Jessica Partnow for the World Vision Report
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — "Just breathe," I comforted myself as I shuffled slowly through the dusty gravel. "One breath with each step," I repeated raggedly as 50 pounds of brackish water sloshed rhythmically against the sides of the muddy yellow jerry can strapped to my back.
Sweat rolled down my hairline, dropped from my forehead and splashed in the shape of raindrops on the gray slate beneath me. To keep from slipping I tried to follow exactly in the footsteps of the cracked plastic sandals in front of me.
A 14-year-old girl in a patched purple dress had already fallen. We struggled to get her upright again; she was pinned by the weight of the can on her back and our own burdens made it hard to lift her from the loose steep slope.
"Galatoma, galatoma — thank you, thank you," she muttered in the southern Ethiopian language of Oromifa as our weakened arms grasped for her.
"Many women break their legs walking down the crater for water," warned Fadi Jilo, a 30-year-old mother of three and 15-year veteran of this water walk. "Sometimes pregnant women fall and miscarry," she added.
On my way to Dillo, a rough, one-road town perched precariously on Ethiopia's southern border, about 30 miles from Kenya, I thought a lot about water. I had plenty of time to think: the drive from Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa took 15 hours.
Cool highlands swaying with eucalyptus trees became rowdy red-dirt towns lined with broad banana leaves, only to turn again to a desiccated landscape scattered with brittle thorn bushes, umbrella trees and the otherworldly spindles of towering termite hills.
Statistics bounced in my head, along with the bouncing of the tortured tires on our 15-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser over miles of unpaved roads.
Some of the most shocking water statistics in all of sub-Saharan Africa are found in Ethiopia. More than 80 percent of Ethiopians live in the country's rural regions, where as few as 24 percent of the population enjoys safe, accessible drinking water.
Throughout southern Oromia I saw armies of women and girls with heavy barrels lashed to their backs with homemade rope. They lined the roads in the early morning and again as the heat of the day ebbed, falling in line with millions of women across the African continent seeking this most fundamental resource.
It is estimated that on an average day, women in poor countries walk four miles and carry approximately 44 pounds of water back to their families. The World Health Organization reports that over 40 billion work hours are lost each year in Africa specifically to the long-distance gathering of drinking water, and Ethiopia is no exception.
"They walk all this way for water that may not be by any means safe or drinkable," said Meselech Seyoum of Ethiopian NGO Water Action. "This really affects development in the country because there are so many other things
The United Nations' 2006 Human Development Report, which focused on water and water scarcity issues, reported that 5 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP is squandered every year on account of poor water access and sanitation. To put that waste into perspective, think of it this way: More economic capacity is lost annually in Africa due to water-related diseases and hours spent laboring to find and fetch water than what the region receives in aid.
Photo: Alex Stonehill
No amount of studying or thinking about this continent-wide walk could have prepared me for doing it. Everyone warned me that it would be a challenge to keep up with the task that is the daily norm for so many. Ernest Waititu, the journalist I'm working with here, who spent much of his youth in Kenya fetching water from long-distance sources, told me with a broad smile, "You will not make it, Sarah."
His words were echoed by every curious onlooker who saw me buying a jerry can (a plastic drum originally containing an industrial volume of cooking oil). The group of girls and women I introduced myself to in Dillo's gray dawn met my request to follow them down into the crater and carry a load myself with open alarm.
"This is very difficult for us and we have practice," said Fadi as she and the other women prepared for the first of three daily walks. "For you I don't know," she worried, shaking her head a few times before we headed out.
Though this walk for water occurs across the nation every day, the details of the walk vary throughout the country. The time can range from one and a half hours to six or seven. Some women carry clay pots, others plastic jugs. Dillo's source at the bottom of a salt lake crater is unique, but many walks for water are treacherous, especially as they often take place in the early-morning dark.
One thing all of the walks have in common is that they are almost exclusively done by women and girls, and the water they return with is often contaminated by disease.
From Dillo's town center the group of a dozen women, ranging in age from seven to 40 (the youngest girls armed with five- and 10-liter jerry cans and the teenagers and adults with 20-25 liters), laughed and joked their way to the top of the crater that serves as Dillo's main water source. At the top we stop to stare down at the salt flats glowing an eerie white in the rising light and the small greenish pools that are our destination. Beginning down the steep slope, we fall into quiet concentration. The only sounds are the dry crunching of our footsteps and the occasional hollow bounce of our jerry cans off the narrow rock passages we make our way through.
It is a small and indulgently symbolic act to try to put myself in their shoes for one morning. There is no way to compare an hour and a half of my discomfort to what they endure in their lifetime. I will never know what it's like to spend the majority of my waking hours trying to save myself, my family, and the cows or crops that are our livelihood from dehydration. Nor will I experience the disappointment of my school closing for lack of water.
If I were literally putting myself in their shoes, the shoes I wore would have been cheap, broken plastic sandals instead of ergonomic walking shoes that cost almost 10 times Fadi's yearly income.
If I were putting myself in their shoes, I would have plans to drink the dirty water I carried, knowing that it kills 20-plus people in Dillo each year, instead of giving it away and running to the diminishing stores of overheated bottled water in the back of our car to slake my thirst.
Joining this search for water may have been an inadequate attempt at understanding this specific hardship that holds Ethiopia and so much of Africa back from development, but it seemed important to try.
In Seattle, water is central to the culture of our city — the rain, the lakes, the Puget Sound and the seafood, the lush deep green that we live alongside year round. Water is an abundant luxury that I was born taking for granted — including the cool, clean, sanitized drinking water that has never stopped flowing from my tap and feels like a basic birthright.
