An eye-opening experience

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There is an Ethiopian proverb that says: “There is no better witness than your eyes” and having seen with my own eyes the distress caused to people on the Nest Estate, Mytholmroyd, by water popping out of the ground because of a dodgy water main I began to wonder what it might be like to have no water supply at all.

But how to witness this directly was the question.

As it happened, whilst leading the community to secure a new water supply to the estate, I discovered that Yorkshire Water is supporting Ethiopia through their five year partnership with WaterAid as part of the Safer Water Vision.

The company aims to raise £1 million to support the delivery of clean water and safe toilets to 170,000 households in Ethiopia, through events such as Kelda 24 Peaks, Water Cycle Challenge, quiz nights, golf days, cake bakes and the annual 10k run.

Also, as it happened the company were in the planning stages of an inaugural trip to send three employees to carry out capacity building with water staff in a town called Bishoftu 30 miles south east of the capital Addis Ababa and agreed to send me along as a customer representative.

The trip, which was eight days long, enabled me to meet local people, some of whom have no water supply and have to walk or use a pony and cart to travel five miles to access water at a public stand pipe.

I met one family who share a latrine with thirty people, who cannot afford to have it emptied and receive water for only three hours a day. They supplement their water supply by harvesting rainwater. By contrast, a wealthier family who lived close to a bore hole had a water supply for twenty one hours a day and only lost it because the electrical supply failed. They had one latrine for one family. Contacting the water company was done by phone as it would be here, or for those with no means of telecommunication they waited a month for the meter reader to arrive.

Given my own disability I was also interested to find out how people with disabilities access water and sanitation. One gentleman I chatted with, a double amputee, had access to a latrine but no raised seat, quite how he squatted over a hole in the ground on his prosthetics seemed a bit too intimate a question to ask. He had a shower by having water poured over him whilst he sat on a chair.

Wheelchair access to toilets was always difficult in more rural areas. Paths are rocky and steep and the doorways to latrines too narrow. Many disabled people have to defecate in their houses or in the open as they are unable to negotiate the long distances to facilities, becoming socially isolated because they were unable to clean themselves.

In short, what I discovered about the small area of Ethiopia I visited is that there are a group of dedicated people working hard to provide water for the population, but in very difficult circumstances. The pipes and valves, taps and reservoirs that we take for granted are yet to buried in the ground. Everyone is responsible for the disposal of their own waste and only a few can afford to do this cleanly. However, as another Ethiopian proverb states, when spider webs unite they can tie up a lion.