Walking for Water: An Exhausting Job That Never Ends

By Sarah Stuteville

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DILLO, Ethiopia - “Just breathe,” I tell myself as I slowly shuffle up the dusty gravel path. “One breath with each step.” I have a muddy yellow plastic can strapped to my back. It is filled with water and weighs 50 pounds, close to a third as much as I weigh. It is hard for me to walk, but I am trying to follow the cracked plastic sandals in front of me.

For one day, I am doing what millions of poor women around the world do every day: I am carrying water. Their families need water. And the only way they can get it is to hoist it on to their backs or heads in cans and jugs and buckets. It is a never ending job that in many countries takes up more of the day than anything else the women do.

I’ve joined a group of women from this tiny desert village in southern Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world. The capital, Addis Ababa, a rapidly expanding city where steel and glass skyscrapers rise above acres of tin-roofed shanties, is 400 miles and 15 hours away by Land Cruiser over disintegrating asphalt and hard-packed dirt roads.

One girl in the group, 14 years old and wearing a patched purple dress, has fallen.  Several of us struggle to get her back on her feet. She is pinned down by the heavy can of water on her back.  Our own loads make it hard for us to lift her. The path is on a steep slope and our feet slip on the loose gravel.

Finally we get her to her feet. “Galatoma, galatoma—thank you, thank you,” she says in the Ethiopian language of Oromifa.

This is life for millions of women in poor countries.  They routinely walk four or five miles a day to get water. They go out light, with empty containers. But heading home, they are often hauling more than 40 pounds of water.

The women walk because they have no choice. They must have water. It will not come to them. The government will not bring it to them. They must walk for it.

Dillo, a raw, sun baked town with a few plain cement government buildings and clusters of one-room huts flanking a dirt main street, is just one of the many places in Ethiopia where simply getting a modest supply of water is a lot of work. According to the African Development Fund, 76 percent of Ethiopia’s 77 million people lack clean and easily accessible water.  Few places in the world are in worse shape.

The morning I joined the trek for water, dozens of women and children had set out from the center of town with empty jugs and cans.  At the edge of a crater overlooking Dillo’s only source of water, we stopped to catch our breath.  In the distance, we saw two small green pools of water framed by gleaming white salt flats.

Starting down the steep hillside, the only sounds were the dry crunching of our footsteps and the occasional hollow thump as another woman staggered and her plastic can banged into the wall of the narrow rock passage.

The view up from the foot of the crater was as terrifying as the view from above was stunning.  Orange light broke over the rim of the cliff.  An ominous heat collected around us and the top seemed impossibly far away.

Almost a decade of drought has left the region around Dillo desperate. The rains stalled again this year. Schools closed for lack of water. Government officials in the area talk about piping in water from a well 60 miles away.  But work on the project has yet to start.

Some of the women in Dillo say they think it will never happen. Fadi Jilo an elegant 30-year-old mother of three has been trekking for water here for 15 years.   “We have applied so many times for help, for them to provide us with a water system,” she said. “But nobody responds to us.” Sweat dripped from her forehead.   “They have promised us so many times,” she said, ” but they haven’t done anything.”  

—Travel for this reporting project was sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.  For related project materials, please visit: Water Wars: Ethiopia and Kenya.

On World Water Day, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer launched a series of articles on water scarcity in Ethiopia.  Visit Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the full series.  Visit World Vision Report for the radio story.


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