People like Buze Mulu who, at the age of 60, has seen it all. "The drought of 1994 killed many people," he recalls. "Then the rains came, and along with the rain came cholera because we didn't have any clean water."
In just two years, nearly one-third of his neighbours in the village of Gond, in the centre of the country, were wiped out by the epidemic, but now WaterAid is supporting the villagers in their attempts to tame their cruel environment.
Further south, six hours drive from the capital Addis Ababa, the Hitosa water project offers impressive evidence of what can be achieved. The project was completed three years ago, and now 150kms of pipeline is bringing safe, clean water to 60,000 people living in three small towns and 28 villages. The technology involved is simple and straightforward: storage tanks have been built to protect the water that emerges from springs in the mountains nearby and then gravity works to feed the water through pipes to the surrounding villages and towns.
Further south still, a similar network of pipes will soon bring water to 70,000 people living between Gond and Iteya, and construction in Robe Maliyu has just started.
Critical to the success of such projects is the strength of WaterAid's links with Ethiopian partner organisations. The work in the country is implemented by two main partners - Water Action and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. WaterAid works hard to build up the strength of its partners and helps them develop their own donor base, which in turn brings increasing independence.
But at the heart of the approach are the local people themselves. A guiding principle for WaterAid is that communities are fully involved in all stages of a water project, from initial planning, through construction, into long-term management and maintenance. Community involvement ensures the local population has a strong sense of ownership over the project, an essential way of securing its long-term sustainability.
The Hitosa project is managed by a network of committees, providing strategic co-ordination and making best use of the overwhelming local enthusiasm for the scheme. Villagers contribute to the capital costs of the project and freely give their labour to ensure that the work is completed on time. They also pay for their water, with tap-stand attendants collecting the cash, and the money raised is then used to pay the attendant's wages and to build up a maintenance fund.
A water committee in each village takes charge of the local water system. In Robe, Abdulatif Husen is responsible for organising teams of villagers to dig the trench that will contain the water pipes. "People work on the project for two or three days a week," he explains. "The programme for the day is announced by microphone the night before and the people then come in the morning."
There is no problem getting people to turn up. "We contribute willingly because we have had such big problems getting water in the past," confirms Ataletch Shale, pausing from her digging to draw breath.
Adane Mangesha, 25, agrees: "Our basic problem has been poor quality water ... I have seen many people in my village fall ill to water-related diseases. We are pleased WaterAid is trying to help us."
An unforgiving climate and difficult terrain will always confront the people of Ethiopia with enormous difficulties. In this predominantly rural country, only 20 per cent of the rural population has access to a safe water supply, and in the most remote regions this figure falls to as low as 2 per cent. There is much to be done, but the success of the Hitosa project demonstrates how seemingly intractable problems can be overcome.Reuse content