Mobile Communities in Ethiopia Seek Fixed Solutions to Their Water and Sanitation Challenges

In South Omo’s Bena Tsemay in Ethiopia, local women spend less time retrieving water and more time strengthening community bonds due to newly constructed water points facilitated by the local water bureau with Lowland WASH support. Photo credit: Michael Tewelde

This week, we share a story on how pastoral communities in Ethiopia  make use of mobile technology to increase the efficiency of water point maintenance. This article originally appeared on USAID Global Waters. To view the original post, click here.

By Wendy Putnam

In many respects, Ethiopia’s lowlands represent the final frontier for the country’s ambitious plans to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) coverage through its One WASH National Program. These harsh, arid lands are home to predominantly pastoral communities that roam with their livestock in search of water and grazing lands. Water sources are few and far between, and even when available often do not provide safe drinking water. Open defecation is the norm for a mobile population that lacks a fixed address upon which to build longer-lasting sanitation infrastructure. Adding to these challenges are the pressures of regular droughts, depleted groundwater tables, and a lack of institutional capacity on the human and data side.

Even a country as energized to tackle these WASH gaps as Ethiopia needs to harness additional resources, innovative approaches, and partnerships to meet its 2020 goal of increasing basic water access to 83 percent of its population (from 65 percent nationwide as of 2016) and certifying 80 percent of its communities as open defecation free (from 29 percent as of 2015). The four-year USAID Lowland WASH Activity aims to accelerate progress in both these areas along with improving efficiency of natural resource management, water governance, and data management. These goals align with USAID’s current approach to water security.

“Lowland WASH was created with the longer term picture in mind — to build resilience — so that when the next drought comes, Ethiopia will be in an even stronger position to get through it,” said former U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Peter Vrooman, describing the activity at its launch event on World Water Day 2016.

Applying the “Internet of Things” to Water Systems

In two of the activity’s three focal regions, Afar and Somali, mechanized boreholes serve as the predominant water schemes. These motorized water points benefit large numbers of communities, so a system failure affects a lot of people. Nationwide inventories paint a bleak picture of water point functionality. In some areas up to 40 percent of water points appear to be nonfunctioning. And the reasons go way beyond water availability — including poor construction, lack of resources, and insufficient manpower for maintenance, repair, and response.

These complex systems require huge capacity and significant planning to address maintenance backlogs. “The problem is that at the regional level they don’t know what the problem and the key areas of maintenance are, and so they deploy huge equipment, many staff and technicians even for simple repairs,” explains Lowland WASH Deputy Director Petros Birhane. “So it’s a waste of time or resources.”

Through subcontractor SweetSense, real-time water system data can be tracked from borehole wells within remote communities directly to the regional water bureaus. Photo credit: Michael Blair

This is where Lowland WASH’s push to increase water system functionality comes into play. Because of high nonfunctionality rates and low government capacity, Afar became the logical place to launch a pilot of the activity’s innovative approach to asset management. With the help of private-sector partner SweetSense, 107 sensors have been installed so far in the region to conduct real-time data monitoring of each water scheme’s operations. These sensors rely on the same technology that enables many people in the United States to program their thermostats remotely from an app on their phones. Sensors transmit a daily data flow signal via cell phone or satellites (in the case of more remote settings) to a central cloud-based remote dashboard. This system maps where the problems are to help the water bureau plan and prioritize its maintenance responses. Maintenance requests will be tracked through a ticket system and tasks assigned to the operations and maintenance department and relevant staff or crew for response.

By the end of 2018, 100 percent of the mechanized water points will be monitored using the unique sensors and tracked using a data visualization platform created with technical assistance from mWater, which is connected to the regional water bureau’s management information system. Customization of the mWater tracking platform is being finalized in preparation for a hand off to the Afar Regional Water Bureau in the coming months, and training of local technicians and water officials is underway. “These sensors will help us significantly by improving timeliness of our maintenance responses,” says Ahmed Sultan, deputy head of the Afar Regional Water Bureau.

In addition to enabling decision-makers at the regional and woreda (district) level to improve accountability when it comes to maintenance needs and response, the system can serve as a powerful advocacy tool to address additional equipment, manpower, and resource needs that are identified. Says Mr. Birhane, “Lowland WASH might not be able to address all the gaps from this process, but the findings will be owned by the regional governments and shared with other partners to improve the whole process because the gap is huge.” Lessons learned from the Afar pilot are being shared as USAID partners with UNICEF in the Somali region to install a similar sensor and monitoring system.

An Afari teenage girl squats down to do her laundry at a solar-powered water point in Adhamdin, Erebti woreda of Ethiopia. Photo credit: Michael Tewelde

Sustaining Solutions from the Start

Water point installation and rehabilitation is the other way the activity is tackling the dire water shortages in the lowland regions, including in South Omo in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) where hand pumps and spring-fed water schemes are more the norm than the larger mechanized systems in Afar and Somali. Lowland WASH prioritizes work in the most drought-stricken areas, and to date has rehabilitated or constructed 76 water systems. The activity is integrating solar-powered solutions into 16 additional pumping systems and training technicians to troubleshoot, repair, and maintain them.

