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Could you survive on 13 liters of water a day?

December 4, 2009

Elizabeth McKee Gore, the UN Foundation’s executive director of global partnerships, just wrapped up an extensive trip to Ethiopia, which brought her from rural villages to urban centers to everywhere in between. And while it’s hard to re-create such a dynamic trip in words, Elizabeth is doing exactly that with a blog series on her incredible experiences.

Elizabeth’s on-the-ground stories capture just how far the work of the UN Foundation and its UN partners reaches, whether in health or education, refugees or adolescent girls, peacekeeping or clean water. Take a minute to read these posts, and learn how the United Nations Foundation is creating a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world. (Read the sixth post here.)



UNF Ethiopia Blog 7 Water soi 200x200

Driving to the Mai-Aini UNHCR refugee camp, two things struck me: the beautiful but barren mountains, and the dozens of broken-down tanks left behind from war. A young interpreter from Axum shared with me his theory that water is the reason for war.

He explained to me that water was cut off as a way to kill families or displace them. Now a UNHCR worker described this area as “not at war, but not quite at peace,” and water remains to be an issue.

In the camp of Mai-Aini, we met with multiple leaders from different cultural units within the camp. It was clear that water was on the top of everyone’s minds. Members of the camp are living with as little as thirteen liters a day for drinking, bathing, and washing.

To put this in context, Americans use 300 liters of water a day. UNHCR has a goal to provide at minimum 20 liters a day and hopes for at least 35 liters.

Mulugaba Lemma is the head of the water system in Mai-Aini. He tracked me down in the camp when he heard I was asking questions about water.

He explained that the ground in this area is unusually hard and almost impossible to dig wells to access the water. For the current thirteen liters a day, they devised a system to pull water off a mountain top where a water source was found and pipe it 12 kilometers to camp, where it is distributed from three taps.

Because the ground is so hard, the pipe cannot be buried. Instead, it lies above the ground all the way from the top of the mountain, leaving it exposed to elements that can burst the pipe. It also needs to be monitored at all times. Refugees and paid workers walk the pipe every day to ensure their single source of water stays safe.

This is not just a refugee issue, but a countrywide issue. All water systems put in place by UNHCR are for both refugees and Ethiopian host nationals.

In the entire country of Ethiopia, the average woman walks six hours a day for water. They carry containers that can weigh up to 40 kilos. This activity often keeps girls from attending school because they have to fetch water for their family.

From every vantage point, you can see women and children carrying water in either plastic jugs or clay pots. And if you are seen drinking out of a plastic water bottle, you will have twenty kids following you begging for your empty bottle.

I like to believe that with enough resources and assistance, the appropriate tools and engineering can tap into new water sources. In Shimelba camp, an older camp established when more resources were available, there are enough boreholes, wells, and water systems in place to provide 35 liters per person per day to both refugees and the surrounding Ethiopian communities.

To provide more clean water to the world, please visit Summit on the Summit.