Water collection

It takes a village

22 March 2021



Water is at the heart of everything we do. So too is a deep belief in giving back to society, which means thinking globally as well as locally. For these reasons, we’re proud to support Water for a Village: a Tasmanian not-for-profit organisation that improves access to clean drinking water in Ethiopia. Read their inspiring story here, and learn more about how you can get involved.

 

In the East African country of Ethiopia, an estimated 62 million people live without access to safe drinking water. It’s an alarming situation, with enormous repercussions for the predominantly rural population.

 

When a community can only access dirty water – water which is shared with native wildlife and often contaminated with faecal matter – the inevitable result is widespread disease and many thousands of preventable deaths each year. Children become sick and are unable to attend school, making it even harder to break the poverty cycle.

 

High in the Simien Mountains, 3500 metres above sea level

 

Villagers can walk for miles to fetch fresh water

 

In the Simien Mountains of Northern Ethiopia, a small Tasmanian charity called Water for a Village is trying to improve outcomes for local villagers by making access to clean water a reality… and they’re doing it one well at a time.

 

The story of Water for a Village began in 2014, when health worker Catherine Wheatley was hiking in the Simien Mountains and was shocked into action by what she saw.

 

"It’s very hard to describe,” says Catherine. “There’s just nothing. No infrastructure at all. No roads, no money, no electricity, no sanitation, no phones, no jobs, not enough to eat. Along with all the gut diseases people develop because of the contaminated water, a lot of the children have terrible skin problems. So much of that could be helped by basic hand hygiene – but how can you tell people to wash when they have no access to clean water?” 

 

After ten days in the mountains, Catherine asked her guide if there was anything she could do to help. He brokered conversations with nearby villagers, and the answer to her question was: water. Along with her husband Peter, Catherine immediately made the decision to fund the installation of a well. 

 

Checking locations for new clean water sites

 

The team assisting Christina

 

“For the very first well, we picked a village at random,” says Catherine. “We had to start somewhere. It was up in the Highlands, about 3500m above sea level, and the construction took place during Lent, when the villagers were fasting until late in the day. But even in those circumstances, the village men got stuck in to dig a 7 x 1.5 metre hole using one shovel and one bucket, and it only took a day and a half. 

 

Construction starts for a new clean water source

 

Construction of a new well, with support from Water for a Village

 

Building a well

 

There was so much appreciation for it. Very quickly, we started to hear that the kids weren’t getting as sick. They were putting on weight and starting to go back to school.”

 

A little girl getting clean at the new well installation at her village

 

Good news travels fast in Tasmania, and it soon became clear that the Wheatleys weren’t going to be able to stop at just one well. Within a few weeks of Catherine’s return from Ethiopia, she started to attract funding from a range of sources.

 

“People’s generosity was overwhelming, and we ended up with $30k in a few weeks,” says Catherine. “It included a donation from a school, which was the point when Peter and I decided to formalise what we were doing as a charity, so there would be accountability and transparency.”

 

With that, Water for a Village was born.

 

Catherine has returned to Ethiopia every year since 2014, and in that time the organisation has funded 56 wells across 51 villages, providing 18,000 people with the clean, fresh water they require.

 

The positive impact of those wells has been significant. The actual method of collecting water is now much faster - women and children no longer have to walk for several hours to find a water source, which frees up time for other activities. Crucially, because the water is so much cleaner, children are losing far fewer school days due to sickness. 

 

Woman sitting in kitchen cooking

 

Catherine notes that the process for building wells has also improved since they first established Water for a Village.

 

“We have a Memorandum of Understanding with the municipal council, which we re-sign every 12 months,” she says. “Every time I visit, the managers keep me updated on the changes they’ve seen in the communities. When it comes to planning new infrastructure, I work closely with the council’s senior water officer, and together we discuss with the local people where the best well sites might be. We take into account flood protection, fences, termite protection… then we use a local contractor who hires men from the villages to work on the construction. It’s a very collaborative process.”

 

Most years, Catherine visits Ethiopia between January and June, and is able to fit in two cycles of building in with the local contractors. Last year, due to the COVID pandemic, only one round of building was possible. But even though that trip was cut short it was a special one because she was accompanied by Peter for the first time.

 

“He was quite gobsmacked,” she laughs. “It was definitely outside his comfort zone, but at the same time he was blown away seeing how much we have achieved and what incredibly strong relationships we have built up.

 

Haybad and Christina

 

It’s those longstanding relationships that are allowing Water for a Village to continue their work even with the challenging backdrop of the pandemic. Travel restrictions mean that Catherine is still unable to return to Ethiopia, but through a trusted contact there, Yalew, work should be starting on a round of construction projects in the next few weeks.

 

“It’s been a tough year,” Catherine admits. “We scaled back our asks over the COVID period, because it felt like people had enough to think about. We continued to send out newsletters to our supporters, but we removed the donation requests. It’s even been tricky coming up with content for the Facebook page, because we haven’t been able to share any on-the-ground updates.”

 

Until travel opens up again, Catherine and Peter are doing what they can from Australia, and they would love to see new supporters join their village. Sharing posts on social media, signing up to the Water for a Village newsletter, or making a donation are all things that can help.

 

“It’s only about $5k of infrastructure that is required for each well,” Catherine says. “It’s so little in relative terms, and yet it’s both lifechanging and lifesaving. Even if we only do four wells this year, that’s still another 1200 people we’re helping.”

 

It’s clear that Catherine and Peter’s drive to help the people – of Ethiopia is every bit as strong as it was back in 2014 – and the need for that help is still there.

 

“In Tasmania, we use drinking quality water for our gardens, our cars and our clothes,” Catherine notes. “We even hose down our driveways with it. It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to do that, it’s that everyone should. Everyone should be able to take clean, fresh water for granted.”

 

 

 

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