Bringing Clean Water to Ethiopian Communities — One Well at a Time

by Bob Gausman (Bodditti, Sidamo Province, 1970–72)

I HAVE JUST RETURNED from my fourth trip to Ethiopia in the past seven years. The purpose of the trip was to look for possible sites for water improvement projects on behalf of Peace Corps XIII, but more about that later.

First, my general impressions of the country

Addis vs. the country side
Ethiopia is truly a “tale of two countries.” Addis and some of the larger cities are rapidly developing, but for the majority of the people still tied to the land, little has changed since we were there 40 to 50 years ago.  Addis is basically unrecognizable except for the Piazza and a few buildings on Churchill Road.  There are literally hundreds of high-rise apartments and condos that encircle the city and the city even has its own beltway. There seems to be thousands of small bars, restaurants, and hotels everywhere and many office buildings are under construction. The average farmer, however, is still plowing his small plot with oxen. If he is lucky, he may be able to afford a little fertilizer, and hope that the rains are sufficient to grow one crop per year. The average family size has gone down from six or seven members to around five. Most children are allowed to attend school if their families do not need them to tend the animals or collect water. The average family income is under $300 a year.

The population
When I first landed in Ethiopia, my most overwhelming impression was that the overpopulation that exists is going to lead to continued problems for future development. The population is estimated to be above 85 million. In order to give this number some perspective, the country is about the size of Texas, and Addis alone probably has somewhere between four- and five-million people.  In 1970, approximately the time that many of us were serving, the population was around 450,000.

Addis Traffic
The traffic situation in Addis is worse than in Washington, DC. While there are still many small Fiat taxis, the fare is between $3 and $5 a trip, which is more than the average person can afford. There are also thousands of vans that patrol the streets, travelling on fixed routes. You simply signal them and they will stop if there is room. The fare is about 25 cents. If you are going some distance, you may need to take two or three different vans. The average person uses a bus for transportation. The fare is about ten cents, and they are just as packed as they ever were.

The people of Addis
The street kids are just as charming as I remember and never seem to tire of reminding me that I am a “ferenji.”  They were not as aggressive as they used to be, or at least I don’t remember wanting to strangle any of them this time.

People still make a living in some of the most amazing ways: young boys sell a bottle cap full of peanuts for two cents, people who own a scale charge five cents to weigh a passerby, women sit outside of a public phone and make change, and some people sell nothing but partial rolls of toilet paper.

The education system is much different that what I remember. Regardless of their size, most communities have at least one primary school.  In rural areas, children still have to walk anywhere from one to five miles to school. High schools, on the other hand, are a more serious problem. Only larger towns are able to support a high school, and with the large number of primary schools recently constructed, the pressure to get into a high school is very great.  Those students who live in a rural area and who passed the entrance exam for high school have to travel 10 miles or more to the nearest high school, requiring them  to find a place to live nearby. This situation is not practical for the majority of students.

Although the number of universities has increased significantly, there is an equally severe bottleneck in trying to attend college. Most large cities now have a university.  Addis Ababa University enrolls 42,000 students, Gondar 23,000, Awassa 26,000, and Makelle has 24,000.  As is expected in a rapidly growing educational system, the quality of teaching has a lot of room for improvement. Some of the elementary school teachers only receive one year of training after high school, and secondary school teachers only receive three years of higher education. Many of the university professors come from other African or Asian countries with mixed results.

There are several positive developments taking place in the country that are very promising.  Coffee continues to be the leading export and generated over 850 million dollars in revenue last year.  The cut flower industry is growing rapidly and now employs 85,000 people mostly in the area around Lake Zwai in the south.  However, the jobs are hardly well paying as the average employee only receives about $30 a month.  Every night, planeloads of cut flowers leave Addis for western Europe.  This industry generates around 200 million dollars yearly.  The third leading export is hides and skins at 75 million dollars.

Another growing export lately, though hardly a positive development, has been the transportation of young Muslim girls from Ethiopia to middle-eastern countries. When I was at the airport waiting to come home, I must have seen at least 300 Muslim girls between the ages of 15 and 25 leaving on planes for Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Dubai. They will work as domestic help in private homes throughout that area of the world.  I was told that this scene is repeated almost every night. They are expected to work almost 24 hours a day and they are only paid $125 a month for their labor. I imagine a sizable portion of this is sent home to their families.

