Independent Appeal: Water, water everywhere (but no thanks to the men)

Women are the poor relations of Ethiopia. But it was their effort and ingenuity – assisted by ActionAid – that turned on the taps in Nadugne Agam, as Paul Vallely discovered
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The Independent Online

Even all this time later, the women were ashamed to give too many details. But it happened, they said, in the village of Nadugne Agam. There was no water locally and the women had to carry it from the river, bent double, in back-breaking, 25-litre heavy-duty containers strapped to their shoulders.

It took almost an hour to walk there. Then they had to dig in the dry river bed until water seeped through the stones. That could take another hour. After that came the stagger back to their village, an agonising two hours, or more. For one woman, one day, this proved too much. When she reached her wattle-and-daub hut she lay down, exhausted. Her thirsty child was waiting. He asked for a drink. Get it yourself, she said, and fell asleep.

When she awoke she found that the child, as he tipped the container, had spilt the water she had labour so long to bring. Enraged, she took a stick to teach him a lesson. She beat him so hard that he died.

He was not the only child to have died for using too much water in the Dalocha region of Ethiopia, two hours south-west of Addis Ababa, where water was only for drinking or cooking; nothing so frivolous as hand-washing was allowed. "More than one family killed a child while disciplining them for using too much water," one of the village's female elders, Byaznlegn Endeshawe, told me.

It was not the only ill-consequence of Dalocha's terrible water shortage.

"At the river, we drank the same water as the animals drank and defecated by," said Byaznlegn. "We got dysentery and diarrhoea; many children died. We spent so much time fetching water that we had little time for growing crops to feed our families. The children could not go to school because they had to help their mothers fetch water or stay at home to mind the house and the little ones."

Clothes got dirtier and dirtier and became home for the lice which carry the typhus parasite which was responsible, though the women did not know it then, for the large number of deaths in the village from what they called relapsing fever.

So when the British development agency ActionAid, which is one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal, arrived in the village and asked the local people what they needed, the men – who in Ethiopia look down on water-carrying as women's work – had a variety of suggestions. But the women had only one: the village needed a supply of clean water.

ActionAid dug boreholes. The locals were charged about 1p for 40 litres, to pay for the maintenance of the pipes. But when the pumps broke down the maintenance money collected had vanished. "The men had spent it on chat [an addictive drug ingested by chewing a leaf] and drinking alcohol," said Bichol Tselela, the secretary of what became the Dalocha Women's Water Project. When the women protested and said they would take over administering the scheme the men shrugged.

When one women suggested they should cap a spring which rose seven kilometers away, and pipe the water to all the local villages, the men smirked. "They said that women would never manage such a complex project," Bichol said. "They said, 'Let the women try and when they fail we'll take over'."

But the women, with training from ActionAid, made a huge success of the enterprise. They added more boreholes, until here were eight across the area, each with its own pump and a generator. And they capped the spring, which produces 23 litres of water per second, and pumped it to the top of Gafat Hill into a 60,000-litre reservoir tank. From there it flows, gravity-fed, in four directions, through a 70-kilometre network of pipes, all paid for by the British aid agency.

With the water came much else. The women, who initially had been afraid even to come to village meetings – so low is the status of women in Ethiopian society – became emboldened by their success. They constituted the majority in the water project's 178-member general assembly. All 16 members of the executive board are women.

They demanded health services such as vaccination, and took over the fight against malaria, running a programme to spray the walls of local houses and distribute insecticide-charged bed-nets. They started a small savings scheme. They participated actively not just in community meetings but have become a force on the local and district councils.

"Now we have enough time to work, to grow crops, to look after the children and to cook food," said Byaznlegn who has become chair of the project. "We have improved our personal hygiene and have better household sanitation. Because we wash our clothes the lice that carry typhus have gone and the relapsing fever that was such a serious problem here is now almost eliminated."

Water has brought two social revolutions. "We send our children to school, that's the big change," said Bichol Tselela. In Dalocha school enrolment has risen from 15pc to 71 per cent, thanks to a combination of the children now having the time to go to school and the government's abolition of school fees for those under 15, a move made possible by the freeing of cash after the scrapping of Third World debt by the G8 at Gleneagles and elsewhere. Two of the villagers have even sent children to university.

The second major change is in the "women's work" business of fetching water. "Now we have boys sharing the work equally with the girls," said Bichol. "About 5 per cent of the men are doing it regularly, as a matter of routine. And in the dry season, many men will go when there is a long queue while the women prepare the food. It's a very big change."

So too is the adoption of family planning which has come in with the local health services. "We have children spaced three or four years apart, rather than every year," said Bichol. The average family size has fallen from an average of about 10 to five children. "Now that they all go to school the women and the men have to do all the jobs the kids used to do, collecting firewood, herding the goats."

The whole project has been such a success that it has become a model for other, even more ambitious schemes in the area. ActionAid is now trying to raise the final amounts for a similar project, costing £250,000, in nearby Lera Town.

The level of the transformation is radical. Nuria Mohammed took me to her village about eight kilometres away to show me her garden.For water, she used to have a 15km round trip of 15 km, with a donkey. Now there is a standpipe on the other side of her garden fence. None of the 23,000 residents in the area is more than 500m from a tap.

"We have all started vegetable and fruit gardens which produce an income for us," she said. "I have harvested cabbage, beetroot, carrot and tomatoes and there are avocado, mango, coffee and banana to come. I earn enough to buy oil, sugar, clothes and fertiliser, and discharge my social obligations."

When she could expand the garden around her house no more she built a new bigger mud-hut house on the other side of the village square. She and her husband Ibro constructed a storehouse for their produce. Then she built a house/shop in Dalocha town and rented it to a tradesman.

What had she done with her new money? "We bought a bed; before we slept on the floor," Nuria told me. "And we bought separate utensils and plates for guests, some small tables and some ornaments. We are very happy now."

Would that the rest of the world could be so content with so little.

The charities: Who they are, what they do

ActionAid works in more than 40 countries, and is dedicated to ending poverty and injustice. It specialises in community development. Its projects include one aiming to help poor women in Ethiopia to buy their own shopping mall, working with farmers to fight climate change in eastern Africa's Rift Valley, helping sex workers in the world's biggest brothel in Bangladesh, and supporting a school in Afghanistan for child soldiers rescued from the Taliban.

ComputerAid International collects old computers in the UK and refurbishes them to send out free to schools and charities in the developing world. Its 150,000 computers are helping African meteorological offices to advise farmers, and allowing rural health workers to send X-rays over the internet for diagnosis from specialists.

Peace Direct sets up initiatives among local people to lessen tension in conflict zones, mindful that many conflicts fester and often reignite after peace deals. Peace Direct brings Muslims, Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils together in Sri Lanka. It funds Afghanistan peace councils. It eases tensions in Northern Ireland. And it works on relations between oil companies and locals in Sudan.

The charities all have extraordinary stories to tell. We hope you will give generously.

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