Reflections on a Recent Visit to Ethiopia: The Water Crisis


This entry is the second of several from Jim Goering, who, with his wife Shirley, joined Water to Thrive in Ethiopia in June. In two multi-year postings in Ethiopia with first Harvard University and then as an official of the World Bank, Goering, an economist, gained extensive experience in the country and brings this perspective to bear on Ethiopia’s economic and social situation as well as on the work of Water to Thrive. This entry, examining the country’s water crisis, was preceded by an overview of Ethiopia’s economic position and will be followed by a recap of the June trip and recommendations for the ongoing work of Water to Thrive.


To understand Ethiopia’s water resource development program, it is useful to distinguish ambitious hydropower projects on its major rivers (the Nile in the north, flowing into Sudan and Egypt, and the Omo in the south, flowing into Kenya’s Lake Turkana) from much less-known government efforts to meet domestic water needs from local sources, principally groundwater.


Although our Water to Thrive visit focused on village water development, some understanding of the expensive hydropower program is helpful, as it constitutes an important potential drain of the government’s scarce financial resources that might otherwise be available to better meet domestic water needs. As Wikipedia sources note, Ethiopia considers itself the “powerhouse of Africa” due to its high hydropower potential. With less than 20 percent of Ethiopians having access to electricity, there is great need for the additional power that these big dams are, or will be, producing. Irrigation development, focusing on intensive agricultural production, is also planned for some dams. The government’s 25-year Master Plan outlines a very ambitious future dam construction program.


Large dams offer much needed benefits related to electricity production, foreign exchange earnings, flood control, and irrigation development, and clearly should be part of Ethiopia’s national development efforts. However, as worldwide experience illustrates, big dam construction is a complex undertaking, with both positive and negative effects. Potential negative impacts may include damage to the environment, displacement of existing populations in the reservoir areas, human rights issues and, in the case of dams on transnational rivers, political tensions with riparian neighbors. Where construction contracts are let without competitive bidding, there are also risks of corruption and inefficient use of financial resources.


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, under construction as the largest dam in Africa, scheduled for completion in 2018, and located on the Blue Nile about 20 miles from the Sudanese border in northwest Ethiopia, may illustrate some of this complexity. Its total cost has been conservatively estimated at US $5.4 billion (Euro 4.8 billion). It will displace an estimated 20,000 people. And its construction contracts were awarded without competitive bidding to an Italian company which has been involved with construction with three other dams in Ethiopia, also under no-bid arrangements. The failure to employ a competitive bidding process has deterred financing from international sources, with the Ethiopian banking system now selling bonds to provide needed finance.


In contrast to the local and international publicity accorded Ethiopia’s hydropower program, much less seems to be known of laudable efforts by the government and several local and international non-governmental organizations to augment supplies of pure, easily accessible water for domestic consumption. These needs are pressing, and benefits to the public from such programs are substantial and incontrovertible.


Arguably, a hypothetical US$1 million spent in Ethiopia in a well-conceived, carefully implemented village water program would contribute more to the well-being of underserved populations than a similar amount in a large dam project. At an initial briefing in Addis Ababa, we were told that about 75 percent of Ethiopia’s rural population has “reasonable access” to safe water. This stretches credulity, and in fact, even a more likely estimate provided later of about 42 percent has been questioned by those who work in this sector.



A closer look at our mission


Just two weeks after joining Water to Thrive, Executive Director Susanne Wilson embarked on our June mission trip with staff and supporters. Here are her thoughts on the trip.

For many who will read this, water has always been readily available from a faucet as close as the nearest bathroom or kitchen. If you are of a little older generation, you may have memories of a well and collecting water from the yard. 

Yet the majority of people in the countries where we work have never witnessed water coming from a tap. Water is one of the resources most taken for granted, but in developing countries, every 90 seconds a child under 5 dies as a result of disease caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene practices. 

The basic human rights include clean water, food, health care, and education. But all of these are jeopardized by the lack of one underlying link, water. Water to Thrive’s tagline, “Build Wells, Change Lives,” goes straight to the essence of what W2T means to the recipients of wells. In my three weeks traveling in Tanzania and Ethiopia, the stories shared from the villagers who now have access to clean water were always similar. They (especially the women and children) no longer spend the majority of their days collecting water. The children can now attend school. The women are more involved in the development of their communities. The women’s health is not as compromised by the heavy hauling of water across long distances. The girls are not as exposed to sexual predators on their way to water collection points. The community members don’t suffer illnesses associated with unclean water. 

