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Agony as Ethiopians Spend Days in Long Queues to Get Water: Catholic Charity

Tigrayan Highlands in northern Ethiopia/ Credit:Trocaire

Residents of various parts of Ethiopia are trekking for miles and spending days in long queues to get water far away from home, a Catholic charity has reported.

In a Friday, June 17 report, the leadership of Trócaire, the overseas development agency of the Catholic Bishops of Ireland, expresses concern that those adversely affected by drought and water shortage in the horn of Africa are also suffering from mental challenges owing to the shortage of water and their futile search for the precious commodity.

The organization details the experience of Abba Tesfalem, a 58-year-old Ethiopian Orthodox Priest who lives in Tigray, the northern Ethiopia region that has been besieged by armed conflict since November last year.

“When you don’t have water, all you think about is water. When you queue for water, all you think about is the water you hope to get. You worry that you won’t get water. It plays on our mind, it’s like a sickness. We all feel this way here. It’s a very difficult situation to think only of water,” Abba Tesfalem tells Trócaire.

Trócaire explains, in reference to the experience of the Orthodox Priest and others interviewed, “The lack of water in the region is having a severe psychological impact on locals in Ethiopia like Abba Tesfalem and his family.”

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Abba Tesfalem narrates the rough ordeal of spending days on the road in search of water, spending more time at the well and going back home empty handed, and says that the experience is having a toll on the people who continually search for water and do not have any time left to do other jobs.

“There is a hand pump not far from here, so we use donkeys, and we send our children there to get water or we go ourselves. Then we bring the water,” the Tigray resident says.

He adds, “When the well dries up, there is a water supply system in the sub-district which is miles from here. There, we wait for days for water. If the water has run out in between, we go to that hand pump.”

In a message on the World Desertification and Drought Day celebrated on June 17, the leadership of Trócaire reports that Ethiopia is experiencing its worst hunger crisis in 20 years.

According to the 47-year-old Catholic aid agency, severe drought and the impact of global climate change are intensifying the already worrying situation in the Horn of Africa country every day.

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Abba Tesfalem tells Trócaire that when he was a child, his community was smaller, and rain came at fixed times.

The family used to easily grow crops like wheat and chillies because they knew when the rains would come and when to plant.

Now drought and climate change has changed this, the Orthodox Cleric tells Trócaire, adding that rain is sporadic and that “planting crops isn’t an option.”

“The climate and environment are totally different now. We could predict when it would rain back in the past. Back then it was very fertile: we had agriculture and education. You can’t compare it now,” Abba Tesfalem explains.

He adds, “When there is a drought, a lot of people will go to the water supply system. Sometimes, we have to wait a long, long time, sometimes a week. There was a time in March when there was nothing. There wasn’t enough to buy food from the market. The only option was to take a loan and to survive by buying bread.”

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“I really struggle. I worry for my children and family. I have to put food on the table. I don’t want my family to pass a day without food. Every day I have to work to provide food for the family. That’s what I do, I don’t have time for other things apart from this,” Abba Tesfalem recounts in the June 17 Trócaire report.

According to the Catholic charity, Africa is the most vulnerable place in the world to global climate change.

In Ethiopia, the charity details experiences of people whose battle for survival and the search for drinking water has become their primary job.

As drought worsens across Ethiopia, collecting water is the main task of the day for 23-year-old Abdellah from the Afar region of Ethiopia, the organization reports.

In the Afar region, people who are desperate to get water are forced to drink the water that has been contaminated by animal urine and fecal matter.

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“Afar is extremely hot, the water is dirty, contaminated by monkey urine and the trek to collect it is horrendous,” Trócaire reports, adding, “Afar townspeople like Abdellah who are surviving on little, if not nothing, find it a challenging journey to navigate in the extreme heat and with no sustenance.”

Abdellah tells the organization that the journey for water is long, and explains, “We have to leave early from the village while it is still dark. We walk through the riverbed, then climb the mountains, then go down into a valley, then climb another mountain a little way to finally get to the water. That is the journey.”

“We drink water that monkeys go to the toilet in. It’s bad water. It makes us sick. You can see the animal dung at the other points of the journey. Monkeys and hyenas have been there,” Abdellah says.

Abdellah is acutely aware of the struggle he is faced with every day. It is not something he is just used to and without help or support his situation won’t improve.

He says that without water, it is difficult for many people to get jobs and for children to go to school. Instead of going to school, children are sent on long trips to search for water, he says.

“I don’t have any more words to express how hard it is,” Abdellah tells the charity organization, and adds, “I find it hard collecting water like this every day. I collect so little, then what I do get is not good. It has made us sick. What we need most and what we ask for is water.”

Ethiopia has already endured 10 major droughts since 1980, Trócaire reports, adding that for the past four decades, the average annual temperature in Ethiopia has been increasing by 0.37 degrees C per decade, with the majority of warming occurring during the second half of the 1990s.

The Catholic entity also reports that 85 percent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and most rely on subsistence farming for survival.

“With increasing changes to the climate, Ethiopians are struggling to farm. The drought is worsening, and people are going days without food and water,” Trócaire reports.

This year’s Desertification and Drought Day will focus on turning degraded land into healthy land.

Information on the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to announce the celebration reads, “Restoring degraded land brings economic resilience, creates jobs, raises incomes and increases food security. It helps biodiversity to recover. It locks away the atmospheric carbon warming the Earth, slowing climate change.”

Restoring degraded land, according to UNCCD, can also lessen the impacts of climate change and underpin a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.