Humanitarian Action Report 2007 - Homepage


Water, a precious commodity in Eritrea

Children between 8 and 10 years from Gheineb and nearby villages gather at the river every morning. It is their task to bring back heavy jerrycans with water to their families. Osman and his wife have four daughters. The oldest one, 10, is responsible for collecting water. Every morning she wakes up early and walks for almost two hours to the river to collect two jerrycans – 40 litres of water – before she can head towards the school in Tiluk, in the afternoon. “Enough for drinking, washing for prayers and cooking,” says Osman.

The family has one camel, but it is no longer giving milk. Osman looks tired and says that he is now able to harvest 50 kg of sorghum per year; it used to be the double. “The children only eat porridge; nothing else is available in the village.”

It is hot in Gheineb, almost 40°C (104°F) and the 2,000 inhabitants are eagerly waiting for the water system, which is under construction, to reach their village.

Mohammed lives in the nearby village Ghedghed. Here the system is ready and his eyes are bright when he explains the difference this made to his and his family’s life. ”We used to walk 12 km to collect two jerrycans. The situation was really very bad,” Mohammed says. It is hard to think of anyone walking that distance in the heat.

Mohammed, his wife and six children are now using up to six jerrycans (120 litres) per day that they collect just behind the house. He pays 15 Nakfa (US$ 1) per month to the village water committee responsible for the maintenance and operation of the system. Mohammed also received help to construct a latrine for his family. “The children can wash before they go to school and there is no need to wait until the sun is going down to ‘do our needs’ trying to hide in the darkness,” Mohammed says, making a gesture towards the desert landscape around the village. The few acacia trees seen from the village are so small that it would be impossible to hide behind them. Especially women had to wait until it was dark, a habit which can cause health problems. “My children used to have diarrhoea and other illnesses, now they are much healthier,” Mohammed adds.

Osman and his family live in Northern Red Sea Zoba (region), one of Eritrea’s six zobas, which has been severely affected by cyclic droughts for the last five years. Only just over one out of two people in rural Eritrea has access to clean water. In addition, the sanitation coverage in rural areas is as low as 4 per cent. The lack of water forces many families to drink unsafe water, which is contributing to diarrhoea and dehydration in young children. Diarrhoea is one of the major threats to child survival and malnutrition underpins over 60 per cent of under-five mortality in the country. According to Ministry of Health estimates only 20,000 children in Eritrea receive supplementary feeding, which means that around 90,000 undernourished children are not being reached. 

Global acute malnutrition rates (i.e., children below 80 per cent weight per height) are high in Northern Red Sea Zoba. When Osman’s daughters are sick, he has to take them to Shieb health facility, one hour walk from the village. “Almost all children coming to us for various illnesses are also underweight. As we do not have therapeutic feeding here, we have to refer the most severe cases to Massawa Hospital 55 km from here,” says the Head of Shieb health facility.

The Government is constructing water systems and latrines with UNICEF’s support. In some cases, water trucking is the only option. UNICEF also assists the Ministry of Health’s efforts to expand the therapeutic feeding centres and to introduce community therapeutic feeding to cover children in the most remote and hard-to-reach areas. Supplementary feeding is provided all over the country to undernourished children less than five years old and to pregnant and lactating women.


© UNICEF Eritrea/2006

Children at the waterpoint in Ghedghed.