One of my most vivid memories from the recent trip to Africa is from a day that started with a two-hour, 18-mile drive, one hairpin turn after another. The W2T team arrived at the top of a very isolated mountain in Tanzania, at the village of Matamba. Villager and water committee member Julia Konga spoke very eloquently about how a well had changed her life.

Julia stressed that women are the ones who suffer most from the lack of clean, safe water. Before the well was built, she had to make a one-hour round trip to a small river. She would wake up at 3:00 a.m. to avoid the line of others waiting to collect water and to avoid contamination caused by cattle and other animals arriving at the same area.  Julia mentioned that men would get to bathe and maybe the children, but the women weren’t as fortunate. When I asked her about diseases were caused by unsafe drinking water, Julia asked for a pen and paper. Her list included diarrhea, worms, typhoid, cholera, trachoma (an eye infection that can lead to blindness), and schistosomiasis (a parasitic worm living in freshwater snails). The children are the most susceptible to illnesses and many times, medical care is not adequate if available at all. 


In reflecting on the work of Water to Thrive and my role as Executive Director, the comments of my friends come to mind: “You are so brave,” “what you’re doing is amazing,” “I’m so inspired by the choices you’ve made and the work you’re doing.” But I don’t feel very brave. The women and children and people who work harder than I’ve ever worked simply to have food and water for their families are the truly inspirational ones. My role is to share the impact and stories of Water to Thrive’s accomplishments. It is through the vision of others, the gifts of our supporters, and the grace of God, that Water to Thrive will grow, expand, and continue to “Build Wells and Change Lives.”






Reflections on our recent visit to Ethiopia


This entry is the first of several from Jim Goering, who, with his wife Shirley, joined Water to Thrive in Ethiopia in June. In two multi-year postings in Ethiopia, first as an economic advisor from Harvard University and then as an official of the World Bank, Goering gained extensive experience in the country and brings this perspective to bear on Ethiopia’s economic and social situation as well as on the work of Water to Thrive. This overview entry will be followed in the next week by Jim’s look at the country’s water crisis, his recap of the group’s two-week trip, and by suggestions for Water to Thrive as it continues its work in the field.


It is useful to place the Ethiopian village water development initiative within a broader national context.

The Ethiopian economy has been one of the fastest growing in Africa, with annual GDP growth in the 8-9% range. Major factors contributing to the country’s economic growth are an aggressive infrastructural program, much of it financed and implemented by Chinese interests, and commercial agriculture, based on leasing of large tracts of land to foreign interests. The rise of commercial agriculture has raised concerns from the international community about displacement of existing farmers and herdsmen. (To the government’s credit, it recently permitted a review of this issue by the EU’s Development Assistance Group, which strongly suggested improvements based on greater involvement in the decision-making process by those likely to be negatively impacted by these investments.)

Economic factors of national concern include continued high national unemployment of about 15%, annual inflation in the 8% range, and the reality that about 40% of the country’s population remain below the poverty line—although significant improvement in this variable has been achieved in recent years.

Some progress can be reported in the lives of the Ethiopian people.  Female fertility rates have declined, although population growth remains relatively high at 2.9% per year (compared with 2.1% in neighboring Kenya) and infant mortality is high at 56 deaths for 1,000 live births (Kenya’s rate is 41/1,000). Rural incomes remain among the lowest in Africa, but recent gains have been registered and improved emphasis on agricultural production has greatly reduced the risk of serious food scarcity in rural areas.

In more negative terms, the combination of relatively rapid economic growth and continuing constraints on freedom of the press appear to be exacerbating the problem of corruption in government. While the international corruption assessment organization, Transparency International (, recently ranked Ethiopia as the 110th most corrupt country among the 175 assessed, my recent conversations with a few Ethiopians who seemed reasonably well-informed suggest that corruption is a growing problem in government and is putting further strains on the political and social fabric of the country.