The economy
Even with the recent global economic downturn, Ethiopia’s rate of growth is still among the best in the world, and has averaged over 9% annually in the past five years.  Much of the investment taking place in Addis and the larger cities is being financed by members of the Ethiopian diaspora around the world.  It would be good, however, if more of the funds were directed into basic industries rather than the bars and restaurant industry.  On this last trip, I noticed a few places with wireless internet, but for the most part, internet access is still limited to dial up service. This is a serious hindrance to development and is recognized as such by the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopia XIII Water improvement project

The purpose of my most recent trip was to find a suitable village that is in need of a water improvement project for the Peace Corps XIII group.  As you are well aware, much of rural Ethiopia still suffers from a lack of clean water.  Women and young girls spend a considerable portion of their day carrying water, usually polluted, from a nearby stream or spring.  The United Nations estimates that 250,000 children die each year in Ethiopia from water-borne diseases, while 70% of the country does not have access to clean water.

bus travelMy first trip outside of Addis was to the Bale National Park area in the southeastern part of the country, where there was a village that was a possible candidate for our group water project.  A local resident and I attempted to visit the site in the morning, but the rains started early that year, and while they were not heavy, it did rain almost every day for an hour or two. The “road” to the village is bad on a good day, and considering the conditions, it was even worse. We only went about half way when it became impassable and we decided that we would have to walk. When I got out of the car, my guide pointed to a hill that looked like a training site for the US ski team, and said we had to go up there. At this point, the elevation is around 9,000 feet and he wanted me to climb even higher. He and another fellow took off and left me to follow them. Twenty minutes later, they were almost to the top and I was barely half way there.  At that point, I was sucking down what little oxygen was available and had already taken three breaks.  I then crawled my way to the top ready for the exhilaration I imagined those reaching Mt. Everest must feel, when to my disappointment, my friends pointed to another hill even higher that awaited us.  My only thought at that point was that if these people can survive at this altitude, a little dirty water was not going to hurt them.  As I began looking around for some strong branches so that they could make a stretcher to transport me, one of them took the opportunity to inform me that last year the government put in two wells in the very area we were headed.  That was all the news it took for me to realize that we needed to find another site, preferably one below the cruising altitude of most commercial aircraft.  In retrospect, Bale National Park was just as beautiful as I remembered.  I saw mountain nyala, bushbuck, reedbuck, wart hogs and baboons.

The next day I left for an area in southwestern Ethiopia where I was confidant we would find sites that needed assistance. After traveling all day, I spent the night in Shasamanae. I know it is hard to believe, but the city is even more dysfunctional now than it was before. I stayed the night at the Bekelle Molle. If you remember these hotels, I can assure you they look exactly the same, except for the fact that absolutely no maintenance has taken place in the past 40 years.   The cold shower still floods the entire bathroom, there is no toilet seat, and the 10 watt bulb hanging from the ceiling flickers most of the time.  Despite these drawbacks, the price was right at $9.00 a night.  The next day was a four-hour bus ride to Soddo.  I thought about staying at the Bekelle Molle, but opted for a newer hotel.  The new hotel solved the water on the floor problem by not providing water at all.  This is just one example of the many inconsistencies I discovered in seeking accommodations.  When I checked into my hotel in Addis, I was given two bars of soap, a towel, and toilet paper.   Other guests at the hotel told me that when they checked in, they were given two bars of soap, a towel, toilet paper, and two condoms.  This is clearly age discrimination and my lawyers are looking for a remedy.


You get the idea?

The area where I traveled is roughly equidistant between Soddo and Jimma, about 250 miles southwest of Addis.  The next day we inspected three sites, and the quality of the water defies description. All three were mountain springs that, at their source, provided perfectly pure water, but once the water came out of the ground, it became so polluted with animal waste, erosion, and human contact  that it resembled a cesspool more than anything else. The springs provide the daily water supply for up to 900 people in the surrounding vicinity.  These people have no other source of water. They use it for cooking, cleaning and drinking and usually do not boil it first.  Every day young girls and women come to the spring, typically twice a day, and fill five-gallon containers to carry home.  Some may have to walk over two miles each way.  The situation was heartbreaking.

The local Development Association has a good deal of experience with spring protection programs. They propose that the spring first be dug out to get to its source, then a large concrete cap  be placed over it to fully encase and protect it. Depending on what is needed, a concrete and stone reservoir could be built nearby to hold water, and then slightly downhill from that would be the final distribution tap where people would receive clean water.  In many cases an animal trough is constructed off to the side.  Although the springs are now completely polluted, after proper construction, they would return to their pristine condition. Initial cost estimates are between $6,000 and $9,000 per site.

It is the intention of the Peace Corps XIII group to fund the construction of one of these projects through fundraising and private donations. A video of two of the springs in their present condition can be found at:  The site also provides an opportunity to contribute to the health of thousands of Ethiopians suffering from water related diseases. I can assure you that every dollar received will go directly to the construction of one of these spring improvement projects.

4 responses to “Projects

  1. Sounds like very worthwhile efforts. Will the local development organization be able to keep the springs in good condition? How will the ongoing maintenance be funded? I’d like to help.

    • Bill, The Dawro Development Association, who will be overseeing the construction of the springs, has a membership of over 100000 local residents and a full time professional staff of over a dozen people. They currently maintain the existing springs and will do the same for the proposed ones. Its actually a fairly simple system and I could send you pictures of a completed one if you wish.

      Bob Gausman

  2. Are, you the fellow who lived on the mountain behind Awasa?

    Robert St. John XIV

    • Bob, No that sounds like it might have been Ernie Fritz. He was an older fellow in our group (XIII) but he passed away maybe 10 years ago. You probably remember Flip Miller from our group as I think I remember Flip talking about you.

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