ETHIOPIA: Great trek for water in the south.

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(IRIN) – For many people, access to water is a mere turn of the tap away; for Abdha Aso, a 20-year-old mother of five, it involves a four-hour round trip to a muddy pond. Only a year ago, she could reach a nearby stream in 20 minutes but it has since dried up.

The rains, which usually fall twice a year – between October and November and February and May – in the Borena zone in southern Ethiopia failed last year and this.

IRIN accompanied Abdha on one of her daily journeys. “Are you sure you will be able to do it? The road is difficult,” she says. With quick instructions to her mother-in-law on feeding her five-month-old baby, we set off in the afternoon sun. Nasibo, 10, a neighbour’s daughter, joins us.

I ask about safety. “We always travel in groups – never alone and you will see we will meet a lot of women on this road,” Abdha replies.

Four girls, aged between eight and 11, are ahead of us, carrying piles of firewood almost as big as themselves on their backs.

Nadifu Konso, 10, speaks for the group. They are fetching firewood for their mothers. Some will be sold and rest used at home. “This is very heavy,” says Nadifu.

The drought has been bad, they say. Their fathers lost all their animals. “We are now helping our mother – we do what she tells us to do,” says Nadifu. Their brothers are playing at home. “They do nothing.” The girls speak good English as they live near the Kenyan border and have Kenyan teachers. But as a sign that all hope is not lost in the desolate arid landscape, Nadifu says, “I want to be a pilot when I grow big.”

We bid goodbye to the girls and continue on our journey. The arid landscape turns grimmer. Abdha points out cattle carcasses along the path. He husband lost the only two animals he owned in the past three months. “It was everything we had, now we have nothing.” They buy food on credit from shops in the neighbouring town of Moyale on the Kenyan border.

No, we are not thirsty – we are used to drinking little“We don’t know what will become of us,” she says. Her husband collects and sells wood used for constructing houses and makes some money now and then, she says. The money goes towards paying the food debt but she does not know if her husband will ever be able to repay the whole amount.

Even if it rains late or the rains in October arrive on time, her husband, an agro-pastoralist, will not be able to till his land without his animals.

Pond life

The pond has shrunk quite considerably, Abdha says. Skinny cows graze on the sparse vegetation along the bank. Vegetables planted by the neighbouring communities hug the pond, providing a bit of green in the dirt. One of the community members says if it were not for the vegetable patch, his family would have no food. “We lost all our animals.”

Abdha fills up her container with muddy water, heaves it on to her back and we set off for the two-hour journey back to her village. As I gulp water from my bottle, neither Abdha nor Nasibo feels the need to take a sip. “No, we are not thirsty – we are used to drinking little.”

Abdha drops the container with her mother-in-law. “I was collecting this time for her,” she explains. It was her second trip to the pond that day but she still had the energy to breastfeed her child.

Quality concerns

Ethiopian officials said they were concerned about the quality of water being consumed by the people in the pastoral areas and have provided village officials with water purification chemicals. But resources are limited and not all villages would have had access. During the peak of the drought the government deployed 210 water trucks in Oromiya.

But the escalating price of trucking water, rapidly shrinking water sources and poor roads have affected services, said the government in its Revised Humanitarian Requirements Document.

In the first half of 2011, about 50 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported in parts of Oromiya, according to the document. Concerns about a major outbreak because of inadequate supplies of safe water and poor hygiene remain.

Local authorities also point out that with no rains in sight, even the pond Abdha uses will be dry by October.

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