One might also question the longer-term impact of the growing role of Chinese involvement in the Ethiopian economy. It is abundantly clear that Chinese finance and development skills (road construction, extension of the electrical grid, large-scale agriculture) have benefited significant numbers of the Ethiopian population. Less clear is the extent to which this approach is effectively transferring requisite technical and managerial skills to Ethiopians, and, perhaps more significantly over the longer term, the extent to which this approach is compromising Ethiopia’s national sovereignty.

Jim’s next post will provide a look at the water crisis in Ethiopia.


Our Ethiopia experience


Impressions from Homer and Mary Goering after their trip to Ethiopia, where they were able to join in the celebration and inauguration of the water project they funded. 

Traveling with the Water to Thrive group in Ethiopia was a life-changing, informative, emotional, and rewarding experience.  Coming face to face with the poverty of the villages clearly illustrated the stark difference between our own materialistic lives and their daily struggles to survive. However, there are similarities – the need to provide for family, a faith in God’s blessings, and a community that shares both hardships and celebrations.

We did not expect to visit “our well” on this trip. What a surprise! We truly appreciate the hard work and coordination that went into its completion ahead of schedule. It was a humbling experience to see the difference our donation will make for a village of 50 families. The wonderful celebration and their generous gifts of food, coffee, and honey touched our hearts deeply. We saw firsthand how clean water will improve the lives of 250 people in this village. This has motivated us to share our story with others who may be willing respond to the need of God’s children in Africa.


We are impressed by the model which W2T uses to improve the success and longevity in its projects, including:

  • Advance training in maintenance and hygiene
  • The water committee for effective user rules
  • The guard assigned to each individual well to protect the project's integrity
  • The modest user fees required from the individual users to provide backup maintenance funding as well as a sense of ownership

The burdens on the women’s backs, the oxen pulling the simple plows in the fields, and the donkeys, cattle, and goats on the “roads” are vivid memories of this trip. But the dearest memories of all are feeling the children’s hands clutching ours and seeing their beautiful smiles.


June 16 - Sabana Lodge to Addis


After some long driving over the last several days, it was nice to overnight at the Sabana Lodge on Lake Longano, about an hour north of Hawassa. The lodge was quiet and peaceful, with a lot birds and even some tortoise! It was a real treat to wake up to the melody of five or six different bird specie “talking” to each other.  Even though the water was a bit chilly, a couple of our group went for a morning swim.


After a hearty breakfast, we gathered for a group photo with our Pump Run t-shirts, overlooking Lake Longano in the background. You can see it has a red tint, caused by a high content of ferrous oxide, but perfectly safe. In some parts of the lake there are alligators and hippos! Not around the lodge, luckily.

Also along the road to Addis, we made a stop at Lake Zeway and visited a local fish market.  Mary captured the two storks pictured above fighting over some leftover fish. Yummy! We reached Addis by mid-afternoon, giving us time for a couple of meetings with partners and some rest.


We ended our evening with a cultural celebration of food, drink, dance, and fun at the Habesha 2000 restaurant. We got to experience first-hand many of the regional dances and food from around Ethiopia. Everyone had a great time! Thanks, Diversity Tours! (

Speaking of Diversity Tours, our group wants to honor the team that has been with us the last days. Pictured above are Yohannes, our tour leader for the last 10 days or so, with Tesfaye, Mundie, and Teddy, our fearless and skilled drivers. Their service has been excellent! We are grateful for their help and knowledge, which made our time here so enjoyable.

Tomorrow will be our last day in Addis and Ethiopia, a bit of sightseeing and shopping with a few meetings mixed in. Then we all head back home with more stories and renewed dedication to the mission.


June 15 - Arbegona Projects


Today, with our implementing partner The Development and Social Services Commission (DASSC)of Mekane Yesus, we visited projects, both completed and under development in the Arbegona region near Hawassa. We have been implementing projects with this particular Synod of Mekane Yesus for three years now and have a completed 30 projects, with another 10 that should be completed by the end of summer. Arbegona is a two-hour drive from Hawassa, with elevations between 6,000-7,000 feet... definitely considered highlands topography.

