By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism, Park University

(Gondar, Ethiopia)-In the U.S., when you see a half glass of water on the counter, you might drift into a philosophical state as you ponder whether the glass if half full or half empty. Here in Gondar when you see the same glass, you inevitably ask yourself if that half glass of water is enough to flush a toilet, or wash out a pair of socks.

If you live in Gondar, you understand the chronic water problems here. Although it varies from week to week, in the 2.5 months I’ve lived in faculty housing at the University of Gondar, we’ve averaged two to three days per week without running water. The problem seems to be getting worse during the last month or so. This week, for example, the water was shut off early Sunday morning, came back on early Tuesday morning for about 12 hours or so, then was shut off again around dinnertime Tuesday evening. (I had just finished doing dishes when the faucet went dry). As of Wednesday morning*, I’m still without running water.

One university colleague I visited with about this said that our faculty apartments are actually privileged, and that we have “reliable” water compared to most Gondarians. In fact, he mentioned yesterday that he’d had no water for five days running at his house on the outskirts of town. Other discussions I’ve had confirmed this—that most in Gondar have it much worse than we do at the university.

Anticipating the shut-offs, Gondar residents always have plenty of water in storage. My colleague has a 200-liter container of water always filled at his house. I have about 20 two-liter bottles scattered around my apartment, and a jerry can (for flushing) that holds maybe 25 liters. During an average no-water day, I’ll use perhaps three 2-liter containers. I’ve grown adept at taking an ineffective, unsatisfying “2-liter shower.”

 My colleague said that the problem isn’t the supply of water, but instead that the water distribution system is inadequate and can’t meet the demands of a growing city. Thus, water is shut off on a rotating basis in town—sort of the aquatic equivalent of an electrical brownout. Gondar isn’t alone. According to USAID, “While Ethiopia has relatively abundant water resources, it is considered ‘water stressed’ due to rapid population growth over the last decade.”  (https://www.usaid.gov/ethiopia/water-and-sanitation)

While having no running water is certainly an annoyance to spoiled westerners like me, a look at water and sanitation statistics overall for Ethiopia provides a “count your blessings” moment. According to the Addis Standard newspaper, “Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of coverage for improved water and sanitation in the world:

  • Just over 54% of households have access to an improved source of drinking water, with a higher proportion among urban households (75%) and among rural households (49%)
    •  Among rural households 57 % lack  access to an improved sanitation facilities.
    •  Open defecation is the norm for 46% of Ethiopia’s population.
    •  According to Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) 2012 update, the proportion of the population having access to improved and unimproved sanitation facilities stands at 54 % (21% improved and 33 % unimproved).
    •  Nearly 39 million Ethiopians – most of them in rural areas–don’t have access to safe water.
  • Nearly 48 million lack access to basic sanitation.” (http://addisstandard.com/ethiopia-water-sanitation-and-hygiene-wash-facts/)

Given these statistics, I promise to be a little less whiny this morning as I step into the bathtub armed with only a 2-liter bottle of tepid water, and as I attempt to flush the morning’s “business” down my stinky toilet.

Since I have water, and a toilet, I consider my glass half full.

*UPDATE–It’s Friday morning, and the water is still off. My hair looks like a well worn, 20-year old shag carpet. My glass is still half full, though evaporation is taking its toll.

–Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn or on my Peace Journalism Insights blog.

Steven Youngblood

Steven Youngblood

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