Eritrea water deliveries accompanied by health awareness

Published: 4 July 2003 0:00 CET

Midday in the village of Kirot Nejar. A group of women gather in the welcome shade of an acacia tree. Seated on the sandy ground, they listen carefully as Hailes Esmail, a water and sanitation field officer for the Red Cross Society of Eritrea (RCSE), explains how they can ensure their drinking water remains clean and safe.

Kirot Nejar, a village of around 1,000 people, nestles in a shallow valley, surrounded by brown, barren mountains, in the drought-affected region of Hagaz, in northern Eritrea. It is a typical rural village. Hundreds of small, thatched tukuls – traditional huts – have been built around the village pump. Donkeys, goats and camels wander freely, seeking shade and sustenance.

But after four years of low rainfall, there is little of either. The drought has caused the failure of successive harvests, the village well has dried up and there is barely enough food for either people or animals.

The nearest water supply is 14 kilometres away and villagers are dependent on emergency RCSE water deliveries, which began in February and are funded by the International Federation.

The health awareness seminar in progress under the acacia tree is an integral part of the RCSE’s emergency water programme. Women in particular are encouraged to participate in the meetings: “Teach the mothers and you teach the village,” says Hailes.

“The water delivered by the Red Cross is clean enough to drink,” he explains. “We want to help the villagers to keep it clean to prevent contamination and disease.”

His audience appears eager to learn as Hailes patiently describes how they should try to look after their water, as well as the containers used to store it. The advice is straightforward: do not let animals drink out of containers used for humans; do not let them come into contact with the ground and keep the water free of soap, animal dung and dirt.

He ends with a short message, repeated by the RCSE in villages across Eritrea. “A person who uses clean drinking water will be healthy. And a healthy person can perform his daily duties.”

It is a simple point, but one which has proved vitally important in Eritrea. Tesfamariam Ghebremichael, the RCSE’s local branch secretary, believes such health awareness projects can make a considerable difference to levels of illness and suffering in rural areas.

“In one example,” he said, “a clinic recorded 77 cases of diarrhoea in the six months before health and sanitation awareness was given. In the six months after the training, only 33 cases were recorded.”

Tesfamariam explained that, apart from its emergency water trucking programme, which reaches three other villages in the area as well as Kirot Nejar, the Red Cross is also seeking to provide long-term solutions to the water crisis.

Working in collaboration with local communities and water committees it is rehabilitating hand pumps, digging boreholes and dams, and fixing solar pumps that have fallen into disrepair.

The effects of the current drought are being felt all over Eritrea. Joint studies by the government and international agencies estimate that more than two thirds of the country’s 3.4 million population are affected, with one million considered to be “highly food insecure”.

Water tables across Eritrea have dropped by many metres in a few months and as a result, water shortages are widespread. According to the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS), many of those living in rural areas are being forced to walk an average of three to five hours to collect drinking water. Agencies estimate that 70 per cent of villages in the country do not have adequate supplies of safe water.

Livestock are dying for lack of food and water and grain prices in nearby markets have increased by more than 100 per cent over the past months. Malnutrition and illness have increased, FEWS reports.

But in Kirot Nejar, villagers believe that the work being done by the RCSE has made a vital difference to their lives.

One village elder, seated outside his tukul, is full of praise. “Because of the Red Cross we have clean water. We have been badly affected by the drought. We were desperate. But now we have enough to drink and to keep clean. The Red Cross has helped to save us.”

Related Links:

Water and sanitation
Eritrea: appeals, updates and reports
News story: Volunteers distribute food as Eritrea drought continues
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