. The larger repairs which require more equipment will be completed by the second team later this year.

Repair of hand pumps is often considered a lost art in the United States. The historic manufacturers who built the hand pumps that supplied the settlers of the Great Plains are all gone now due to modernization. But, in many places around the world, those skills are needed daily and provide jobs for skilled workers. Increasing capacity of those who do this vital work is critical to support water infrastructure in developing countries. The pumps provide life-sustaining water for communities, just like in Hale-Ale.

Initially, the Hale-Ale community members were concerned when their main water points were not working – both a hand pump and diesel electric pump failed. Mike and I arrived to assess the situation and eventually we were able to get the diesel electric pump running again and water flowing.

When this happened, the leader of the community was so grateful. He ran back to his hut and came back with a small, shiny, black rock in hand. This rock had great value to him and he gave it to Mike. He said it’d give him good luck and asked that he carry it with him on all his travels.

With a fixed water pump, the families in rural Hale-Ale got their lives back that day. We’re just thankful we had the opportunity to be part of it.