Providing water to populations displaced by conflict

in Tigray Region, Ethiopia

By Wossen Mulatu
Mebrat Aweta
16 April 2021

As fighting raged in her town in the north west area of the Tigray Region in early November 2020, Mebrat Aweta, 35, was forced to abandon her home and flee to a relatively safe area with her husband and their five children. They travelled from village to village in search of food and shelter until they arrived in Mai Tsebri town where several thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have sheltered since conflict broke out in November last year.

Mebrat recalls the day she escaped the conflict with her family, leaving everything behind.


Mebrat Aweta
UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Nahom Tesfaye
Mebrat Aweta is happy with the availability of clean water, Mai Tsebri IDP site, Tigray Region.

 “When neighbors came to my house to tell me that there was conflict going on, we began to hear gunshots from afar. I didn’t think about gathering my valuables. We had to leave everything we owned behind except the clothes we are wearing,” she says.

“I rushed out of the house carrying my one-year old baby on my back and the rest of the children were by my side. We also left behind a barn full of grain, which would have helped to feed my family now. We also left our cattle behind.”

“As we were passing through villages, people would give us water and food. They also gave us shelter. I feel that it’s because of my children that people showed us great sympathy and respect, for which I am grateful,” she says. Mebrat will never forget the kindness of people they met along the way.

Mebrat thought that once they reached Mai Tsebri, things would get better, but she says life in the IDP camp has its challenges.

“There is a critical shortage of food. I have never received any food since I came here. Sometimes we go out of the camp to beg for food from the local communities. Families here which receive financial support from their relatives buy grain which they share with us. We also live in crowded conditions. We share our shelter with 30 other people.”

Mebrat tears up as she talks about her children not getting enough food and suffering from hunger.

“I see my children looking at other people eating, and they suffer from hunger.  It makes me feel helpless, but I tell them that better days are coming. My three oldest children are not going to school anymore.”

Mebrat says her husband left her when they came to Mai Tsebri.

“All I ever wanted from him was to support my children. I am broken and on my own.”

Mebrat finds solace in her spirituality which, she says, helps her to be optimistic about the future.

“I know that one day, things will return to normal and we will be able to go back to our village. I hear people complaining about everything but what matters now is that we are alive. We are praying day and night for things to get back to where they were.”

Mebrat lists the availability of water at the camp as a positive.   

“I am very happy with the water provided here. My eldest daughter and I take turns to collect water from the tank at least three times a day. I bathe the children every day. There are enough toilets for everyone.”

There are 26,000 IDPs in Mai Tsebri and 8,500 live in the IDP site which the local government has set up as a temporary shelter. The remainder live outside the camp either as tenants or guests among the host community.

Sisay Biruk, a young and passionate professional, is the site manager for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Mai Tsebri. He says through UNICEF funding, IRC is providing clean water, sanitation, health, and protection services to the IDPs.

“We are supplying water using three trucks – one is ours and the other two are rented. We truck in water twice a day to the IDP site, which is decanted into the 10,000-liter tank we installed on the site.”

The water trucking system is not without its challenges, says Sisay.

“Access to the dam [where the water is drawn from] is difficult because of the poor road conditions, which means we are spending a lot of money on repairs and maintenance. Fuel supply is erratic. With UNICEF support, we plan to install a pipeline from the town’s water reservoir to the IDP site.”

UNICEF support has also enabled IRC to construct toilets at the site and distribute jerry cans, soap, and dignity kits.  Three environmental health agents provide disease prevention information to the IDPs and five cleaners have been hired to maintain sanitation and hygiene in the camp.

“The IDPs live in overcrowded conditions because there aren’t enough tents. I hope this issue will be resolved before the rainy season starts. Otherwise, everyone is at risk of communicable diseases,” he says.

“We are currently providing dignity kits to women and girls. We intend to start providing psychosocial support and counseling soon. Legal support for survivors of sexual violence will also start once the justice system is restored. There is an issue of underreporting as well.”

According to the latest UNOCHA humanitarian update, the conflict has hindered access to public social protection institutions such as judicial systems and police services. Survivors and persons with special needs are unable to access referral mechanisms and remain highly vulnerable and unattended.

For vulnerable families like Mebrat’s, the priority is to feed their children and keep them alive. And one day, when the conflict is over, she hopes to go back to her village to start all over again.

UNICEF is providing Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and therapeutic milks, which are used to treat children with acute malnutrition, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development. In addition, UNICEF is advocating with relevant partners to increase general food distribution.

“When things settle down, I can’t wait to go back to my village. All that I have ever owned is in that house. That will make me very happy,” she says.