International Rescue Committee (IRC)

World Water Day: When water means freedom

Ever since water came within reach of several thousand people in Waji, a village in eastern Ethiopia, their lives have changed for the better. The women, in particular, are excited about the difference it is making, because it is their role to collect water. I recently visited this semidesert region and talked to them about the new water system.

Amina Abdi, 40, has lived in Waji all her life, where the nearest water source was miles away. As a little girl and young woman, she would walk all the way to Jijiga, a town about 15 miles (24 km) to the northwest, every other day to fetch water on her back for her family.

“Back then it was a lifeless existence,” she recalls. “Fetching water was an obligation for us and we had to do it. We would wake up at 2am and start walking. We would reach Jijiga at 8:30am. We got home at night. That was my life.”

Then, about five years ago, a borehole was drilled “nearby.” “It took us five hours to reach this source,” says Amina. “We started walking at 6am and reached there at 11am. We waited in a long queue for three-and-a-half hours, then walked back and arrived home at 11pm. Imagine: that was the nearest water point!”

Amina Abdi
Amina Abdi points to where she used to trek for water, far beyond the hills in the distance. “This is heaven to me,” she says of having a new water point just 40 minutes away. “Before, it was hell.” Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC

In 2011, the IRC began to partner with local communities to build new water systems in 13 areas throughout what’s known as the Somali Region. The series of boreholes, some of which reach down 1,500 feet (450 meters) to underground aquifers, pump water to collection points and into troughs for animals. The pumps are powered by generators or solar energy. The IRC estimates these systems provide water to 146,000 people.

From the start, local communities have been involved in the entire process, from clearing access roads to installing components. “Once we have finished building water supply systems and turn them on, we hand them over to the community,” explains Jockus Zamari, the IRC’s senior environmental health manager in Jijiga. Residents are trained to maintain the systems, with the IRC following up with support during the crucial first months of operation.

Amina recalls how she and her neighbors dug trenches for the pipes and helped with construction. Now, with a water point just 40 minutes away, she is a changed woman. “This is heaven to me!” she exudes. “Before, it was hell.”

The biggest difference is time—for her family, for productive work, for herself. “Before, I could hardly do any domestic work at home,” says Amina. “Now I can support my husband at the farm.” The family, including four daughters aged 10 to 18, grow maize, sorghum and wheat for themselves and to sell, and tend to 50 goats and sheep.

The water system in Waji alone serves 12,000 people, “but it is reaching far more,” says Zamari. In the dry season, people sometimes travel more than 60 miles (100 km) to reach water points and camp until the rains return. (Now, the IRC is helping bring safe water closer to homes in some of these other hard-to-reach communities.)

livestock drink from a trough
Livestock drink from a trough filled with water pumped from deep, drilled wells called boreholes. Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC

Asha Abdi, 40, remembers what it was like to walk for five hours with her camels. “My main regret is that my children suffered so much when I wasn’t with them,” she says about her seven boys and girls, aged one to 15. “They would suffer from not drinking water or having much food all day and were always looking to see when I would return.”

It now takes Asha 10 minutes to fetch water. “I finish cooking for the children and the housework and then go and fetch the water. We don’t walk long distances and don’t have a long queue. It is so good because I’m able to help my husband with the farming.”

Mariama Hassan Yussuf  has big plans. “We used to only plant wheat, but now I hope to grow fruit like chilies, tomatoes and onions. We had to wait for rain, but now because we have water I can start growing.”

Mariama also plans to send her six children, three boys and three girls aged seven to 16, to school. “When I was doing the long trek to fetch water, I didn’t send my children to school because I was too busy. Now because I’m not so busy I can send them to school to get a better life.” 

For the women of Waji, water truly is life. “They sing songs saying ‘Live Longer!’” says the IRC’s Zamari. “They are excited about the time they now have not only to change their lives, but also those of their children and the people of their communities.” 

Amina Abdi fills a plastic container at the new water point. Now that she no longer has to trek great distances she says she has more time for her family, for productive work, and for herself. Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC 

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1 comment


Great article!

Great article!