By Lisa Taschler, EVHAC volunteer delegate for the Austrian Red Cross
For many families living in the remote Ethiopian village of Senbetge, a 65km drive from Gondar city in the northern Amhara province, clean, safe drinking water still remains an unimaginable prospect. For the 1,400 families living in this cluster of agricultural highland villages, only one per cent has regular access to safe drinking water. "Access to clean water is a serious problem for people here,” says Nur Hussein, field coordinator for the North Gondar branch of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. "We notice that people in the villages - especially the children - are often falling ill from diarrhoea, parasites and other waterborne diseases. One of the main priorities of Red Cross work here is to build and rehabilitate existing wells and also teach the community how to use and maintain them for the future.”
The well construction and rehabilitation activities in Senbetge, part of a joint three-year project between the Ethiopian and Austrian national Red Cross societies, aim to provide the community with 18 water wells with a depth of 10-15 metres to ensure cleaner groundwater, operated by modern pump systems. "The use of buckets to scoop water from unprotected sources needs to be discouraged as it adds to the spread of bacteria and contamination," says Helina Tsegaye, project co-ordinator for the Ethiopian Red Cross Society. “Once up and running, these wells will improve the overall health and quality of life for the people living here."
Throughout our visits to Senbetge, an area with significant poverty and a high rate of under 5 mortality, Helina, Nur Hussein and other local staff have been working alongside the community to make sure residents not only understand how to use the wells, but also how to maintain and protect them.
A local village Water Committee has been established, with eight members of the community now trained to oversee well operations. "It's crucial that local people feel they have a stake in this, that they are the main actors in this project" explains Nur Hussein. “Too often we have seen wells being built then just falling into a state of disrepair, or farmers destroying them because they were built on their land without permission. Consultation and community ownership are key to the long-term success of any Red Cross work here."
For the residents of Senbetge, the prospect of a network of functioning wells is a welcome one. "All the mothers here worry about diarrhoea and other illnesses from the water" says Yisasau Mekonyen a young mother. "Of course, we know dirty water is bad for our children, but what choice do we have?"
Yisasau is also one of a number of women from the village who have taken on the role of educator, teaching other women in the village the importance of hand washing, clean crockery and basic hygiene.
"There are some very dynamic women in this community who are really helping to change ways of thinking," says Helina Tsegaye. “This area is drought prone, so using water for washing is often seen as wasteful.
“Cleanliness and sanitation issues are real problems and we need to make people more aware of how to protect themselves from illness, and women in the community are often best placed to do this."