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Story Publication logo March 22, 2008

Quenching the Thirst: Seattle Brings the Most Precious Liquid Abroad

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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Today is World Water Day. To mark the critical importance of water, the P-I is featuring two articles by Sarah Stuteville, a Seattle native and lead reporter for The Common Language Project, a Seattle-based media nonprofit. For more of Stuteville's reporting from Ethiopia, visit Funding for these articles was provided by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

It's early morning and a dozen westerners, mostly Seattleites, are getting ready to leave the capital for a three-day visit to water development projects in Oromia, one of this country's largest rural states.

As they set out — a caravan of five land rovers moving through the dense traffic — many of them are still quietly coming to terms with the parting words of Adane Kassa, executive director of Water Action, the Ethiopian NGO that coordinates the projects they'll be visiting.

"As you know, the coming third world war is anticipated to be fought over water," Kassa says.

To those from water-rich regions like the Pacific Northwest, Kassa's words may seem hard to understand. But for the estimated 7 million people worldwide who die annually from waterborne diseases, or for the parents of the child under 5 who dies every 14 seconds due to lack of water access and sanitation, no issue is more critical. Like Kassa, many who study this fundamental resource predict water could become the next precious liquid to destabilize the world.

Three months ago, crammed into a small, downtown Seattle office for their Ethiopia orientation, water scarcity was still an abstraction for this group of donors and supporters of Water 1st International, the Seattle-based nongovernmental organization that raises money for grassroots water and sanitation projects in the developing world.

There in the waning October sunlight, sipping bottled water and enjoying a midriff view of Seattle's skyscrapers through the broad window, the world of "san plats" (sanitary platform squat toilets) and dysentery seemed far away. For all of the Seattle supporters, this was a first trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

Though they would be accompanied by Water 1st Executive Director Marla Smith-Nilson and Director of Foundation Relations Kirk Anderson — both seasoned travelers in Ethiopia — there was a little anxiety mixed with the excitement of the journey.

All of them were involved in funding Water 1st, either individually or through businesses and foundations, but their reasons for braving that anxiety and traveling to Ethiopia were diverse.

Nancy Carroll, a real estate agent from Ballard, adopted two Ethiopian children last year. Mark Nilson, a cousin to Marla by marriage and senior pastor at Seattle First Covenant Church on Capitol Hill, wanted to bring a global perspective to his ministry. Jon Hughes has been interested in Ethiopia ever since his daughters began school at Madrona, where his family became friends with many Ethiopian immigrants.

One thing they all seem to have in common is admiration for the work of Water 1st, a relatively small organization that has been hailed as conscientious and effective in a city that is home to some of the largest — and wealthiest — development-focused NGOs in the world.

The water tower of Africa

Three months, 48 hours of air travel and 130 kilometers by land rover away from the realtor's office and Madrona neighborhood little-league practice is the town of Bishikiltu.

Bishikiltu, on a bleached yellow plain dotted with haystacks and cylindrical mud huts, is home to 5,000 people desperate for clean and accessible water.

Women and children tend to bear the greatest burden in water-scarce communities. Women may walk hours every day only to bring home water that could poison their families. A lack of clean water during childbirth has killed many young women in Bishikiltu in recent years. The children of Bishikiltu are only able to attend school sporadically because of daily water collections and continuous illness. It is estimated that as many as 10 children a year die in this village due to entirely preventable waterborne diseases.

"The problem of water shortage in Bishikiltu is very big," says Zerihun Bekele, an employee of the local government's water office. "Beyond the women and children we lose, we also lose cattle and so many other people."

There is piped water available in the town of Buza, more than an hour away, but most villagers opt for one of the five meager springs in the region, or worse, the more conveniently located muddy river where animals were also brought to drink. They rely on boiling to remove contamination — an imperfect sanitation process that too often fails.

Relocating to more convenient or cleaner water sources is culturally unthinkable; Ethiopians are very tied to their land, and past government projects to relocate people from drought- and famine-prone areas have been largely disastrous. Moving is also logistically impractical, as most water sources in this region are unreliable from season to season and year to year.

Interestingly, Ethiopia, known by many Westerners as a place of limited resources because of the famines and droughts of the 1980s, was once referred to as "the water tower of Africa." The many springs, rivers and tributaries that crisscross the country, as well as the aquifers thought to lie beneath the surface of this ancient nation, could be enough to provide every Ethiopian with Water Action's recommended allotment of 20 liters a day.

Despite this abundance, a lack of water and sanitation infrastructure means that 70 to 80 percent of Ethiopia's 73 million people have no reasonable access to this basic resource.

But there may be hope for villages like Bishikiltu. The Ethiopian government, with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and eager to propel the country into the 21st century, has promised to make water a top priority.

But that is in the future. In the meantime, organizations like Water Action, buoyed by U.S. funds raised through Water 1st and other international donors, stretch themselves to try to fill the enormous need.

As Smith-Nilson said, "We believe that water is a basic human right. We just want to be involved in making things right here for people."

Tasting success

The ceremony didn't last long: Ilama Muja was eager to taste clean and safe running water for the first time. The water system, which consisted of a drilled water source that used pumps and gravity to get clean water to 10 different community water points throughout the area — none more than 500 meters away from any village residence — was completed only the week before the ceremony. But the people of Ilama Muja, who had waited their entire lives for that moment, were willing to wait again for an inauguration with their Western guests.

