Picture of ruins

Water - Clean Gold by Rikki Patterson

Posted Jun 22, 2017

My skin radiated the sun's heat and dust billowed around my feet as I trudged up the hill. My GPS indicated that I had gone maybe 200 meters, all upward. My mouth was dry and my back was damp. I was hiking to see a capped spring. I had no idea what it looked like.

"How far is it?" I called.

"Fifteen minutes," said our guide, his white teeth contrasting his dark face. He was more than 10 meters above me, and his skin was still dry, unlike mine. I became aware of local people, mostly children, following us. They emerged from huts and garden patches, two or three at a time, and skipped along beside us.

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Twenty minutes later, I stopped to catch my breath. I took several sips of my now warm water, from the bottle I had stashed in my pack at breakfast. I was at a high spot overlooking the valley our guide had called the catchment area for the Tsayte water project. Hope International had completed this project just over a year ago, and this valley was home to the recipients of the water from the capped spring I was about to see.

Round thatch huts, believed to be cooler than huts with corners, dotted the landscape. Interspersed among the huts were rectangular buildings with dried cow-dung walls and metal roofs that glinted in the sunlight. The metal roofs must heat up those buildings like saunas, I thought. On the other hand, the thatch, though cooler, would be infested with disease bearing insects, and the roof would need replacing at least once every rainy season. A patchwork of farm land grew false banana plants, cabbage and other crops I couldn't identify, while lines of water-guzzling eucalyptus trees defined property boundaries. Higher peaks of the Ethiopian Highlands surrounded me, their hillsides also sprinkled with huts and farmland.

I had fallen behind my group so I strutted up the trail with renewed effort. Forty minutes into our “15-minute hike,” we arrived at a rectangular concrete and stone structure surrounded by the same stick fencing that encircled the reservoir I had seen below. So this was what a capped spring looks like, I thought.

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Surrounding the base of the capped spring were villagers; the men wore shorts or pants and t-shirts and the women, sporting brightly coloured head scarves, wore calf length skirts and short-sleeved tops. Their western-styled clothes likely came from church donations and were probably purchased in the local market for pennies. But for locals those pennies would be several days' wages.

I noticed their tightly curled, dark hair was worn short on the men and in braids or cornrows on the women. But most noticeable was that nearly everyone wore shoes — plastic flip-flops or flat, slip-ons. Only half a dozen or so were barefoot.

I had also expected to see a lot of skin problems, deformities, and infections but there were none. I saw just three children with round, bloated bellies, which indicated either malnutrition or a chronic waterborne disease.

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I held my camera up for a group of children to see, and questioned "picture?" They stood silent, eyes wide and with quizzical looks on their faces. "Photo?" I repeated. Smiles lit up their faces and I lifted my camera for the shot as they posed for me. One of the girls put her arm around another and looked directly into the camera.

I snapped a quick photo and crouched down in the brittle grass. I flicked on the display screen and pointed. Fits of giggles and bursts of laughter erupted as they huddled over the camera, each taking a turn to point and spot them selves.

Eager to learn more about this project, I joined my co-workers and our guide just a few steps from the spring’s two out-spouts that allowed some water to flow downstream. Hope International's engineers had designed this structure to contain the water at its source and prevent it from travelling along the ground where it would become contaminated with bacteria that cause diseases such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and dysentery.

Another parasite, Schistosomiasis, is carried by fresh-water snails and also found in water. This parasite causes abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, intestinal damage, and if left untreated, kidney and liver failure, bladder cancer, and death.

As I listened to our guide, I watched a girl carrying a yellow plastic jerry can, approach the open pipes. Her hair was braided into tidy cornrows, and she wore a tattered, yellow short-sleeved top, a grey and pink skirt and blue, plastic slip-on shoes. She couldn't have been any older than 12. She crouched down, filled her container with the flowing water and then, standing erect, proudly lifted it to her shoulder. To her right stood a man with a lightly wrinkled face and a dark goatee also filling a container. He lifted his half-filled jerry can up to his mouth and took several big gulps before replacing it at the pipe.

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The capped spring that I was seeing is gravity-fed and supplies water to 31 collection stations and 29 washbasins located in five surrounding villages, which in turn services sixty-three hundred people with uncontaminated water.

I noticed a metal pipe protruding from the bottom of the structure and the guide said that it carried water downhill to the reservoir. Two other open-ended pipes extended only a few meters beyond the edge of the structure and the guide explained that some water flowed down to the farms for the animals and for irrigation. Our guide explained that locals had requested this additional feature.

Hope International, once committed to a project, involve the locals so they can learn building skills and more importantly, how to maintain and protect their water supply. Once on site, Hope solicited as many able-bodied people from the village to carry the concrete, rocks, gravel, rebar and pipe up that same hill I had just climbed. Their packhorses and donkeys also laboured.

Once the materials were at the spring, the villagers had to build the structure to protect the water. With locally made hand tools, they built forms for the concrete, hand mixed and poured that concrete and when needed, they used the concrete as mortar for the stonework. They then dug the 15 kilometers of trenches needed for laying the pipes that would carry the water to its many destinations.

It was hard work under the scorching sun to get water, uncontaminated water, safe water for everyone from donkey to the old blind man sitting in the shade. But as I watched I knew this work had been worth it.