Water scarcity is a complicated topic in much of Africa. Americans might assume there just isn't enough water for the population, but in many countries, like Ethiopia, that isn't necessarily true, and water issues here are discussed much more in terms of management, sanitation and equal access than a lack of natural resources. Addis Ababa-based Water Action and other water-related NGOs insist there are a number of ways that adequate clean water could reach rural residents in Ethiopia, if the building of infrastructure and sanitation systems were prioritized by international projects and local and federal governments.
Photo: Alex Stonehill
Unfortunately for Dillo and other semi-arid climates in eastern Africa, water scarcity may also be connected to an ominous global phenomenon that its citizens are not yet aware of.
"I have personally noticed the temperatures here rising steadily for the past seven years," said Dima Anna, assistant administrator to the region that includes Dillo. "We don't get enough water anymore. Last year we had half the rain we need."
Climate change is a controversial topic familiar to anyone in the United States who has picked up a magazine, newspaper or remote control in the past few years. The potential scope and consequences of this phenomenon are bound to be the center of — forgive me — heated debate in wealthy countries in the coming years. But as we argue about the potential causes and solutions for climate change, alarming news is emerging from the scientific and development communities, especially those focused on the most impoverished regions of the world.
The regional report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last year warned that the continued increase of greenhouse gases could put an additional 1.8 billion more people in Africa at risk of water stress by the end of the century. It seems the emissions of rich countries' cars and industries may have made a strange and scientifically circuitous journey thousands of miles from their source to poorer and more vulnerable destinations. "
Africans, who make up about 13 percent of the world's population, are estimated to contribute only 3.8 percent of total greenhouse gasses. No one I spoke to in Dillo had ever heard of climate change. They weren't aware that, according to the 2006 United Nations country team in Ethiopia, rising surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, when met with changes in atmospheric pressure across the Pacific basin, may very well affect the length and reliability of their rainy season thousands of miles away. I certainly didn't want to be the one to tell them about the report's conclusion, which darkly stated, "5 strategies for action must be developed to cope with a future in which excessive dry periods become an increasingly normal facet of Ethiopian life."
What Fadi and the other residents of Dillo did know was that, while some regions of Ethiopia have been experiencing strong harvests, their rains had not fallen properly in years. The women of Dillo I walked with that morning knew that last year's rainy season was cut from three months to one and a half, and that their usual sources of water were no longer lasting through the long dry season. The children I walked with knew that their schools were closing for lack of water.
Looking at the paltry, shallow spring at the bottom of the crater was all the convincing I needed. There were faint rings in the rock above the waterline to prove the higher levels it had once boasted. Dipping my fingers in the green water left them feeling sort of soapy; the water tasted vaguely salted. Hundreds of women and countless cattle use this as their primary source of water every day.
The view from below the crater was as terrifying as the view from above was stunning. Orange light was just breaking over the rim of the curved cliffs. Though the sun still seemed distant, an oily ominous heat was already collecting in my clothes. As Fadi helped me strap the now-full jug to my stooped back with animal sinew rope, I squinted upward. The top seemed impossibly far away.
I headed back, a big, sweaty, strangely dressed faranji (white foreigner) in a line of bemused Ethiopian women and girls. Taking one heavy step after another, I thought of another disturbing comment from last year's IPCC conference. Stephen Schneider, a Stanford University scientist and co-author of the report, tried to sum up the findings for reporters:
"Don't be poor in a hot country, don't live in hurricane alley, watch out about being on the coasts or in the Arctic, and it's a bad idea to be on high mountains with glaciers melting."
Photo: Alex Stonehill
Struggling up the hill, I thought about how ironic it is that a people whose entire lifestyle is defined by the limits of very scant resources may already be feeling the effects of the excesses of societies they will never see, people they will never meet. I thought about Fadi and her hope for a full season of rain. I thought of her two young daughters who will soon be expected to make this walk at her side. Then I stopped thinking entirely because I felt like I was going to fall over from exhaustion. Neither the reports I'd read, nor the people I'd interviewed about water-walking had ever mentioned how brutally hard the physical act is.
Well, my colleague Ernest had: "Twenty-five liters is a lot of weight — you'll have to carry it on your back or on your head and it's incredibly hard, very demanding," he had warned. But I didn't really think about it — that is, until the ropes were rubbing silver-dollar-size blisters on my shoulders, and I was crawling uphill under the weight of six gallons of water beneath a rising sun.
At the halfway mark his words, "Sarah, you won't make it," began running circles in my conscience. That I did make it was absolutely no testament to willpower, physical strength or determination. I don't have any more than your fair-to-middling share of those qualities. It was entirely shame that propelled me slowly up out of that crater — the shame of thinking that I was able to give up, because I could, when the barely teenage girl whose small footsteps I was following in had no choice.
After we'd pulled ourselves up out of the last steep, narrow switchback and crested over the ridge, and after I'd let out an embarrassing shout of relief, to the exhausted hilarity of my fellow walkers, Fadi and I headed back to her hut.
Finally home, she pulled the barrel off her bent back and then helped me with mine. We sat down on smooth, handmade wooden stools and shared some of my stores of bottled water. Once my breath finally caught up with me, I asked Fadi how life would change if the water situation in Dillo were improved.
Water is everything, she told me, fervently explaining its relation to everything from tea and cattle to bathing, health and sanitation.
"But how would your life be improved if you had better water?" I pressed.
"Of course this would be a really positive change for us," she said, looking at me sideways, unsure how it could be my job to travel great distances only to ask the most obvious questions imaginable. "We want to do so many things, so many things that we can't do because of water."
This article originally appeared in the Seattle Post- Intelligencer and was also published in the SGI Quarterly and Berkeley's International Affairs Journal. Multimedia originally appeared on 1h2o.org. Radio story originally aired on the World Vision Report and has also been aired on 51% The Women's Perspective, , Listen Up! Northwest, and more!
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