DOGE LAROSO, Ethiopia—The child simply couldn’t get well. He was just over three years old, and his mother had taken him to every health clinic she could find, but for nearly a year, he hadn’t been able to shake the dysentery. He was malnourished, often dehydrated, sometimes curled in pain.
There were many bad nights and hard days, but worst was when he would cry heartbreakingly for something to drink, until his mother relented and gave him water. She dreaded that because she knew the water she gave him from her own hand to quench his thirst might be keeping him sick despite the medicine the clinics doled out. It came from the same polluted, 4.5-mile-long Bara River—more a creek than a river—that had made him sick in the first place.
There were times when “he was really so ill that I felt my day had come. I was going to lose the boy,” says 28-year-old Amarech Mana, the mother of four, who lives in Doge Laroso, a remote village about 235 miles southwest of Addis Adaba.
She holds her son Abebayehu in her arms as she talks. At age five, he is finally healthy, and she is sure he will stay that way because her village is now served by a clean water supply project carried out by Concern Worldwide that serves more than 1,000 households in this area.
The project, begun last year and still in its final stages, brings water from a spring about four miles up in the highlands. Concern developed the spring site to make it larger and then laid pipeline to six distribution points, each one to three miles apart.
Now the villagers crowd around the water pumps with their yellow plastic bottles, laughing and sharing news of their day. Concern also built a trough nearby for livestock, and a place to wash clothes. The water distribution site has become like a central square.
After Amarech speaks, other mothers crowd forward to tell similar stories of children sick with vomiting and diarrhea, malnourished and weak.
“We had to buy medicines—we had to help our children. But we didn’t have money for the medicines, so we borrowed and went into debt and it didn’t work—still they stayed sick,” said Tamanech Lema, who lost one of her two children.
“When I was a child, it was better,” says Adulu Gheta, a man of about 60 who has lived his entire life in Doge Larosa. “Not so many people were using the river and it wasn’t so dirty. But it has been like this for many recent years.”
Sometimes, when the rains didn’t come, the river ran dry and then villagers scratched in the dirt to try to find some water. But mostly they relied on the river, being used for a variety of purposes by other villages upstream.
“At one point, about three years ago, the level of water-borne illness in Doge Larosa reached epidemic proportions,” Gheta recalls. “The government sent in health workers and provided us with water chemical treatment kits. But it was not sustainable. Once the water treatment kits were gone, we didn’t get any more, so we were back in the same situation.”
Improved health is, of course, the main reason villagers are so grateful for the clean water supply. But it’s not the only reason. Amarech Ayeley, 12, is glad for the water spigots because she believes they have made her a better student.
Not only does she miss fewer school days for illness, but she used to spend an hour every morning before classes fetching the water, before she took off on the 35-minute walk to the school itself. “It had an impact on my studies,” she says, holding her books to her chest.
“I want to be a teacher someday,” she adds, her voice so quiet we must lean very close to hear, “because teachers have comprehensive knowledge—they know everything.” Now she believes she has a chance to accomplish that goal.