Water is essential to life. Without water, humans and our world would not survive. Yet, 11% of the world’s population – 783 million people – do not have access to safe water. Although many people living in the western world including myself often take water, sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as “WASH”) for granted, there are millions of people around the world who do not.
In fact, the figures are shocking:
- 2.5 billion people – almost 35% of the world’s population – do not have access to adequate sanitation. (WHO/UNICEF)
- More than 500,000 children die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation – that’s almost 1,400 children a day. (WaterAid 2012/WHO 2008/The Lancet 2012*)
- The weight of water that women in Africa and Asia carry on their heads is commonly 40 pounds, the same as an airport luggage allowance.
- Providing water, sanitation and hygiene together reduces the number of deaths caused by waterborne diseases by an average of 65%. (WHO)
When I was in Ethiopia this past June, I witnessed firsthand the drastic unavailability of water and sanitation services. It could be seen every time I left the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, and headed out along the roads leading to the rural population which make up 90% of Ethiopia’s 90 million people. Woman walking for hours with yellow jerricans on their backs. Mule carts loaded with empty and full jerricans. Even children carrying jerricans and walking miles in search of safe water.
I knew little about Ethiopia’s water and sanitation challenges except the sites I viewed outside the window of a moving car. I have worked with WaterAid (one of the leading providers of water and sanitation around the world) before on various awareness campaigns and had even visited one of their sites in India yet I had little knowledge of the unique issues and challenges faced by Ethiopians.
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country yet is one of the least well served in sanitation and water. Although much progress has been made over the last two decades, much more work remains. The statistics are shocking:
- 43.4 million people in Ethiopia do not have access to safe water. This is over half of the population.
- Over 67 million people don’t have access to adequate sanitation; almost four-fifths of the population.
- Around 33,00 children die every year in Ethiopia from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.
- Life expectancy is a mere 56 years old.
Source: WHO/UNICEF 2012
Surprised by the figures, I wanted to learn more and had the opportunity to speak with WaterAid USA’s new CEO Sarina Prabasi to gain an insight into the background of WaterAid’s work in Ethiopia and learn more about the challenges that remain in providing Ethiopia’s 90 million people with safe water, sanitation and hygiene.
Sarina is originally from Nepal yet moved to the United States to go to college. She was inspired to work in the non-profit world thanks to her father who served with UNICEF for many years. Sarina grew up traveling the world and witnessing firsthand some of the challenges that people face. She has dedicated her life to serving others and making the world a better place. After serving seven and a half years in Ethiopia, in which five of those years were working as a Country Representative with WaterAid and most recently serving as Deputy Chief of Programs at Orbis International, Sarina took over the top position as CEO of WaterAid America and has become one of the world’s greatest advocates for increasing access to water and sanitation.
“So many women and children died in search of water when they climbed down the deep traditional wells and the wells collapsed on them. It was really such a stark illustration of the fact that WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) really is a matter of life and death.” – Sarina Prabasi, CEO WaterAid America
Per Sarina, Ethiopia has made significant progress in terms of access to safe water and sanitation yet still has quite a way to go. Although Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, it is one of the least well served countries in terms of water and sanitation. Many unique challenges have contributed to the problem including a long history of droughts, famines, conflicts and a low status of woman who often can spend up to 4-5 hours a day gathering the water for the household.
Accessing water in Ethiopia remains varied and challenging especially for some of the most remote, hard to reach areas where infrastructure is poor. Yet organizations like WaterAid are working tirelessly with the government and communities to create partnerships that help build the country’s water and sanitation infrastructure. In fact, WaterAid is viewed as a pioneer in developing large community-managed water models that have proven quite successful.
Sarina shared a touching story about a moment that truly inspired her work. She was visiting a remote village in Ethiopia where a child fell into a well and it collapsed on him. No child should have to die in such a preventable way.
Sarina also said oftentimes mothers have to make very difficult choices regarding the rationing of their family’s water. Should she wash her child or keep the water for drinking? Should she give her thirsty child dirty, unsafe water or let him get dehydrated? No mother should have to make these kinds of decisions. Water and sanitation are a basic human right.
Although significant progress has been made in Ethiopia, many challenges remain. The sheer size and scale of Ethiopia alone make the task of providing water and sanitation to all an enormous and complicated task. Furthermore, there are many different players in the field – national and local governments and different non-governmental organizations and partners – that must work together and take a look at the big picture. Not one plan fits all in Ethiopia. Finally, the gender dynamic must change and sadly this one will take some time. Women need to be valued and treated as equals. When you pass a woman carrying 40 pounds of water on her back and see her husband walking with a donkey carrying nothing, what does that say about women’s role and value? That a woman’s time and being is not worth much which is a hugely missed opportunity.
Want to learn more?
WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme *(For latest updated stats on water and sanitation around the world).
Video summary: Published on Jun 4, 2013
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country yet is one of the least well served in terms of sanitation and water. Since 1983 we have reached more than 1.7 million and more than half a million with safe sanitation.
WaterAid is the world’s largest international non-profit organization specifically dedicated to helping the world’s poorest people transform their lives through access to safe water, toilets and hygiene education. WaterAid works closely together with local governments, community-based organizations and individuals in 26 countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific region to employ affordable and locally appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene solutions. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 21 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 18 million people with toilets and sanitation. www.wateraid.org
I was in Ethiopia as a fellow on newborn health this past June with the International Reporting Project.