Our first two sites are projects that are still under construction.  Shown above is the inside of the well at Bukesa, located adjacent to the Chucko Elementary School. This project just recently had the rings set in place after digging about 35 feet. The aquifer was reached at about 12 feet, and the water has risen to within about six feet of the surface, producing a reservoir of water of almost 30 feet, demonstrating excellent capacity.


At Bukesa, we met Adola, the principle of the elementary school, shown in the picture above with our intern Thomas. Adola and Thomas are discussing the impact that clean water will have on the students in the school. Adola’s school has 1,000 students in first through eighth grades. They attend school in two shifts. First through fourth grades have school in the morning, and fifth through eighth grades attend in the afternoon. They have a total of 20 teachers. Adola also serves as the chairperson for the water committee that is already functioning in anticipation of the well being completed in the next couple of months. Adlola says that now, without that well, the children must leave the school to fetch water from a nearby river that is unsafe. He knows the well will improve the health and attendance of his children.


Next we visited two of the completed wells in Arbegona, at Sharo and Nira. These have been operational for about three months. At both sites we were met by members of the water committee and the community, all expressing their gratitude and joy over the blessing of clean water. The area around Arbegona is in short supply of clean water sources, and because of its remoteness, no other NGOs beside DASSC are working in this area to bring new sustainable sources of clean water.

We are fascinated by the houses in this highland area ... they look almost space-age-like. Very cool-looking, with the roof and sides all woven together to create a smooth, symmetrical, round hut. The one shown above is about 25 feet high and about 30 to 35 feet in diameter at the base. This style has been prevalent in this area for hundreds of years.


On the road from Hawassa


Tedium lends itself to creativity. W2T executive director Susanne Wilson and fellow traveler Mary Goering composed this poem during the day's long drive. 

"Ode to the Donkey"

Oh Ethiopian beast of burden, on back, loads of wood, water and teff
Small but mighty, dependably strong
Head down, ears up
Alert to the needs of both woman and man

Primitive carts with upright drivers, seemingly surfing through traffic, avoiding
Collison on left, car on right, goat in the road

What reward for the donkey, the Ethiopian beast of burden?
Is it the satisfaction of serving his master, a job well done?
Is it the evening's rest? Or perhaps the twinkle in his eye, knowing< unlike his friend the goat, he'll survive another day. 


June 14 - Arba Minch



Today we continued our exploration of the area around Arba Minch, with 40 springs scattered around at the base of the Rift Valley. It has rained heavily the last two nights, which has helped to settle the dust. Word to the wise, it's best to be in the lead vehicle in a caravan while traveling down the dirt roads of Ethiopia. 

The area is characterized by six lakes that host a variety of wildlife. We were lucky to catch sight of a hippo in a marshy area just below the road.

This morning we visited the village of Chencha, which is home to the Dorze people. They are renowned cotton weavers but perhaps are best known for their distinct beehive like dwellings. Their homes are made of organic materials and can last a lifetime. Termites can be a problem, but if the base is infested, the house is simply moved and the base is rebuilt.

The home we visited houses five people and 12 animals. The animals provide warmth during cold weather, and the house provides safety for the animals. There is a separate kitchen structure and when a meal is being prepared, it appears that the entire kitchen is smoking. The smoke serves to drive out insects and vermin but also causes respiratory and eyesight issues, especially for the women.

The staple food for both animal and human consumption is the false banana (Enset). It is called the false banana because it bears no fruit. The stalk is cut and the pulp is scraped away from the fibrous outer covering.

The pulp is wrapped in the leaves of the tree and placed in the ground to ferment for three months. The result is a lumpy, light yellow, pungent-smelling, cheese-like product. 

The pulp is then kneaded, cut, and flattened into a flat round pancake cooked between two large leaves of the tree.

The bread is served with local honey or a hot sauce. The tree can be harvested when it is just one year old, which makes it a highly sustainable and replenishable food source that is also drought-resistant. 

As we made our way back  to the vehicles, we had our experience with chicka, which is the Amharic word for the red clay earth used in construction and sticks better than Gorilla Glue. As mentioned previously, it has rained heavily the last two nights. My boots collected at least a wall of a house. Within a few moments, young boys appeared with buckets of water and rags to clean our shoes. 