In anxious anticipation, the ceremony quickly turned into a procession as the village poured into the stubbly fields singing, clapping and dancing toward the central water tap. A faded orange ribbon tied across the fence was cut and immediately people began to flood the community spigots. A crowd of cupped hands rushed to wash faces, douse children and fill red and yellow plastic jerry cans. The faucets ran with bright clean water so cool and fresh it smelled sweet as it hit the hot earth. One older woman in a threadbare white shawl knelt at the spigots and pressed her forehead to the wet concrete platform in thanks.

The Seattleites, a smattering of pink sunburned faces in the crowd, were stunned.

"It's water, just water," said Josh Epperson, a Water 1st supporter who works for a business consulting firm in Seattle. "I've never sung or danced for water, you know?"

"It's overwhelming to see the difference in these faces," said Kirk Anderson as water splashed wildly behind him.

"This is the best," said Smith-Nilson, smiling and squinting up from the traditional striped headdress she received as a gift from the people of Ilama Muja. "This is why we do it."

But exactly what they do, everyone at Water 1st is quick to point out, is only a small part of their projects. Water 1st contributed about $180,000, the largest portion of funds, to this project. But both Water 1st and Water Action insist they create water systems that involve the community at every point in the process, careful to emphasize this is an inclusive model that extends beyond that of so many other aid projects — especially ones in Africa, which are often criticized for providing quick solutions of money or supplies and then leaving.

In Ilama Muja, for example, the community donated roughly $33,000 in cash and in-kind labor to the project. They also formed a local water administration staffed by villagers, which oversees the entire life of the system.

Villagers regularly buy booklets of tickets (each ticket costs about 2 cents) to exchange for 25 liters apiece at the water points, open for a few hours each morning and evening, according to the convenience of the village. The money collected through this process is managed by the village water administration and used for maintenance and upkeep of the system.

Water 1st and Water Action both believe that this sense of involvement and ownership in the communities they work in is an integral part of what they do, and that it may even encourage further development. Ilama Muja used some of the excess funds they collected for the water project to build a gleaming new whitewashed school, which the village's children, free of long-distance water fetching duties and debilitating waterborne diseases, can now attend regularly.

Though Water Action says it would like to find the funding for consistent post-project support, all of the systems it's built are still working.

Anderson, like many at Water 1st, said he views these projects as building a foundation for further community-motivated development.

"Our projects are technologically simple but sociologically complex," he said.

Though complex, this work can be surprisingly inexpensive. Ilama Muja's project ranked as a level three difficulty on a scale of four, largely because of the drilling and pumping required. Despite this, the cost averaged about $50-$60 per person — or roughly the cost of a monthly cable bill — to provide clean, sustainable water to every resident of Ilama Muja, even accounting for population growth, for the next 20 years.

Water Action's other water projects in Ethiopia are often cheaper, and on average cost closer to $8-$10 — or the cost of a movie ticket in the U.S. — per person.

"I've tried to save my children."

Before leaving the region, Bishikiltu residents received some good news. Water 1st, Water Action and their supporters announced that they have raised the funds to begin a large-scale water project, intended to benefit 5,000 people in their village.

"We were here one year ago and at that time we had to tell you that we were unsuccessful in raising funds for your project," said Smith-Nilson, her hands clasped in front of her small frame. "We left last year fortified by our visit with you and your words and we went home, and told our many thousands of friends in the United States the story of Bishikiltu."

She continued as two translators, both Amharic and Oromifa, echoed her words to the already applauding crowd.

"And we now are able to say that we have enough funding for your water project."

The connection between Seattle and this corner of Ethiopia, between people separated by geography, language and privilege, emerged as a theme of the trip. Political issues that link Seattle with the planet, such as globalization, climate change, environmental degradation and immigration — specifically the increasing East African population in Seattle (East African immigrants are estimated around 30,000 in the Pacific Northwest) — were frequent topics of conversation among the travelers over St. George beers back at the hotel.

"This is my country now as much as it is my children's, and I feel like I have a responsibility to value this place for them," says Nancy Carroll, who recently adopted from Ethiopia. "It's so easy to sit in Seattle and write a check to some charity, and stay distant and not engage," she continues, "but engaging is exactly what we all should be doing."

Bishikiltu villagers express similar ideas. "We may come from different places, you may be white on the outside and we may be dark, but together we are the same," says Gelana Baisa.

The people of Bishikiltu are still at least a long, hard year away from a happy inauguration of their water supply. Countless villages throughout Ethiopia still wait for the day that water reaches them.

Though the Water 1st travelers are soon returning home to morning showers, purified water and a view of the Puget Sound crowned by snow-topped mountains, their time in these villages has changed the way they think of water. And perhaps as they consider their good fortune, they will also recall the words of Negesse Tayea, a 40-year-old farmer from Bishikiltu, who in his life has held four of his children as they died of diarrhea.

"I have tried to save my children by going to hospital, I even went to the farthest hospital like Addis," Tayea says, waving his strong hands in frustration. "But in the end I couldn't save them."


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