By Alex Duval Smith
TSAHILO, Ethiopia, 16 September 2010 – Meles Gebregziabhere, 84, cannot remember how many great-grandchildren he has. But his memory is a treasure trove for the children who gather to hear his recollections of their village, Tsahilo, in northern Ethiopia.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Zenande Mfenyana reports on a European Union-supported programme to provide water and sanitation to the people of Tigray district in Ethiopia.|
“This was an evergreen area with many different kinds of indigenous trees," Mr. Gebregziabhere recalls about Tigray, the now-deforested region where Tsahilo village is located. "There were rivers ... we had adequate land for grazing our cat-tle and growing our crops. We could even plant slow-maturing crops like millet and sorghum, and we had two harvests every year. We had milk for everyone."
Tigray, the once-lush region that in the first millennium hosted a wealthy interna-tional trading empire, is now a dustbowl circled by jagged crystalline rocks swept bare of topsoil. Only small pockets of land are able to be cultivated by the region's nearly 3.7 million rural people. Oxen draw ploughs, mud roofs are more common than corrugated iron sheeting and, in homes, earthenware pots and bowls still have not been replaced by plastic.
|Six districts of Tigray and a further 72 in the rest of Ethiopia are being targeted by UNICEF and the European Union in a programme aimed at bringing water and sanitation to one million people.|
In the past 30 years, the landscape of Tigray has turned apocalyptic as marching deforestation – coupled with the unpredictable rains of climate change – have pushed the environment to the limits of habitability. Against these odds, a key concern is how to bring water and sanitation to pastoralists and subsistence farmers whose survival becomes more precarious with every passing season.
Six districts of Tigray and a further 72 in the rest of Ethiopia are currently being targeted by UNICEF, the European Union and the government in a more than $30 million programme aimed at bringing water and sanitation to a million people in the five years leading up to 2011.
In the village of Chila, Letay Gebregiorgis, 32, used to get up before daybreak to collect water from a river that was sometimes polluted. She and her donkey braved hyenas and other dangers that stalk the valley in the half-light of dawn. But in November 2009, under the EU-UNICEF initiative, a broken pump less than 15 minutes’ walk from her house was repaired. Earlier last year, after district officials supported by UNICEF came to the village and explained the benefits of sanitation, her husband built a latrine for Ms. Gebregiorgis and their four children.
|In Tigray, Ethiopia, deforestation and climate change have pushed the environment to the limits of habitability.|
“The access to water and the latrine at home have meant great improvements to our lives,” said Ms. Gebregiorgis, who is a member of her village water committee. Since the pump was rehabilitated, the group collects contributions towards its upkeep.
“I use the pump water for baking 'njera' [bread] and for food preparation," she said. "But to be economical, I still wash our clothes in the river. The biggest improvement has been in the family’s health. The children never get diarrhoea.”
Before the EU-UNICEF programme got under way in 2006, the vast majority of all diseases affecting children in targeted areas were a result of lacking water and sanitation. One of the objectives of the sanitation programme is to reduce rates of diarrhoea and related illnesses by 40 per cent. In Ethiopia, the under-five mortality rate is 109 per 1,000 live births – with nearly half of those deaths resulting from diarrhoea.
Since 2006 in Tigray, the influence of the EU-UNICEF partnership, and in particular hygiene training and the construction of demonstration latrines, has encouraged more than 750,000 households to build their own facilities. As a result, the number of homes with latrines has increased from an estimated 60 to 90 per cent.
Gebrehiwot Smur, the acting administrator in the area, says the programme has produced tangible results. “In our district since 2006, we have seen a reduction of 64 per cent in cases of communicable diseases while 74 per cent of people have gained access to safe water,” he said.
In a country where over 80 per cent of the population is rural, access to safe drinking water is also a challenge. Only about half of the country has access to improved drinking water sources.
Denis Thieulin, head of cooperation at the EU Delegation in Addis Ababa, said the figure marks a great improvement. “In 2000, coverage was about 28 per cent – so the situation is already twice as good as it was," he said.
"But we are still a long way from the target of 85 per cent. Despite government enthusiasm for working towards the Millennium Development Goals, one of the challenges we have faced is the lack of capacity in the local administration,” he added, referring to a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide by the year 2015.
Reversing the decline
Another challenge in a country so ravaged by climate change is to convince sceptics of the viability of bringing water and sanitation to people living in a dustbowl.
UNICEF water and sanitation officer Kinfe Zeru admits to sometimes asking him-self the question. But he says that by helping communities to build their own facilities, improvements made will be sustainable – even in such a challenging environment.
"We are not simply turning up and building shallow wells or latrines for people," he said. "When households are helped to construct latrines, they supply their own stones and sand ... we are working with climate change in mind."
Mr. Zeru added that he hopes UNICEF's work will even help to reverse environmental degradation in Tigray.
To the old storyteller in Tsahilo, climate change is God’s work. But Meles Gebregziabhere nevertheless offers a glimmer of hope for his great-grandchildren.
“What has happened is God’s work because humans did something to make him angry," he said. "Humans now must make him feel happy again.”