Through a partnership with Dow Chemical and the Afar Regional Water Bureau, Lowland WASH is also building a new water scheme that includes a reverse osmosis system to enable communities to safely treat groundwater that is high in temperature (over 70 degrees Celsius), high in salinity, and fluoride. “We are always looking for synergies between our activities and opportunities to work with private sector partners,” says Kathrin Tegenfeldt, USAID/Ethiopia climate and water advisor. “With the DOW collaboration we are pleased to be able to help solve a development challenge using the innovative technologies of the private sector.”

Building, restoring, and tracking water systems are important steps in increasing access to water, but ensuring these systems are sustained in the long run continues to be a challenge. Learning from USAID’s past work in this region, Lowland WASH contributes significant resources and energy to establishing or revitalizing gender-balanced WASH committees (WASHCOs) in charge of operating and providing basic maintenance of the water points. USAID support also consists of putting in place proper financial management, including tariff collection, and ensuring the water system construction is built to high standards in the first place. The activity is also working with the regional water bureaus and woreda water offices to increase their support of maintenance activities to the resource-limited WASHCOs.

In addition, the activity is finalizing a life-cycle cost analysis study in two woredas in SNNPR and Afar. The findings will go a long way to clarify: How much money is needed to really sustainably operate a water scheme? What to do about the significant gap between what the community is able to pay and what the actual cost is for maintenance and repair? And who will be covering that cost? This study should provide a clearer pathway forward as water points are transitioned to communities for ongoing oversight and maintenance. The activity is partnering with IRC-WASH through the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership to share the report’s findings with regional, zonal, and woreda water offices.

Promoting Sanitation in a Pastoral Landscape

The Government of Ethiopia-endorsed community-led total sanitation and hygiene approach to improve sanitation has its origins in rural villages and has been broadly and successfully applied to the highland communities of Ethiopia. Until Lowland WASH, the process hadn’t been tried at scale in pastoral communities.

Two years in, Lowland WASH had triggered 145 kebeles (communities consisting of five to six scattered villages), but only 20 percent had been certified as open defecation free (ODF), and most of those were in South Omo, SNNPR, where settlements are more dense. The persistent droughts and dispersed communities of Afar and Somali complicated attempts to capitalize on the training and triggering that was taking place.

The USAID Lowland WASH Activity partners with local grantees like the Common Vision for Development Association to give local communities the tools to integrate sanitation marketing solutions into its sanitation and hygiene activities. Photo credit: Tigist Kassa

Seeing this, Lowland WASH recognized the need to change course. Using a collaborating, learning, adapting (CLA) framework, it engaged stakeholders in a systematic process to identify and analyze approaches that would address how the challenging logistics, the mobile nature of the extremely poor population, and the lack of water impact sanitation and hygiene practices.

Participants in the exercise identified one of the major complications as the significant lag time between triggering events — when villages embrace the idea of building their own first latrines and hygiene practices are promoted through health extension workers and other volunteers — and any official follow up and ODF certification.

Following the CLA process, Lowland WASH has seen an increase in successful ODF certification, reaching 36 percent through the first half of year three of the activity.

Lowland WASH is engaging in different advocacy approaches to scale up pastoral-focused WASH integration in general as the government strategies, manuals, and guidelines are more focused on urban WASH, rather than taking into account the unique culture, norms, and harsh environmental conditions of the rural, pastoral communities.

The government appears to see this need. “Innovations for pastoral sanitation should be developed in response to calls from partners for practical guidance on how to mobilize communities and improve sanitation in lowland areas,” explained Dagnew Tadesse, hygiene and environmental health case team leader for the Federal Ministry of Health, at the 2018 Multisectoral Forum of Sanitation Marketing. “Having a pastoral-centered approach is potentially an important piece of a bigger puzzle. It will offer a set of approaches, tools, and tactics for practitioners to move towards safely managed sanitation services.”

Within the harsh environment of Afar, communities use local materials, including their own firewood, to build latrines. Women often carry the burden of building such latrines to help reduce open defecation. Photo credit: Michael Tewelde

Partnering for Progress

Like so many other areas of the globe where resources fall far short of needs, collaborative efforts are required to make up the shortfall. While working closely with national and local governments is an important part of the activity’s mandate, Lowland WASH also actively seeks out additional opportunities to partner with the private sector (SweetSense, Dow Chemical), other donors (such as UNICEF), as well as other USAID activities, such as Transform WASH, Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership, and Feed the Future. These fruitful partnerships have provided the activity with technical support — from the mWater customization and life-cycle costing to sanitation marketing and behavior change efforts to planning and implementing irrigation schemes.

Lowland WASH returns the favor, inviting partners to participate in trainings, and sharing its research findings, behavior change tools, construction and engineering designs, and field experiences as it seeks innovative and sustainable solutions to the complex challenges of Ethiopia’s lowland population whose daily lives revolve around the elusive search for water security.

Wendy Putnam is Communications Lead at USAID’s Water Communications and Knowledge Management (CKM) Project, implemented by a Consortium led by ECODIT.CKM Project.

Additional Resources:

This article appears in Global Waters, Vol. 9, Issue 4; for past issues of the magazine, visit Global Waters’ homepage on