It’s Green and Wet Now…

When we lived in Chicago, Richelle worked for a number of years with a refugee resettlement organization.  As a result, we had a lot of contact with new-to-America refugee families, many of which, for a few years, were from East Africa.  During the summer, we were often part of planning picnic events at the park with these families.  Often refugee families had been told by resettlement case workers about how cold Chicago gets in the winter, but having recently arrived in Chicago, sitting on the beach in July watching their kids swim in Lake Michigan, it was very difficult for them to imagine.  While playing soccer, barefoot in the sand, it was impossible to explain to them how in January the lake freezes over, there’s snow on the ground, and the lakefront is completely void of people, because even with parka coats, gloves, hats and boots, the cold biting wind can chill you to the bone.

Ethiopia does not have such seasonal differences of temperature, but its annual cycles are no less extreme.  In Ethiopia it is precipitation that sets the seasons apart.  This morning, looking off the veranda of the CCC Home, I see beautiful, green, lush, rolling hills descending to the south and west of Soddo.  The Wolaita region received decent belg (spring) rains and it’s now krempt, the main rainy season, during which the region, like most of Ethiopia, receives about 80 – 90% of it’s total annual rainfall.  Farmers in Wolaita have corn, barley, wheat, sorghum and lots of vegetables growing. It’s a very fertile time of year.  Because of sufficient rain, streams and springs are running and shallow wells are giving water.  With all the rain, there will be plenty of water for the next several months.

But it doesn’t remain this way in Ethiopia.  If someone was just visiting the country for the first time right now, it would be difficult to imagine why this country often suffers from drought and food shortages, but that’s the seasonal extreme of Ethiopia.  Come December in Wolaita, the landscape will be brown, all the streams will be dry, the springs will have deteriorated to a trickle, and the hand-pump wells will pump nothing but air.  The fine dust will lie like snow banks on the sides of the dirt roads on the outskirts of town, and the clayish soil will harden and crack like bricks.  It will remain this way from early December through the end of March.  Wolaita actually has one of the shorter dry seasons compared to most regions in Ethiopia.  The fact that it remains relatively green through into Nov. is unique in this country.  But the problem in Wolaita, with both food and water, is compounded by population density.  Despite being overwhelmingly rural (88.5%), Wolaita is the most densely populated region in Ethiopia (a population in 2007 of 1.5 million in a area a little smaller than Delaware; this gives it a population density similar to Rhode Island, the 2nd most densely populated state in the U.S.).   This is why, despite being relatively fertile with relatively high levels of precipitation, there are problems of malnutrition and there is a lack of access to water.  The resources and infrastructure are not sufficient to sustain the population.

During the dry season (Dec. – Mar.) the town water system wells run low, so the supply of water from the town is greatly reduced.  The system is unable to supply consistent water to the growing population of the town.  During the best of weeks during this time of year, the CCC Home only has running water from the town system a couple of days per week, and usually not for more than a few hours at a time.  In addition, the compound hand-pump well runs out of water by Dec. and usually is not useable again until sometime in late April or May when enough rain has replenished the well.  All this means that for several days per week from Dec. – Mar., the CCC compound is without water, making the entire operation of the home of sixty children (cooking, cleaning, flushing toilets, washing clothes, drinking, and bathing) dependent on water carried from a spring 30 minutes away in jerry cans on the backs on donkeys.

The issue of access to clean water for the African continent has become a very popular cause in recent years.  A quick google search of water and well related charities involved in Africa will pull up a long list.  Some of these organizations have some very heart-rending stories on their websites.  We get a little fatigued with over-sentimentalized stories of hardships in Africa, so I’m going to try to describe the water needs at the Children’s Home with an example that I hope will help readers understand without over-stating the problem.

Summer in the U.S. for many American families involves sending kids off to summer camp for a week.  Now I want to be very careful about comparing the Children’s Home in Soddo to a summer camp.  It very much is not a summer camp.  The Children’s Home in Soddo is a permanent home for our 60 kids because they have no other home.  They don’t have parents to come pick them up at the end of the week.  Many of our kids have or will spend most of their growing up years at the Children’s Home.  Having said all that, imagine arriving at a summer camp to pick up your kids at the end of a week-long camp experience and learning, after your dirty, stinky kids have hoped into the car, that the entire camp compound had been without water for the whole week.  In order to cook and provide some limited drinking water for the campers, the camp manager had placed a bunch of old jugs in the back of his pick-up, had driven out to a spring 30 min. away and had filled up the jugs.  But because of the limits of how much water could be carried in jugs on the back of his truck, the camp staff were forced to severely ration the use of water.  Water was used primarily for cooking, washing dishes, washing hands before meals, and providing some rationed drinking water to the campers.  Most of the remaining water, after these priorities were covered, was used at the end of the day in the toilets so that toilets could be flushed at least once to reduce some of the stink from the bathrooms.  Because of the lack of water, there were no showers or baths, and no cleaning of floors, cabins or clothing.

