Summary: The following article appears here with the permission of the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse. A longer version first appeared in the 2002 fall issue of NDWC’s On Tap magazine.
How did a water guy from West Virginia end up in Ethiopia? Working with rural water systems in West Virginia for 30 years, I was invited by Robert Roche, Ph.D., lead sanitary engineer for the World Bank, to attend the “International Conference on Water and Sanitation Services in Small Towns and Multi-Village Schemes” in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for the first week. The second week would be spent visiting rural drinking water systems throughout the country. Also attending the conference was Sanjay Saxena, director of the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse (NDWC).
The adventure begins
On June 9, 2002, I left the United States and, after 23.5 hours, we arrived at Addis Ababa tired, excited and wishing it were daylight. Early the next morning, I discovered the wonders of coffee in Ethiopia, where it originated in 600 A.D. The Kefa region is named for it and their coffee—served hot, strong, black and sweet—has evolved into absolutely the finest drink anywhere. Not wanting to insult the culture, I enjoyed five small cups of this delicious brew.
The conference was held June 11–15 at the United Nations Conference Center in Addis Ababa. It was hosted by the Ethiopian government through the Ministry of Water Resources and sponsored by the World Bank, the Water and Sanitation Program, and the World Bank Institute as well as the United Kingdom and Bank of Netherlands-Water Partnership. The conference drew more than 200 practitioners from all continents. About 70 percent were from Africa, and most had more than 15 years of experience in water treatment and sanitation.
In some ways, the conference reminded me of meetings and conferences that took place after the rest of the United States discovered Appalachia’s problems in the 1960s and ’70s. Occasionally, phrases like innovative technology, privatization and “the people are just not capable” caused the hair on the back of my neck to rise.
A small world
The greatest thing about these discussions was, believe it or not, most of the complaints were already familiar to me from back home. Some of the most eye-opening discussions occurred while listening to the views Africans have of the United States. The fact that the United States has large rural areas and many of those areas have drinking water and wastewater problems was inconceivable to most of the attendees.
First, you need to realize their impressions of the United States come almost entirely from movies and television. The prevailing view seems to have New York City extending west until it meets the suburbs of Hollywood-Los Angeles, and we’re all thought to be rich, living in large homes and driving big, expensive cars. Telling people that I lived in a poorer, more rural part of the United States, had grown up drinking water fetched from a well, and used an outhouse caused looks of complete disbelief.
Once the conference ended, my week of visiting rural water systems began. Our group—Roche, lead sanitary engineer, and Catherine Revels, senior financial specialist, both from the Washington, D.C. office of the World Bank; Yitbarek Tessema, water and urban operations officer with the World Bank Country Office in Addis Adaba; and Tesfaye Bekalu, Water and Sanitation Programme/Africa (WSP/AF) program assistant, guide, teacher, and soon to be good friend—assembled at the Bole airport to make the 7:30 a.m. flight from Addis Ababa north to Mekele.
We stopped at the Tigray Bureau of Water long enough to pick up Zrae Ali, a chemist and water quality expert, arriving at Adigrat in late morning and going directly to the water treatment plant. Adigrat is in the northern region of Tigray and just south of the border with Eritrea. The project in Adigrat is representative of other water projects in larger communities.
The tanks and buildings of the facility were constructed of concrete or concrete blocks. The site included buildings for the gas chlorinator, the emergency generator, and a third for other supplies. Two new concrete storage tanks were also built—one 200 cubic meters (52,840 gallons) and one 100 cubic meters (26,420 gallons) to supplement the existing 300 cubic meter storage capacity, giving Adigrat a total of 600 cubic meters (158,520 gallons) of water in storage. Six wells drilled to depths of 120 to 150 meters (394 feet to 492 feet) supply the water that requires only disinfection.
The plant site is enclosed in a barbed wire fence for security. A similar fence also surrounds a new building centrally located in the well field that houses electrical controls. The upgrade included 10 kilometers (km)—32,810 feet—of new pipe, giving the system a total of 21 km (68,901 feet) of distribution lines. In addition, workers are building pit latrines and community showers as a part of the upgrade.
When the new system was completed last year, it was projected to serve a population of roughly 60,000 people. By 2015, the population is expected to increase to 100,000, largely due to the water system upgrade. Although Adigrat is certainly an urban community, we would consider the process of getting water to the customers a bit unusual. Consider this—only about 6,000 homes will choose a household connection and only 200 homes or less will actually have water plumbed into the house. The remaining household connections will serve a faucet just outside the home.
The flat rate for a household connection is 1.5 Ethiopian birr, or around 17 cents in U.S. dollars, for one cubic meter (264.2 gallons) of water. Even when new systems are built and water is made available, however, most people continue to carry it home in containers as they’ve done for centuries. As part of the upgrade, Adigrat will construct 30 sites where people can purchase water by the bucket. They’re called water points, fountains, standpipes or “bono,” and are spread evenly throughout the community. Employees of the water system operate and maintain the water points.
