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Water crisis in a town of Olympic champions

Water crisis in a town of Olympic champions

Bekoji town, known for its Olympic gold medal winning athletes in Ethiopia, has played a pivotal role in athletics history that has dominated the world arena. Nevertheless, a town filled with remarkable talent, has been suffering from the lack of access to clean water for almost two decades. Nine Olympic gold medals have been won by athletes coming from Bekoji. Topping the remarkable feet achieved by athletes hailing from Bekoji include, Derartu Tulu, the first Ethiopian woman and the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. She grew up tending cattle in the village.

Bekoji is located in Oromia regional state, Arsi Zone, 220km from the capital, Addis Ababa. Currently, the year on year increase in population has exacerbated water shortages.

For the purposes of water supply and sanitation project, the town administration, with the support of the Nile Consulting Group, had conducted a population census in 2006.

According to the census, the total population of the town was 33,100 and the major economic activities are trading, service provision and government employment. In relation to these, 98 percent of the town’s population was dependent on the town’s water supply as a primary source of water. About 55.5 percent have a private tap, and some proportion of residents tended to rely on spring, river and rain water as primary sources, with 12 percent relying on spring water, 14 percent on river water, and 18.2 on ponds and rain water.

However, according to the census conducted in 2012/13, the total population of the town had exceeded 75,000 people. Based on the information obtained from Bekoji Water Resources Bureau, the town does not have sufficient capacity and that about 25,000 of people could only benefit. 

Bekoji Water Resources Bureau Director, Wesenu Lema, explained that the number of communities that are currently living in the town and their daily consumption is incomparable.

“The community has been suffering for decades to get sufficient clean water and now the situation is getting worse,” Wesenu said.  

Bekoji tap-water, started by Daniel Close, a Peace Core Volunteer (PCV) in 1966,  was able to provide water for 500 people and among this, only 102 had tap water in their houses. The source of water for the existing water supply system was from spring water (Tulu Negeso Spring) located at about 2km North East of the towns center.

“While I did open my heart for the project, and I did coordinate some of the funding for the project, I did not open my wallet. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I made the same money as my Ethiopia peers,” said Daniel Close explaining the starting point of Bekoji water tap via email.

However, since the population started to grow, a second borehole project was commenced by a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called “ONE WASH” in 2009. The then new project was accessible for 15,000 people until 2011.

Since then, the community has been suffering, waiting for three to ten days to get clean water, with many people dependent on a public tap for water.

“We have 19 public water taps that address the communities unable to own a home tap. They are relying on public taps and have to wait a shift for three to ten days,” Wesenu said.

As for the water consumption, the average daily consumption is 2.25 liters per second. However, due to scarcity of water, water rationing has been in effect in the town. In this regards, the current usage of water is 34.3 percent. However, Wesenu suggested that this number should increase to 75–80 percent to fully provide clean water.

Water shortage and COVID-19 in Bekoji town

COVID-19, is affecting 218 countries and territories. A disease which demands strict adherence to hand hygiene can make matters especially worse in places where there is lack of access to clean water. The total number of COVID-19 cases in Ethiopia is increasing at an alarming rate and has claimed 239 lives so far. And for towns like Bekoji, the uncertainty remains unbearable.

Damitu Tola has lived in Bekoji for more than 40 years. She has four kids and she does not have a tap water. She has been using the public tap near her house, but now, she is using streams as a water source due to the dire water shortage.

“We were using a public tap water before and we spent more than an hour returning home. Now, it is very tough to easily get water, if you don’t get up early in the morning due to the long queues of people,” Damitu said adding, “We are not even able to prepare food let alone protect ourselves from the virus. So, we are waiting for the government to solve the lack of clean water.”

After the Ministry of Health (MoH) announced the 1st COVID-19 case in Ethiopia on March 13th, Bekoji town has been taking necessary actions to protect the community from the pandemic. The town’s health center has been engaged in a massive door to door campaign to engage with the community to battle the virus.

“We have tried to setup hand washing facilities at every entry point to the town and we have also used volunteers, working to raise awareness in the community,” Bekoji’s Health and Hygiene regulatory focal person, Teshome Legesse said.

Nonetheless, the hand washing facilities are now not functioning due to the lack of water. Even hotels, restaurants and government offices water tankers, are empty. Some hotel and restaurants are using water bought from vendors.

Fortunately, there is no major outbreak of COVID-19 cases reported in the town. However, there were three suspected cases, and put in isolation. They later tested positive.

“We are carefully following up and monitoring movements of our communities and keeping an eye on strange faces that come into town,” Teshome said.

According to the town water resource administration, the main problem is the maladministration that delays the water projects. The town has an elevation of 2800 meters and is believed have a rich reliable source of water. Currently, the town water resources administration has commenced a new borehole water project, which costs 400 million birr. This project will be concluded in 2021 and upon completion, is expected to benefit more than 100,000 local communities.

Furthermore, the shortage of electricity does not make the problem any easier, hindering the projects progress. The water resource administration has in fact mentioned this as the main challenge.

In a study conducted by Water.org found that only 42 percent of the population has access to clean water supply and only 11 percent of that number has access to adequate sanitation services. In rural areas of the country, these figures drop even lower resulting in health problems in the people and their animals. 

In addition to illness, many children, especially girls, face the upheaval of reversing a thought process that has kept them from going to school, for house chores. Statistically only 45 percent of kids attend primary school.

Ed.’s Note: This reporting project, overseen by infoNile, was made possible through the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the National Geographic Society.