If this went on for just one week at a summer camp, it would not be the end of the world.  Probably a lot of campers don’t bother to shower while away at camp anyway and most parents expect to pick up dirty and stinky kids.  That’s part of the camp experience, right?  But you can imagine how conditions at the camp would deteriorate if it tried to function an entire summer season under these circumstances.  You can imagine how filthy, stinky and fly-ridden bathroom facilities would get.  You can imagine that the camp would have to contend with lice, fleas, bed bugs, ringworm and head-fungus at increased rates.  You can imagine that there’d be more sickness because of unclean drinking water, dirty dorms, reduced sanitation in the kitchen and a lack of camper hygiene.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of the months of December through March at the Children’s Home in Soddo.  This past year, we would get up each morning to check if there was any water from the town system in our storage tanks.  If yes, we’d ration it out for some drinking, cooking, and high-priority cleaning.  If no, we’d scramble to track down a donkey-water carrier to bring us some water from the spring 30 min. away.  We figured out that it took about 12 donkey’s worth or water (4 jerry cans / donkey) to get us by on absolute-minimal mode per day.  Given the distance to the spring and the lines at the spring to fill up, it would often take one donkey carrier with 2 donkeys all day to make the 6 trips necessary to get us this bear minimum amount of water.

The Children’s Home needs a consistent, year-round source of water.  This is necessary for a number of reasons:

  • cleanliness of rooms, bathrooms, eating area and kitchen
  • washing of clothes and bedding
  • showering and bathing of children
  • water for cooking and drinking
  • flushing of toilets and washing of hands

Unfortunately, getting access to a consistent, year-round source of water is not easy in the Wolaita area of Ethiopia.  We have explored all the options:

  1. Fight with the town water dept.:  During the months of Jan. – Mar. this past year, I made weekly visits to the water dept. to speak with the manager.  I had his personal mobile number on speed-dial on my phone.  He was a very helpful and cooperative man, always willing to listen to my complaints and usually doing his best to squeeze out a little more water from the system and direct it our way, but he was limited by the system itself and the amount of water available during dry season.  The town water system is dependent on a series of wells around the outskirts of the city.  During dry season, the water levels in these wells run low leaving little water to be rationed out to the town.
  2. Install an additional water storage tank: Up until the beginning of last Nov., we thought this idea would greatly improve our situation.  If we could store more of the town water when we got it, we could stretch out our stored supply until the next time we got town water.  Then the dry season hit us and we discovered that the water pressure coming from the town when we did get it was so low that it wouldn’t even ascend the pipes to fill our elevated storage tanks.
  3. Dig another hand-pump well:  We have one already that’s about 18 meters deep (60 feet).  That’s pretty much the maximum depth for a hand-dug well and from Dec. – Mar. it’s useless.  If it was servicing a single family, it might be possible to get by year-round on this type of well, but with 60 kids, we’d need to dig about 15 of these hand-dug wells if we wanted to get through a dry season with water.
  4. Use new hand-drilling technology:  There are some well related organizations that have developed hand-drilling technology.  It involves a drill bit apparatus that can be operated with the manpower of several people.  This is fabulous technology that has been used with great success in some more lowland parts of Ethiopia (in the Rift Valley, for example).  It’s very economical.  With local labor, it costs less than the equivalent of $10 USD / meter to drill with this method.  The technology has the capacity, depending on the geological nature of the drill site, to drill down to 60 or so meters (200 feet).  Unfortunately, Soddo sits on highland terrain (above 7000 ft. elevation).  We’ve had a hydro-geological survey completed for our site and we’ve looked at the other deep borehole wells in the area.  We’ll need to drill down beyond 150 meters (500+ feet) to hit an aquifer that can supply year-round water.

So that leaves us with one final option.  We need to bring in a drill rig, drill to a depth of 150+ meters (we’re budgeting for 180 meters), case, install a submersible pump, and set up a water system that will allow our compound to be water self-sufficient.  Because of the cost of materials in Ethiopia, the depth to which we need to drill and case, the size of a submersible pump necessary to pump from that depth, and the 3-phase electric power necessary to run such a pump, this is a costly endeavor… costly to the tune of $80,000 USD.

Here’s the good news:  we’ve already raised $42,000, we’ve already partnered with a drilling organization (www.waterislifeinternational.com), we’ve already paid for the 3-phase power installation, we’re already scheduled to start drilling in mid-Oct. and we’ve already lined up the pump supplier and installer.  If we have the funds, we’re completely on track to have this whole project finished and online by the end of Dec., just in time to be water self-sufficient for dry season.

Aerie Africa has just launched a concerted fund-raising effort to raise the remainder of the funds for this project.  You can find out more about the project, Aerie Africa, the fund-raising campaign, and how you can contribute by going to our newly launched fund-raising site at  www.glassofhope.org.

Please consider how you can help and please pass on this blog and the site address to others you know.  As always, don’t hesitate to email us or respond with questions or thoughts.