June 12 & 13 - Exploring the Southern Omo Valley


June 12 was a long day of travel, as we flew from Mekele to Addis Ababa, with a layover just long enough to enjoy a quick Kaldi Coffee (the Ethiopian version of Starbucks) before we flew on to Arba Minch, south of Hawassa. Then we had a five-hour drive to Jinka, in the heart of the Southern Omo Valley and just about 120 miles from the Ethiopia/Kenya border.

The Omo Valley is home to 17 ethnic tribes that have been able to maintain their traditional lifestyles. The largest is the Ari tribe, with more than 300,000 members,  and the smallest is the Kara tribe, with only about 1,400 members. The tribes can be distinguished by their dress, facial markings, and hair style. They are largely pastoral, but a few are becoming more settled and practice farming. 

On June 13, we headed out to visit the Mursi tribe.  Overnight, we had a torrential downpour that lasted about two or three hours. Electricity was lost a little after midnight.  As you can see above, because of the heavy rains, many of creeks and rivers were swollen above low-water crossings, creating a couple of interesting and challenging crossings for us.

The Mursi tribe number about 7,400, with 12 different clans. They are pastoralist, with cattle as their most prized possessions and their measure of wealth. Marriage is marked with the exchange of cattle ... the dowry for the bride is usually 30 to 40 head of cattle, given by the groom’s family to the father of the bride.


The Mursi women are famed for wearing large, clay plates, inserted in their lips and ear lobes, like the one shown above. This process usually is begun when a girl is around the age 11 or 12, starting with a slit in the lower lip whose size is gradually increased over time.

Moving about often, they live in simple one room huts, the one shown above. It is mainly used for sleeping, with cooking, chores, and eating all done outside.

After visiting with the Mursi tribe members, we drove to Weyto. Since it was Saturday, it was their market day.  This market day is frequented by Hamar, Tsemay, and Arbore tribes.

The market is quite a social gathering, with large groups of tribe members gathered under different trees, drinking the local homemade beer. All kinds of subjects are discussed, including politics, marriages, funerals, community priorities, family business, and of course the weather.


Everything needed for daily life can be found at the market, sold or bartered ... livestock, chickens, produce, grain, all types of clothes and shoes, housewares, etc.  There is complete separate section  for just the livestock and, of course...'s a great place to meet new friends!

After the overload of our senses from the market, we headed back to Arba Minch for our overnight stay at the Paradise Lodge. 


June 11 - Gheralta Lodge and more water projects


After a long day yesterday and late evening arrival at Gheralta Lodge, the group gets a little rest and later start on drive to Mekele. Gheralta Lodge is much appreciated oasis about half between Axum and Mekele. Italian owned, it provides excellent food and produce, all grown on their property…..we enjoyed both our dinner and breakfast.

At the back of the Lodge property, there is a beautiful overlook into the valley. We have made a habit of having our morning devotion at this location each time we return. Sticking with our devotion theme of “Women who Serve,” we build a rock altar made up of stones that each of us has chosen to represent a woman in our lives who has had a significant impact on our life’s direction and development.

In the picture above, you can see the haze covering the valley. It has been very dense the last three days, dust suspended in the air coming from the dry fields and maybe even some mixed in blowing in from the Sahara. Hopefully that will improve as we move to the south tomorrow.

On our drive to Mekele, we stop at one of our rehabilitation projects, Sewhi Adidaero. This particular project was built by the government five years ago and yield became so low after three years that the community could not use it. REST has a program to completely rehabilitate the well, in this case doubling its depth to reach a sustainable acquirer.


When we arrive, we are greeted by a long queue of jerry cans as villagers wait their turn to fetch clean water. Notice the large number of small children waiting along with their mothers. There are now more than 300 beneficiaries drawing health and hope from this clean water!

Surprises along the way!

As mentioned before, we always encounter a few surprises along the way…..this one is one of the funniest!

As we were driving back to our hotel after visiting projects, one of the local mini buses (stops every few miles) zipped alongside us on our left and pulled in between our vehicles. Check out the picture above... on top of the mini bus are about 20 live goats tied to the luggage rack on top of the bus. We can see legs flailing, head popping up, screaming bahhhahhhhh, going 60 mph down the highway. It was a great laugh and stress reliever after a long day. I just wonder if they had to pay the extra baggage fee?!




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