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Story Publication logo July 26, 2008

Water First: Fighting Thirst in Ethiopia


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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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The water in our house has been turned off for days and my back is absolutely killing me. I've been squirming around on our dirty couches all evening, desperately seeking a position that doesn't hurt. My spine feels permanently compacted and I'm convinced in my self-pity that I can actually feel the vertebrae rubbing against each other.

In a tantrum of chiropractic misery, I stomp around the house and take a painkiller stashed away for emergencies, washing it down with a swig of St. George beer. I'm filthy and annoyed by the sputtering pipes in my house, which seem to mock my unshowered state with their dry, metallic clanking. My scalp itches and I have visible dirt in the creases of my elbows. Licking my finger, I rub at it, confirming the various layers of dust. I gripe to myself about the rent (which in Addis, due to inflation and a housing crunch, is actually equivalent to Seattle rents) and rub my face clean with chilled bottled water.

To be honest, it's shameful how annoyed I am by all of these inconveniences, considering why I'm in Ethiopia in the first place. I'm here to research and write about water scarcity. In the past three days, I've interviewed a woman whose son died of typhoid and a man who lost four children to waterborne dysentery. He held them as the life was literally drained from their bodies. Yesterday, I watched a middle-aged Ethiopian woman secure three buckets of dirty water to her small frame, water that will poison her and her family if not boiled properly. Not far away, I saw an old woman fall to her knees, kissing the ground in thanks of water.

I had come to Ethiopia as a journalist and was writing about Water 1st, a Seattle-based NGO that was building a community spigot in rural Oromia, a region especially lacking in clean drinking water. But after interviewing a group of subsistence farmers and gaining an appreciation for the water shortage, I decided to set aside my journalistic work and get my hands a bit dirty with Water 1st. I spent many long hours hauling gravel and rhythmically passing loads of cement, gravel and water down a line of volunteers, imagining that our labors would help the overwhelming inequalities I'd seen in the past week. But as the day wore on, my arms and back grew exhausted. Like many other American volunteers, I eventually dropped out and alternated between playing with nearby children and rummaging through my bag for another Clif Bar. I returned to the hauling line only in brief, guilt-induced intervals.

I guess that's when my back pain began.

Some of the world's most shocking water statistics are found in Ethiopia. More than 80 percent of Ethiopians live in the country's rural regions, where only 24 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water. On average, women walk four miles and carry approximately 44 pounds of water each day to their families, and the World Health Organization estimates that over 40 billion work hours are lost each year throughout Africa due to long-distance water gathering.

To many Americans, these numbers are hard to comprehend. We come from a land of water parks, daily showers and green lawns. If my water use is equivalent to that of an average American (roughly 100-150 gallons a day), I've already consumed more water in twenty-eight years than an entire village of sub-Saharan Africans may use in their entire lives.

Living in Addis, it's easy to understand why, as someone recently told me, "The world's next wars will be fought over water." It's also easy to understand why, when I accidentally spilled some water on a dusty road, several nearby women shrieked in shock at my carelessness. Their disgusted reaction spoke volumes about the distance between our lives.

Back in my house in Addis, still muttering about the shower, I move to the floor and try some yoga stretching. A little cockroach zigzags up the wall to the far corner of the living room. Outside, one of the guard dogs begins a hysterical bout of barking while chained to a wall topped with gleaming, jagged glass.

I lie down on the worn carpet, waiting for the one-two punch of beer and painkiller to kick in, scratching at my dirt-encrusted arm and pondering a dusty plastic floral arrangement above the broken television. As the painkiller works its magic, I fall half asleep as a breeze rushes through the house. With eyelids growing heavy, my mind drifts back to a hot day last August.

I recall how my dad and I took his dirty old delivery van to the lake for a run. By the end of the run we were so hot and tired our faces were flushed red. We gulped down all the water in our shared Nalgene bottle in seconds. We sat down and took off our shoes and socks, stashed them in the bushes, and waded into the lake with our clothes on. My running shorts billowed up with air pockets as I moved deeper and deeper into the cold water, and we swam out to the middle and floated on our backs. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear a high school marching band and I could see tiny people pushing strollers and walking dogs on the periphery.

The splashing of water wakes me from my dream. The pain in my back dissolved, and my concerns about hygiene submerged by exhaustion, I realize that someone in the compound is filling the water tank that serves our bathroom, bucket by bucket, so that I can take a shower tonight.


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