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Fetching water in northern Ethiopia: A life and death struggle

Letensea, 70, had to transport five gallons of water twice daily for household needs. All photos: Sarah Easter/CARE

Letensea, 70, had to transport five gallons of water twice daily for household needs. All photos: Sarah Easter/CARE

Getting clean water in Tigray is a matter of life and death. The region’s water sector was deliberately targeted when the conflict broke out in 2020, destroying at least 50 percent of the 9,213 supply points and leaving the rest to barely function.

Since the end of the conflict in 2022, water-related equipment has been looted and stolen, and the region’s only dam has stopped working.

As a result, clean water supplies are scarce, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases including cholera and other health issues, and making the journey to get water here long and perilous.

An Ethiopian woman and a little child standing with a flock of sheep in the background.
“The journey to get water is especially difficult for women,” says Letensea.

Letensea’s only son died in 2022, so she now lives with her four-year old grandson, Danay, in a small community, surrounded by vast, arid fields.

The nearby river is their primary water source, but the narrow path leading to it is steep and slippery with rocks, large boulders, and sand. The land around is rugged and treacherous. Every step Letensea takes needs to be measured with extreme caution.

Despite these risks, Letensea must fetch water twice a day.

“We lost our biggest supporter,” she says of her son while Danay holds her hands firmly. “I feel alone, and my grandson keeps asking me about this father.”

Every morning and again in the afternoon, she needs to carry five gallons of water in a jerrycan, a burden that would seem to be too heavy for a seventy-year-old woman. But twice a day she wraps the jerrycan tightly around her chest with a scarf and walks for two hours.

“The journey to get water is especially difficult for women,” Letensea says, recounting a recent story of the choices Tigray’s women often have to make. “A pregnant woman had to leave her baby in the field unattended to reach the nearest water point. Thankfully, the mother and her baby are doing okay.”

The community-based water committee recently installed a solar panel for the local water pump.
Letensea and other community members can now collect water from the community water points.

Solar-powered water pump: A life-saving move

To tackle the water crisis, a community water committee was formed that counts Letensea as a crucial member. Before the conflict erupted, the committee installed a water pump running on a fuel-powered generator.

“The generator was often broken, and it was not powerful enough to supply water for everyone,” says Gebregergis, 75, another committee member.

When the conflict started, the community members could no longer afford to run the water pump.

“Fuel prices skyrocketed, jumping from just $1 per quart to $10,” Gebregergis says. “Moreover, fuel was not always available. We had to shut down the pump completely and resort to unsafe water sources once again.”

Using water from rivers or lakes poses a high risk of diseases including cholera. Such open water sources could easily be contaminated, for instance, by open-air defecation.

Thankfully, with the support of local partner REST, CARE has now installed a solar panel to power the water pump under SELAM project. Houses, schools, and clinics have been connected to the water system. Around 2,000 people can now access safe water through the taps distributed around the community.

“The burden for women and children has been reduced tremendously,” Gebregergis says.

An aged Ethiopian woman, outdoors, looking at the camera with a lamb on her lap.
Letensea and other community members no longer need to walk to the river for water now.

“I prayed to God every day to bring us clean water. Now it’s easy, saving us time and energy. I even have enough for my sheep to drink,” Letensea says while making deep throaty sounds to call her flock and lowering a green plastic bowl of water on the ground for them.

The sheep are Letensea’s main source of income, since she does not have any land suitable for agriculture. They mean everything to her.

“I went to the river myself to fetch water for my sheep,” she says. “I didn’t take them down that dangerous path. I am too scared to lose one.”

“Now we don’t need to pay for any fuel or maintenance,” Gebregergis adds. “We can easily run the solar-powered pump. It’s much more powerful.”

An Ethiopian woman is photographed collecting water outdoors in her yellow jerrycan from a community water point.
“Before the solar panel was installed, I spent days without a drop of water,” Letensea says.

Solar water pump brought relief, but not enough

Tigray is predominantly dry, and the ongoing drought has intensified the challenges already faced by the conflict-affected community. Despite having a solar-powered pump, water scarcity remains a critical issue.

“We must ration water with each person limited to four jerrycans per day, or approximately 21 gallons,” says Gebregergis. “Rationing is necessary for better management of our limited resources.”

“Before the solar panel was installed, I spent days without a drop of water,” Letensea says. “Now, at least we have a regular supply of water. But we need more water.”

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