- How clean water ignites a renaissance in rural Ethiopia.
Deep in the heart of Southern Ethiopia, approximately 350 kilometers south of the bustling capital, a humble primary school stands as a testament to resilience. For 37 years, the Dege Enchoche Primary School has weathered the tides of time, its foundations firmly rooted in the era of the Derg regime. Nestled within the newly formed Southern Ethiopia regional state, specifically in the Wolaitta zone, this educational institution has become a beacon of hope for the community it serves.
At the helm of this educational haven is Dinknesh Emiru, a passionate educator whose legacy spans decades. With unwavering dedication, Dinknesh assumes the role of school director, guiding the destiny of the Dege Enchoche Primary School.
Once boasting an impressive enrollment of over 1,000 eager young minds, the school has recently seen a decline, now welcoming around 700 students.
However, this decline is not solely due to shifting demographics or changing educational preferences.
The primary culprit lies in the dark shadow cast by waterborne diseases and the scarcity of clean water in the region. A constant Achilles’ heel for this generational institution, these afflictions have wreaked havoc on the school’s population.
“In the recent past, up to 50 students fell victim to waterborne diseases, forcing them to drop out,” laments Dinknesh. “But it doesn’t end there. Almost all girls are absent for up to two months annually due to the absence of water during their menstrual periods.”
Consequently, Dinknesh says that the missed time by these students contributes to the abysmal academic performance. “The dropout rate among female students is high, with only a few making it to secondary education. Higher education institution is almost non-existent.”
The consequences of lacking basic amenities like clean water ripple through every aspect of life within this community. Health services, school operations, and countless other vital functions suffer gravely. For instance, the local health center, which, unable to provide clean water, places the burden on patients to bring their own supply.
Among the litany of waterborne diseases that plague the students of Dege Enchoche, Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) stands as a formidable adversary. Caused by a parasitic worm lurking within fresh water in subtropical and tropical regions, Bilharzia has become a common enemy.
Yet, it is not alone.
Numerous other diseases, primarily spread through the unsanitary waters, stalk the community. Unclean water, lack of proper sanitation facilities, open defecation, poor hygiene practices, consumption of raw food, and the ingestion of contaminated sustenance all contribute to this dire situation.
“Many of our students contract these diseases while fetching water for their families. Once infected, they are forced to abandon their studies,” reveals the school director. “And when Bilharzia targets their legs, there is little hope for their return. Without adequate healthcare services in the vicinity, they cannot heal.”
Tragically, according to sources, lives have been lost within this community due to these relentless diseases. Parasites feast upon the body’s nutrients, leaving individuals susceptible to a host of other life-threatening illnesses.
A sobering study conducted by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) in 2018 sheds light on the gravity of the situation.
Waterborne diseases, including Bilharzia, have gripped all corners of the Wolaitta zone, with particular intensity in Besore woreda, the very site where Dege Enchoche Primary School stands. Alarmingly, the study reported a staggering 5,140 cases of Bilharzia alone at the time.
According to Tsegay Eka, the head of the Wolaita zone health office, the prevalence of bilharzia in the area currently stands at a staggering 46 percent. The consequences are dire, especially for expectant mothers, as the parasites responsible for bilharzia consume vital nutrients, leading to the birth of stunted babies.
Furthermore, this disease presents a unique set of challenges as it can be transmitted between livestock and humans, creating a cycle of infection and exacerbating its impact on a heavily agrarian dependent community.
The Wolaitta zone encompasses five woredas—Damot, Sore, Damot Gale, Hulusa, and Damot Sen—with a combined population of over 275,000. Unfortunately, the lack of clean water, adequate health centers, and proper schools in these woredas has exacerbated the proliferation of communicable diseases, posing a significant challenge for the students and the general population. Most individuals rely on unsafe water sources, further worsening the spread of diseases.
Addressing these fundamental needs has proven to be a difficult task due to budget constraints, misallocation of funds, and weak project implementation. However, there is a glimmer of hope as chronic problems in the Wolaita zone are slowly starting to see improvements.
Enter “Geshi Yaro” a project that carries a profound meaning in the Wolaita language – “clean inside and out.”
This initiative, led by World Vision Ethiopia, an NGO working in rural areas of the country, focuses on education, health, and hygiene, among other areas. Recognizing the severe situation in Wolaita, World Vision identified the root cause of various health complications that affect other sectors, including education, addressing them, with an aim to create a domino effect that will positively impact other areas of concern.
“Until recently, the situation in Wolaita was very severe. We identified absence of clean water as the source of several health complications affecting different sectors like education. Hence, we decided that if we could solve the clean water problem immediately, it can have a significant domino effect on the rest of the problems,” says Indrias Shibui is project coordinator at World Vision.
Over the past five years, World Vision has allocated a total of USD 29 million to launch several water projects in Wolaita. The goal: to provide clean water access to the 275,000 people residing in the region. Progress has already been made, with 29 large water skims, 111 shallow wells drilled, and innovative water treatment and conservation mechanisms deployed as part of the initiative. Furthermore, it built sex-segregated ventilated improved latrines in 37 schools and provided safe drinking water to 64 schools and 36 healthcare facilities.
In the remote village of Mekesogi Welgo, located 15 kilometers from Sodo town in Wolaita, Asaminew Mekose, an elder, gazes in awe at the radiant light emitted by the solar panel adorning his humble abode.
This picturesque scene is a testament to the transformative power of the solar energy project facilitated by World Vision. In an area bereft of infrastructure and electricity, this newfound source of power brings a glimmer of hope and progress to the lives of the residents.
Asaminew, reflecting on the past, shared his sorrow over the lives lost due to diseases and the lack of adequate healthcare.
“I am sad, that I have buried many of my relatives and neighbors because of diseases and lack of health treatment. I have lost many cattle due to drought. In my life, I have seen countless suffering that occurred due to the lack of modern services for our population,” he said.
According to him, because of World Vision, they are now able to get clean water, solar light and health services. “They were here for us when no one was. Now our children can go to school safely without fear of disease. If such activities on clean water had started earlier, my relatives and neighbors could have still been alive,” he said.
The plight of the community’s female students, too, has found relief in World Vision’s intervention. They eagerly shared their experiences with The Reporter, expressing profound gratitude for the newfound access to clean water and essential menstrual hygiene products, such as period pads.
As a result, Dinknesh says the prevalent issue of absenteeism and dropouts among female students has witnessed a remarkable decline. The construction of toilets in strategic locations is now a growing trend, while the incorporation of handwashing with soap has evolved into a cultural norm.
As World Vision’s initiatives gain momentum, the impact on the Wolaita community is tangible. However, amidst these promising developments, the coverage of clean water in Wolaita remains insufficient.
Saluel Fol, Wolaita zone administrator, revealed that clean water access currently stands at a mere 67 percent in urban areas and a disheartening 41 percent in rural regions.
“The high prevalence of bilharzia has been a major challenge in deploying personnel to undertake water projects in rural areas,” Saluel explained. “Nonetheless, through persistent efforts to combat waterborne diseases like bilharzia, we are finally able to extend our services to these neglected regions. Our dedicated employees can now venture into remote territories to provide basic amenities and implement projects.”
The decline in disease incidence, Samuel says is due to the improved access to clean water and the effective distribution of crucial medicines. “The support of World Vision is irreplaceable in this monumental endeavor,” he asserts.
With a presence in Ethiopia spanning half a century, World Vision aspires to provide clean water to 15 million individuals within the next five years. This undertaking is expected to cost the organization 15 billion birr.