A renovated water pump connecting families during the displacement crisis in Ethiopia
After navigating our way along the stony route from Yirgacheffe, our off-road vehicle finally arrives at our destination, the small village of Gerbota in the Gedeo zone in Southern Ethiopia. One of very few cars to pass by this way, we immediately attract the attention of the locals on the roadside.
Up until last spring, life in this village close to Yirgacheffe was calm, uneventful even. But 10 months ago everything changed, as 55-year-old village chief Teferra Deyasu tells us. “Large numbers of displaced people started arriving here in April last year. We could see they had suffered, so we offered them clothes, food and took care of them.” That day would mark the beginning of the humanitarian crisis in the Gedeo zone.
As a result of ethnic violence, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes, escaping to nearest safety. Some ended up in camps for displaced people known as collective centres, while others sought refuge in host communities such as Gerbota. A total of 4,800 newly displaced people arrived in this kebele, a neighbourhood of originally 10,000 inhabitants. “Those who had families decided to stay here. Luckily, we had some empty and spare houses,” Teferra explains.
Intriguingly, one of the displaced, forty-year-old Germai Ayele is originally from Gerbota, where his parents still live. “Years ago, I moved to a village 70 kilometres away because of work. All of my eleven children were born there,” says Germai. That village was Intu Ambela, where he worked for a small business, collecting leather from local communities.
Two days on foot with their one-year-old baby
That day in April, Germai will never forget. “It was market day and I was at work. Suddenly it all started. Armed men entered the house and took everything,” he says. With his family’s safety foremost in mind, he was left with only one option. They had to escape. “We didn’t have a car so we had to walk. It was difficult. Our youngest child is only one year old. We needed to reach Chorso first, which took us two days. From there we continued by car,” he adds.
According to Germai, thousands of people fled their homes, all scattering to different places. “There are camps for displaced people around here but there are eleven of us. Those camps usually have problems with water so I thought the best option was to stay with my parents,” Germai explains, while also noting the warm welcome they received from the community in Gerbota.
We welcomed seven people into our home
Thirty-six-year-old Amarech Bekete remembers when the displaced first arrived in Gerbota. “I tried to do everything I could for them. We welcomed seven people into our home, gave them clothes and fed them. They stayed with us for 6 months,” she says. But the villagers soon discovered that with this new influx of people also came increased pressure on vital resources. Food prices started to increase and then, two years ago, Gerbota lost its principle source of drinking water.
Amarech remembers the difficult situation they were thrust into: “It was a major problem. The village leaders collected money to repair it, but it couldn’t be fixed. So everyone had to send their children to the nearest water source, a 15-minute walk from here,” says Amarech. Her family uses around 25 litres of drinking water a day mainly for cooking and drinking, which means they had to collect water twice a week. For personal hygiene and washing clothes, they use another water source.
Amarech describes how existing problems were exacerbated even more given the increase in population: “Although the children from the displaced families did help us bring water home, the queues for collection became much longer. Before we only had to wait half an hour, but with the increase in numbers we found ourselves waiting over an hour.”
A rehabilitated water source = shorter queues and more time at school
People in Need joined forces with the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), UN OCHA and local authorities to invest in a costly rehabilitation of the village’s main water source. It took only a few weeks to complete the work, for which Amarech is very grateful. “Having the water source back up and running again is a great help. My children now have more time to go to school, play football and collect firewood,” she says.
According to the village leaders, the queues only last about 5 minutes now, with the majority of households located only a few minutes from the nearest source of potable water. The village members also established a Water Management Committee, which maintains the water source. “We’ve built a fence around the water pump to protect it from animals and children. We’ve also agreed to collect 5 birr from each household every month to make sure we have the resources to do any repairs in case the pump gets broken again,” says 42-year-old Getahun Uraqo, the newly elected chair of the committee. Every day, one of the seven committee members is tasked with supervising the pump.
“I hope this new system of collecting money will help us maintain the water source and repair it if needed,” says Amarech.
I never want my family to have to go through that again
With the displacement crisis in the area far from over, the renovation of the water source has come just in time. Teferra speaks about the challenges they face: “Some of the people have returned home, but others have stayed. And although they help us with farming and construction, we support them a lot more than they support us.” While the village leader points to the tense relationship with those who’ve been uprooted, he nevertheless admits that the renovated pump has eased the pressure on access to water.
For Germai, he dreams of returning home and even went back to assess the situation. But as he tells us, the reasons for returning are far outweighed by those for remaining: “We’ll stay here for now. Besides we can’t get any food there, I wouldn’t be able to carry on with my business and I don’t have enough money. Escaping was so difficult. I never want my family to have to go through that again.”
In the meantime he tries to live a normal life. Somehow they’ve all managed to squeeze into his parents’ house. “Six of my children are already attending school here but I haven’t found a job yet. I help people out in the village whenever I can. If I see someone working I’ll always lend a hand. The only thing is I don’t have any money to show for it,” says Germai.
Luckily, Germai has found one modest source of income by helping his neighbours bake and sell bread. “Now I have at least some money and can feed my children.” He also welcomes the village’s new water source: “I’m very happy about the new water pump. Even in the place we lived before there were a lot of droughts so we never really had access to clean water. Whereas here it’s just a few steps from our house.”
Aid for thousands of people
Even 10 months on from the height of the displacement crisis, the situation in the Gedeo zone remains difficult. People in Need together with the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), UN OCHA, Lutheran World Relief, UNICEF and local authorities such as the Woreda Water Office have worked to renovate water sources, desludge latrines and construct new toilets, while organising the distribution of humanitarian aid, including dignity and shelter kits, to thousands of the most vulnerable people.
After spending the whole afternoon in the village, we return to our off-roader to make the trip back to Yirgacheffe. Everyone waves to us from around the water pump – a new-found connection between those with homes and the displaced people they’ve embraced.