The lack of water in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia is an ongoing source of problems in an area where a majority of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. According to water.org, less than half the population of Tigray has access to an improved water supply, while only 21 percent have adequate sanitation services. The lack of clean drinking water is the cause of the majority of diseases in the Tigray region.
The problem is often exacerbated by drought, which the world was awakened to in the mid-1980s, when images of famine-stricken Ethiopia were published around the world. Months without rain led to food shortages and starvation. Today, Tigray faces another drought as the warming effects of El Niño have led to two failed rainy seasons. Millions face food and water shortages, and the consequences of drought can become more far-reaching as families sell their possessions to buy food, and children—many of whom face sickness and malnutrition—drop out of school.
The Ethiopian government and local and international organizations have stepped in to help stabilize Tigray’s water system and improve its water infrastructure. When water isn’t available in the immediate area, villagers living in the mountainous region regularly walk miles each day to water sources, a time-consuming task. Thanks to groups such as the Tigray Development Association and A Glimmer of Hope, more and more Tigray villages are gaining easier access to water.
Here are some of the infrastructure projects that are giving Tigray’s people better access to water.
Reservoir in western Tigray
In 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross finished construction on a reservoir and water distribution system in the Miglabferes district, which has about 6,000 residents. For many years, villagers—primarily women and children—had to walk a long way and wait in a long line to get water.
“In the past, we were suffering from waterborne diseases as we were using unclean water from the river,” resident Brikty Miruts told ICRC. “To get medical treatment, we had to travel great distances to the towns of Humera and Shire. However, with this project, we hope that we will no longer be affected by diseases caused by unsafe water.”
The project was initiated by local officials and members of the Miglabferes community. ICRC built an elevated, steel 50-cubic-meter reservoir that connected to an existing borehole. It has a 50-year life span and is innovative for the region, according to an ICRC engineer. The system also now has five stands that each have four taps.
In addition, ICRC has drilled 11 boreholes, donated spare parts to water offices, and trained local residents to manage water structures. The organization also has worked with local officials to set up a community management group and to promote hygiene training among Miglabferes’ residents
A number of groups are drilling wells in the remote villages of Tigray, providing a life-changing source of water for thousands of people. A Glimmer of Hope, for example, is drilling a deep borehole water project in the village of Gonok, where women and children must walk 45 minutes into a deep gorge to collect dirty stream water that is contaminated with animal waste. Villagers have helped dig trenches for pipes and gathered large rocks that will be used to build a reservoir.
Other groups have raised thousands of dollars to build multiple wells in Tigray’s communities. Engineers and other water systems specialists typically oversee new well projects. Hand-drilled wells, which can serve about 250 people, typically are dug to a diameter of about six feet using hand tools, explosives to blast through rock, and dewatering pumps. Once they are dug, the wells are chlorinated and hand pumps are installed.
Shallow borehole wells can provide water for up to 500 people, and they are dug to a maximum depth of 230 feet using a drilling rig. The well is capped with a concrete slab, and villagers use a hand pump to access the water.
Some schools have drilled wells, which give students access to water during the day and allow them to carry home clean water to their families.
Dams and water spreaders
A number of strategies have been employed to store and deploy water for agriculture, including dams that store groundwater upstream. Some farming communities are also using flood water spreaders to move water from road surfaces to increase soil moisture and enhance groundwater; water storage ponds to enhance groundwater; and water spreaders to move water from culverts for irrigation.
Clean water restores not only health and hydration, but it also gives children more time to go to school, sustains agriculture, and frees up women’s time for other work and pursuits. As Tigray’s water infrastructure continues to develop, the region’s 6.3 million people will become more resilient to drought and will enjoy a more stable economy. UNICEF recently reported that Ethiopia has made “substantial progress” in improving access to water supplies, and that the country is on track to decrease by half the number of people who lack water.