Forty liters (10.5 gallons), or the equivalent of two buckets of water, is sold for about 5 cents Ethiopian or slightly less than one-half U.S. cent. The cost comes to around 50 cents per 1,000 gallons. So, if your customers complain about water rates, you might consider building a few water points and handing out buckets. Ethiopian households average five people, and design standards for communities like Adigrat use 30 liters (8 gallons) per person per day. This means someone, usually young girls, must carry 40 gallons of water home each and every day.
The community is divided into four sections or kebeles, and people living in each kebele elect a representative to serve on the water and sanitation committee (WATSAN), who serve for usually three to five years and, in most cases, are unpaid. The WATSAN is responsible for day-to-day activities of the water system and answers directly to the town council. The new water system plans to employ about 50 people including water sellers. And, it’s important to note, the community has insisted women hold important positions. The only problem it encountered was difficulty in obtaining pipe fittings and some electrical controls, which halted construction. Unlike in the States, where you call a supplier and a truck shows up the next day, Ethiopia doesn’t have companies that stock municipal supplies. Items not produced there are imported, apparently as needed, which really slows things down.
Journey to Awassa
Following the trip to Adigrat, we were up again before dawn for the drive to Awassa located in the southern region of Sidamo. What a plant site! Built at the base of a mountain where a small, fast, running stream provides raw water, it’s the most beautiful location for a water plant I’ve seen. Because of the remoteness, the community built a house nearby for the chief operator. Treatment is conventional coagulation, flocculation and sedimentation, using lime and alum. Gas chlorine provides disinfection, and the lab is equipped with Hach Co. products.
With the exception of the lush, tropical trees and flowers of the landscape, I could have been anywhere in the United States. Built in 1982 and designed for a population of 60,000, the plant now supplies water to 150,000 people and is long overdue for an upgrade. Well operated and maintained, it would be a credit to any community. The Awassa system provides water to several water points and private household connections. I almost applied for a job.
On to Bahir Dar
In the Amhara Region in northwest Ethiopia, Bahir Dar lies on Lake Tana, birthplace of the Blue Nile River. Again, I was up before dawn to catch the early flight. The rest of the group called on the local water bureau while I visited small water points and a community with a five-year-old pipe water system. Pipe systems distribute water through pipes to locations other than the well site.
The most common installation for smaller communities, however, consists of a well and a heavy-duty hand pump. I saw several of these throughout the countryside, usually serving populations up to 500 people. A few kilometers outside Bahir Dar, the small community of Zenzelema built one such installation next to a health clinic. Not only could the distances be great, the water was most often of questionable quality, causing many deaths from waterborne diseases. Bringing safe water to small communities also provides more than health benefits. Drilling a well close to a community may actually allow some children to attend school.
The last community I visited was Ambasame Town, another several kilometers outside Bahir Dar. Again, a long ride over a dusty road brought us to a small, isolated community. A metered well drilled to 60 meters and a generator-powered pump supply the water.
The generator looked so good I thought it was new, but it came with the system five years earlier. The pride these people have in their water systems shows in everything they do. Out of the population of 6,000, only five homes have private household connections and the rest purchase their water from six public fountains. Average use is about 30,000 liters (7,926 gallons) per day or 1.3 gallons per day (gpd) per person. In the United States, the average use is 150 gpd per person. The water requires no treatment.
One reason the situation in Ethiopia was familiar to me is the manner in which well-meaning people rush to do something, anything, in an attempt to sooth guilt at allowing these conditions to exist. When the United States government discovered water problems in Appalachia and other rural areas of the country, the first impulse was to throw large amounts of money at the problems. Training and technical assistance, however, must be an integral part of funding. Without it, that new system can become more of a burden than a blessing. Building a new system for any rural community is the easy part. The real difficulties occur over the next 25 years.
In the U.S., the Rural Development Administration (RDA) provides a major portion of funding for rural systems. RDA, being a quick study, realized rural systems need support not only before, but also after systems are built. Technical support helps protect the initial investment and gives communities the necessary tools to maintain viability.
If I had the opportunity and resources to benefit the water and sanitation systems in Ethiopia, I would hire one or two highly motivated people from each region, preferably with work experience. These people would receive training in system operation, maintenance and management. This approach answers the worn-out argument used against all rural utilities—“they cannot afford to hire enough qualified people.” That may be true, but they can afford to hire local people willing and capable to be trained. That’s what a community water system is all about. To believe otherwise is elitist.
About the author
Larry Rader, of Beverly, W.Va., is an environmental consultant for the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse, based on the West Virginia University campus.