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In Ethiopian villages, improving water and nutrition lays groundwork for a better future

Two programmes supported by the European Union, water well construction and lessons on good nutrition, have positive effects on Ethiopian communities.  Download this video


By Elshadai Negash and Wossen Mulatu

MACHAKEL DISTRICT, Ethiopia, 1 November 2013 – At 10 a.m. in the small village of Amari Yewabesh in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, Wubalem Asmamaw quietly greets her neighbours before putting down her clay pot in front of a water tap. The 17-year old student opens the spigot and fills the pot. She then walks back to her family’s home.

In many ways, Wubalem’s trip to the well resembles any other Ethiopian village girl’s daily chores helping her mother. But unlike millions of girls around the country, Wubalem no longer has to choose between attending school and making a three-hour trek to fetch unclean water from a river.

And she no longer has to fear crossing the wide fields she every day, and the chance an attacker might assault her.

The water point, which was built in 2008 and rehabilitated in 2011 by UNICEF, the European Union and other partners, is only a ten-minute walk from her home.

Expanding access to clean water

“Wubalem has more control of what happens in her life now,” says Haimanot Assefa, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project officer with UNICEF Ethiopia. “It is common for girls to miss school and eventually drop out. Some are even forced into early marriage after being abducted and raped.”

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ose
Wubalem Asmamaw, 17, drinks at a water point in Amari Yewabesh, Machakel district in the Amhara region of Ethiopia.

While the construction of the water point has helped increase the village’s water and sanitation coverage to 60 per cent, an innovative community-based ownership and maintenance scheme has also been effective. WASH communities – groups of five people who oversee maintenance and security of water facilities – have been elected by residents in Amari Yewabesh and other nearby villages.

“Today, nearly two out of three people in our district have access to clean water,” says Balew Yebel, Machakel district’s water office head. “In two years, we want to expand that to 100 per cent, and I am confident that with the support of donors like the EU and UNICEF, and the involvement of the community, we can achieve that.”

Taking nutrition support to households

The programme’s impact doesn’t end at the water point. Thanks to EU support, a community-based nutrition programme in the Machakel district is helping save the lives of young children and reducing cases of malnutrition.

Health extension workers, who make up part of the 38,000 government-salaried health service personnel, are a vital link to remote areas such as this one. They provide daily nutrition interventions and health-related behavioural change counselling and services to millions across the country.

Nutrition counselling focuses on improving breastfeeding practice and appropriate complementary feeding, as well as growth monitoring and promotion, and community conversation activities.

“Mothers used to think that the colostrum [the milk secreted in the first two to three days after childbirth] is unhealthy and should not be given to the baby,” explains Biruktawit Mulu, a health extension worker. “Or they give butter, droplets of water, and even make the newborn taste tella [a traditional alcoholic drink made from barley]. Now they understand the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for six months and the importance of giving colostrum.”

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2013/Ose
Biruktawit Mulu, left, a health extension worker, counsels Wagaye Fanta, 35, with her infant son at home in Kerer village in Ethiopia's Amhara region.

In Kerer village, where Ms. Mulu works, improved community awareness on child feeding has helped reduce the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) by 50 per cent in the last three years. Only seven children were admitted and managed for SAM in 2013, as compared to 12 children in 2010. With moderately malnourished children, the number has dropped from 88 children in 2010 to 40 in 2013.

“We have treated the last two cases for severe acute malnutrition last week,” Ms. Mulu says. “We don’t have any children to treat at the health post now.”

Wagaye Fanta was regularly attended by Ms. Mulu during her household visits. “As a mother, I suffer when my children are not feeling well,” she says. “I quickly accepted what Biruktawit advised me when she told me about keeping my place clean and feeding my children properly.”

Development is a process

“Access to food is not enough. It is important to change the mindset of people by teaching them on quality and variety of food items for their children to make an impact on improved nutrition,” says Denis Thieulin, former head of the EU Delegation to Ethiopia. “Development is a process, and financing for it has to expand to serve people’s needs. Things are moving very well in terms of nutrition and WASH in Amhara, but there’s still a lot to be done with the support of local authorities and partners.”

As EU support is integrated locally through programmes like WASH communities and health extension workers, Machakel will be able to sustain its development through awareness of the importance of education, proper nutrition, clean water and hygiene. And when youngsters like Wubalem get closer to their dreams, the work of UNICEF and its partners will bear fruit for the next generation.

“I want to grow up and become a medical doctor,” Wubalem says. “I want to help people who are sick and need medical attention.”



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