A brighter future: using solar power to tackle the water crisis in Ethiopia

There are 44.5 million people in Ethiopia that don't have access to safe drinking water. Renewable energy is an ideal solution in remote areas with no mains electricity. We take a look at a WaterAid project that used solar power to save lives.

Gellabo village lies in one of the remotest pockets of southern Ethiopia, in rural Konso, 600 kilometres from the capital, Addis Ababa. The village has long suffered from a shortage of clean, safe water.

Flow from the nearby spring is too small to supply the surrounding communities and the erratic rainfall affects the availability and quality of other surface water sources. Heavy rainfall from March to May often causes flooding, contaminating the ponds and streams used for drinking water, and water becomes scarce during the long dry season that follows.

The impact of the situation on health is dire. Before WaterAid started working in the area, the open water sources used by the village were shared with cattle, and bacterial and diarrhoeal diseases were common. Illnesses caused by dirty drinking water and a lack of sanitation are the biggest killers of children worldwide, and in Ethiopia more than 33,000 children die from diarrhoea every year before they reach their fifth birthday.

Previous attempts to bring clean water to the area were unsuccessful; there is no electricity to run borehole pumps and refuelling and maintaining diesel-powered generators proved too expensive. However, investing in a water supply system based on solar power and gravity flow provided a sustainable and cost-effective solution to the water crisis faced by the Gellabo village.

A simple but workable and sustainable system
Working with a local partner, Ethiopian Evangelical and Social Services Commission, and members of the community, WaterAid has designed and built a new water supply system. Water is taken uphill using a solar-powered pump and collected in a holding reservoir, before being piped to taps throughout the village via gravity flow.

During a survey of the area, the project team identified a spring with enough flow to supply all the households in the village. Water from the Tsebel spring was tested and once the quality was approved, the spring was capped and a 25cu m storage tank was built to collect the water, preventing contamination from flood water and cattle.

With help from the community, 21 solar panels – 195 watts each – were fixed beside the water tank and a solar submersible pump was installed to pump the water 120 metres uphill to a reservoir at the small town of Turo. Overground pipes (common in rocky terrain like that found in the Konso region) were laid to pipe the water downhill to new taps in the village.

Reflecting on the finished system, WaterAid Ethiopia project manager Fasil Gebremeskel said, “This is a great example of a simple but workable, sustainable and affordable system bringing clean water and associated health benefits to rural communities in Ethiopia.”

To ensure the system works in the long term and the community continue to have a regular supply of clean water, the Konso district Water, Mine and Energy Office have committed to regular water quality testing. Ten local women have also been taught plumbing and maintenance skills as part of a female-led Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Cooperative.

The community have been supplied with a set of plumbing tools and a spare parts shop, and microenterprise training has helped the WASH Cooperative set up local weaving and sanitary pad production businesses to pay for the upkeep of the system.

Finding new ways to harness energy that is naturally available means families living in the Gellabo village no longer have to walk for hours to collect dirty water. They have a regular supply of safe water to drink, cook and wash with, and they can grow food and keep their cattle healthy. Following the initial investment from WaterAid, the community now has a cost-effective, sustainable and ultimately life-changing solution to the water crisis they have faced for so long.

Health: 44.5 million people in Ethiopia don’t have access to safe water. That’s almost half of the population. On average, 33,000 children under 5 die from diarrhoea caused by dirty water and poor sanitation each year.

Cost: There is no electricity in the area and the cost of buying and transporting diesel to power the water pumps was prohibitive. Beyond the initial investment needed to design and install the system, the solar power and gravity flow water system is low cost and easy to maintain. Without a regular supply of water, rural communities can’t grow crops or feed the cattle they rely on for food and income.

Climate: The Konso region suffers from erratic rainfall: heavy rainfall in March to May is followed by a long dry season. Flooding during the wet season often contaminates surface water sources like springs and streams. During the long dry season, water becomes scarce.

Sustainable energy: solar power and gravity flow provide cost-effective and reliable sources of power for water pumps. A more affordable and sustainable solution than the diesel powered pumps used previously.

Partnership working: working with local partners ensures that system design and technologies are suitable for the local area and terrain, and locally-available materials are used where possible.

Microenterprise training: including enterprise and plumbing training in the project plan ensures the community can fund and maintain the system in the long-term.

“There were challenges to the project from the beginning. For example, it was hard to find a source with enough water for the village. Luckily, after more investigation, we discovered two more eyes in the spring we had identified making a total of five eyes releasing 0.3 litres of water every second.

“Using solar power and the natural force of gravity, we were able to channel the water to a collection tank, pump it up to a reservoir and then take it out to taps throughout the village and the local school. The soil and water conservation work carried out around the source ensures the spring does not run dry and isn’t affected by mudslides; and the power of the sun and gravity are there to stay.”
Orkissa Orano, WASH Officer at Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus Development and Social Services Commission

“In scattered settlements like Gellabo where it is difficult to use hydroelectric power (which needs long distance transmission lines), solar power provides an ideal solution. The solar panels can be located in one place and the maintenance and running cost of the system are manageable for the community. There is no need to transport and refill expensive fuels.”
Sileshi Gobena, Senior water supply officer, WaterAid Ethiopia and designer of the water supply system in Gellabo village.

“Before the new water point was opened, I had to walk a long way to find water and then carry it back up the hill to bring it home. Even then it was polluted water. The donkeys urinate around the source and it made us ill. Now the water is so clean that nobody has been ill since the opening of the new water point. It’s been two months and nobody at all has been sick.

“The water is also so close to home that my daughters can have enough time to go to church and they never have to miss school because they are collecting water. I used to wake up worrying about how early I should leave to get water but now I can go to the taps at eight or nine in the morning and I know there will be water.
Tirfie Tikura, a mother in Gellabo village

Behailu Shiferaw
Voices from the field officer
Wateraid Ethiopia

This article first appeared in the August issue of edie sister title WWT

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