After Lori Pappas first arrived in the Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia three years ago, the first thing she did was conduct a survey of working water wells in the area.
“We found that 129 wells had been installed in the past decade. And less than 10 of them were still working,” said Pappas, a former software engineer who founded the relief organization Global Team for Local Initiatives (GTLI).
“These other organizations put in wells, but they don’t build the capacity of people to fix wells or train them to earn money to afford to buy the spare parts,” she said.
That’s exactly what Pappas and GTLI are seeking to change in Ethiopia. Over the last decade, the Ethiopian government has pushed to improve access to potable water in the country of 91 million.
The result has been a remarkable increase in access to clean water — from less than 20 percent of the population in 2000 to 68.5 percent today, according to a recent government report. However, clean water is still a rarity in many of the country’s remote areas.
In the Omo River Valley, for example, where 46,500 once-nomadic Hamar face inhospitable terrain and the effects of climate change, women and girls often devote several hours each day to collecting water. The nearest well is typically a deep hole in a seasonal riverbed, but this water is often polluted with fecal matter.
As a result, 92 percent of Hamar living in the remote villages of Itu and Galcide — the area in which GTLI has concentrated its efforts — are infected with preventable waterborne and communicable diseases, according to GTLI’s baseline survey.
Grant Meiner of the Nor’wester Rotary Club in Port Angeles, Washington, which has been instrumental in funding GTLI, alongside the U.S. Agency for International Development and a host of private donors, doesn’t mince words about the urgency of the situation.
“This is a tribe of people who need help, desperately and immediately. They’ve been forced to remain sedentary and haven’t been able to cope. It’s ended in the loss of lives and could possibly lead to … [their] extinction,” Meiner said.
But how do you effect a change in behavior among a people who have practiced the same customs as their ancestors for centuries — ones that feel comfortable, practical and right?
Finding those answers has been the driving force behind GTLI’s work.
“GTLI understands how difficult our culture is, how many responsibilities we elders have and how important it is for us to respect what our ancestors taught us to do,” Hamar elder Bali Sudu said of the partnership that has developed between GTLI and the community.
While they’ve managed to install three wells to date, the most important part of the process is engaging the Hamar, says GTLI Executive Director Robin Simons. Seminars on improving hygiene and sanitation practices, conducted by community members trained by GTLI, help ensure that the wells continue to operate safely.
“The most critical part of the project is not the wells, but the sanitation and hygiene training. Putting in a well does not provide sustainable clean water. The wells break, the water becomes polluted,” Simons said. The key to sustainability, Simons added, is a community engaged in protecting its own health.
And the organization, which has been working in the area since 2009, has been able to observe behavior change in the communities it serves.
Hamar businesswoman Ama Oita said that because GTLI has worked together with the community and not simply imposed its own traditions, “the [Hamar] will do what GTLI says is OK to do.”
“They’ve been very responsive to us because we’ve spent a long time on the ground here gaining their trust and working with their elders. Many times, organizations come in and pay these people to learn. We don’t do that,” Pappas said. “We teach them to help themselves.”