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An Uncertain Future: Capturing the drought crisis in Afar

Taking photos of children and showing them the picture is an enjoyable pastime the world over. It’s a real pleasure to feel the excitement ripple through their friends as they see themselves in various poses they’ve held for my camera.

Children in Guya village, eager to see the photos

We”ve just arrived in Guya village, north eastern Ethiopia, Afar region,  with a water truck to provide the school and community with enough drinking water for the next month. This particular boy mirrors my motions on the camera, pressing different buttons to try to scroll through images of his home, friends and family. He presses at random, nearly deleting my album.

But I notice the trail his fingers leave on the screen, smearing it with dust. His face, too, is powdered with dust, patterned with sweat marks that have run down his cheeks while playing. I realise that he has not washed today, perhaps not yesterday, maybe not even the day before. But that’s not the concern here right now.

Water for survival

Over by the water tanker, a hose runs from the truck to the underground container, gleefully chugging away as it empties thousands of litres of water into it. A woman is standing there, older than most, large yellow jerry

Zahara waiting patiently to collect her water

can in hand, waiting patiently. Expectant. Previously she’d had to collect water from a pond some 15km away, which meant a six-hour round trip. She cares for ten children, only giving them a litre of the tanned-coloured water to drink each day as it’s all she can carry. Her name is Zahara. Just like the mother of the boy who was intrigued by my photos, Zahara  knows that there is not enough water for washing, just for drinking. This is survival.

Education is suffering

The region has experienced poor rainfall over the last few years, and this year has been no better. Rainwater harvesting sources have not been sufficiently replenished, with 143,000 people in the Afar region at risk of acute water shortage. Local schools have been closing as they can’t support their pupils without water. Save the Children is responding to this immediate need by trucking to four woredas (districts), supporting 2060 households.
Today, the first of ten trucks arrived, which will deliver water to the school and community of Guya, but after that? When the money runs out, Zahara will have to return to collecting her water from that distant pond. If the rains fail again this year, the drought will continue. ‘Sometimes I beg water from the military camp’, Zahara tells me; if she’s lucky, she receives help from her elderly husband, who suffers from cataracts in his eyes.

Sustainability is key

We know that the the immediate need for water is just part of the problem, so we’re rehabilitating old schemes, providing new wells, working with local government to provide a sustainable solution to this ongoing crisis. In the meantime, however, everyone – Zahara, the boy, the entire community – knows that after one month, if Save the Children can’t raise the funds to bring more water, no water will come.

Tom Wilson is a Humanitarian WASH Trainee currently responding to the drought in Afar, Ethiopia


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