Against the brown landscape of eastern Ethiopia, the pale concrete faucets and cattle troughs merge indistinctly with the white light of the late morning sun. Seemingly lost amid the featureless scrub, this place—and the water it holds—is a magnet, drawing tens of thousands trying hard to survive a brutal drought.
"Now there is a drought so there are many people coming to use the water," says Kahiya Are, chairman and lifelong resident of the village of Dure.
Built in 2007 by Catholic Relief Services as part of a Humanitarian Relief Fund project of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the multiuse well outside Dure arrived just in time. Within a year of its completion, drought conditions began to wither the surrounding pastureland—tentative in even the best of years—making it difficult for local pastoralists to find fodder for their herds. Two years later, that drought continues.
"This drought is the worst I have seen," Kahiya says. "Previously, we have experienced drought for only 1 year. But this one has been for 3 years, and that has had a significant impact."
Working through partner agency Hararghe Catholic Secretariat, CRS built the well to serve both the residents and the livestock on which they depend.
First, drilling to a depth of more than 380 feet, CRS constructed a block building to house a large generator that pumps fresh, clean water to a large tank. From that tank, residents hired by the community can release water to various distribution points for washing, gathering drinking water, filling tanker trucks and watering livestock.
As existing water sources in the region dwindle, the water found in Dure is the only source within 19 miles, drawing pastoralists daily from surrounding districts. "Before the drought, 9,000 people were using the well," Kahiya says. "Now about 50,000 people are using it."
To make the water system sustainable, the community charges a small fee for daily access to the water. Using that revenue—about $58 each month after expenses—community members hire residents to guard and operate the pumps, and maintain the system.
Together, community members have opened a bank account, which, at one point, held more than $3,800 in collective savings. With drought causing widespread hardship, though, the people of Dure have taken a remarkable step: They are providing water for free to people from surrounding areas. The arrangement is a sign of how dire the situation has become.
"Now, we are just helping them with our money," Kahiya says. "When they recover, they will pay. But this water we will give to them for free."
Prepared for the Future
Of the $3,800 they once had saved, the community now has barely $2,000 left, and their savings continue to dwindle. Still, Kahiya and his neighbors are thankful for what they have. The government provided a water source here in the early 1980s. That system eventually broke down, leaving the region dependent on unhealthy water fetched from shallow wells dug in distant riverbeds.
"We used to scoop from the river, and when floods came, our water was contaminated," Kahiya says. "Now we get clean water, and the tanks are full."
Although the drought now gripping Ethiopia has left more than 12 million people* without access to food, Kahiya knows that the well will see them through—not only today, but far into the future.
"This well greatly reduced the time we spent collecting water," Kahiya says. "When I was a child, my mother went at six in the morning to fetch water and got back at six at night. Now, my children are lucky—they get water so close."
*This figure includes more than 7.5 million people the government identified as chronically hungry and more than 4.5 million recently identified as newly affected by the drought.
David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.