Hope Springs for Fatuma

Hope Springs for Fatuma

It takes a lot of strength to carry 55 pounds of water for more than four hours across eastern Ethiopia’s arid highlands. It also takes particular strength to change the circumstances that force women to shoulder that burden.

Fatuma Muhammed is strong in both these ways, and more.

The 50-year-old mother of four lives in Muru Geda, a small village in Ethiopia’s chronically-dry East Haraghe zone. Water is so scarce here at women must walk huge distances to reach a small pond or stream. For much of her life, Fatuma spent at least 16 hours a week searching for water; after discussion with her neighbors, she would walk as much as four hours in the direction that held the best promise of a reliable water source, fill her large plastic container and then trudge four hours back home.

In those days, Fatuma’s best-case scenario was that she’d return with 25 liters of water that would last her family of six for three days – that’s less than a liter and a half of water per person per day. The worst-case scenario is difficult for her to discuss.

“If I ever came home without water – or with a container that wasn’t full – it was a big problem. My husband sometimes beat me,” Fatuma recalled. “It isn’t tradition for men to carry water; it falls on women. If men want it, we have to get it. That’s one of our greatest challenges here.”

Another grave challenge is health; even when women like Fatuma find water in this part of Ethiopia, it’s often dirty – open to the elements and shared with animals. When families aren’t aware of simple sanitation practices such as boiling or filtering, they run the risk of debilitating waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea and dysentery. These illnesses are dangerous and even deadly for those with weakened immune systems; three years ago, Fatuma spent 15 days at a local hospital after drinking contaminated water.

Excruciating distances, unreliable sources, the specter of illness and the threat of physical violence – an Ethiopian woman’s responsibility to bring home water both diminishes her dignity and wreaks havoc on her quality of life. That’s why CARE, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), created an extensive water system for the area around Fatuma’s home in Muru Geda.

Over the course of five months, we harnessed the flow of a local spring and laid more than 30 kilometers of pipe. This pipe leads to distribution points in five separate villages where women can get clean water from a tap with just a turn of the spigot.  Hundreds of local families participated in the construction of this water system, contributing sand, rocks and hours of hard work.

Today, CARE still provides technical advice for the water system, but we’ve turned daily operations over to the communities the system serves – everything from maintenance to financial management. Households pay a fee of ten cents for 20 liters of fresh water; this money is placed in a bank account for future repairs and system improvements. This account is managed by a water committee consisting of four local men and three women – including Fatuma.

“People in my village nominated me to serve on this committee because I am strong, providing for my family even after my husband died,” she said. “I am resourceful, I have my own business and I can create success for myself and others.”

The committee meets every two weeks to discuss matters such as when water points will be open for use, rationing if the water supply is low, potential conflicts and community feedback. Fatuma is an active and vocal participant in these meetings, especially regarding the challenge she’s been familiar with all her life.

“I have initiated public discussions on how women suffer because of lack of water,” she explained. “We’ve organized as a group, and have gone to local government offices so that people can hear our voices as women.”

For many years, Fatuma Muhammed was strong enough to carry an unbearably heavy load of water for many hours across eastern Ethiopia’s blazing and parched terrain. Today, she’s using that strength to ease the burden for her region’s mothers, sisters and daughters.