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A Decision Too Tough To Make Because Everyone Should Have Clean Water: Save the Children in the Horn of Africa

Sharu Abdullah P&G cups before & after 2“Water is the issue here.  It’s number one, number two, and number 3.”  I listen intently as Mohammed Mamu, the manager of Save the Children’s Moyale office in Ethiopia, explains the situation here in the epicenter of the Horn of Africa famine.  He’s been here for 8 months and will be here for several more to oversee the response to the drought and subsequent famine.

Water collecting 2This is a big area and it’s extremely remote.  Save the Children is working in the Somalia region of Ethiopia to provide humanitarian relief to the pastoralist communities that live here.  Because the drought was so sustained, the water sources that usually never dry up became bone dry.  People dug deeper and deeper into the earth of the ponds and wells but eventually not even a trickle could be found. 

As an emergency response at the height of the drought, Save the Children used tanker trucks for 88 days to get water to the people so that they didn’t perish from dehydration.  But it wasn’t enough for the livestock and it’s estimated that half of all the livestock in the region perished.  And, that’s the average.  Some communities suffered much worse. 

Carrrying water 2Mohammed explains that there are only 4 permanent water sources (the Dawa River and 3 boreholes) and that the hydrology and remoteness mean that digging deep wells doesn’t work. So, the best solution is to construct ponds to collect rain water.  The deep red clay soil makes for some very turbid water and the livestock make for some highly contaminated water.  It’s an area where the P&G water purification packets can have a huge impact.  Mohammed enthusiastically tells us that he’s very glad to be able to provide the packets to the communities here and that they love it.  They’re currently reaching about 60,000 people in this area.

Kids 2So that I can see the Save the Children effort’s first-hand, Mohammed is sending me out to several communities with Ibrahim, his water and sanitation manager, and Johannes, who works with the local government.  A critical part of the Save the Children outreach is to work through the local government personnel including the community health workers.  I’m hosted by PSI Ethiopia and Wondwosen who has traveled with me from Addis Ababa and previously provided training to the Save the Children staff and gatherings of the community health workers.

Dayow Mohammed 2At the first community of Halohuluko, we’re met by Dayow Mohammed, one of the community health workers (CHW).  All of the CHWs in this area are male because of the strict Islamic practices of these Somali people. 

Tokuls with donkeys 2







We speak with several of the households and I ask to see them using the P&G water purification packets.  But, all the water that we can find has already been treated with the packets.  The women have gone to fetch today’s water.  They use donkeys to haul the water and jog alongside the donkeys so that they can make the 18 kilometer trip to the pond and back by mid-morning.

Hilwell Ibrhahim stirring 2We finally find someone who has enough untreated water.  Hilwel Ibrahim is a mother of 8 children.  When I ask her age, she looks at me sheepishly and says she’s 30.  There’s no way she’s that young, but it’s good to see that a woman feels empowered to lie about her age here and so I don’t probe further. 

Adam Mohammad 2Several men have gathered to watch Hilwel use the P&G packets or perhaps to watch me!  I ask them for the men’s perspective on the drought.  The conversation starts with several men answering my questions but eventually the oldest in the group begins to take the lead.  He’s Adam Mohammed and we share the same age of 52.  We joke about who looks younger.  He has much more hair than me and its only a little grey so I make the point that he’s younger.  But he says I have the hands of a young woman compared to him!  So, we call it a draw and agree we’re both doing okay.

Dam broke 2Adam explains that for this pastoralist community, their livestock is their primary asset.  They’ve not seen a drought approaching this severity for 20 years.  There was almost no rain for three consecutive years.  Even donkeys, which are normally drought resistant, began to die.  But the impact on the cattle was incredible.  Out of the 700 households in this community, they lost 4,000 cattle.  Adam’s family had 20 cattle and they lost all of them.  For now, they’re trying to find new ways to make a living.  They collect wood and make charcoal to sell and they’re trying to pan gold from the nearby stream bed.  Adam says he hopes that God provides more cattle.

Bucket with floc 2Meanwhile, Hilwel has been doing a good job of showing us how she uses the packets.  In order to have both a bucket to stir the water and a bucket to filter, she shares one bucket with her neighbor.  They also share the filter cloth.  The starting water was extremely turbid and when she poured it from the jerry can into the open bucket for stirring, a big nasty looking insect fell out of the jerry can.  But what’s worse is that as the water clarifies we can see a huge thick worm-like creature at the bottom of the bucket.  Imagine having that slither down your throat as you drank muddy water.  It almost makes me want to throw-up looking at the worm.

Hilwel at door 2Once the P&G packets have done their magic, we drink some of the crystal clean and purified water.  Hilwel provides the female perspective on the impact of the drought on her eight children.  Her family had 30 cows prior to the drought and she says that they lost all of them. She explains that the loss of cattle meant no food for the young children because cow’s milk is their primary nutrition and they also sell the milk so they can buy other foodstuffs.  With the drought, not only did the cattle die so that they didn’t have milk, but the food prices escalated because of the greater demand.  The lack of enough food meant that the children didn’t have enough energy to go to school.  Hilwel tells me now that Save the Children is providing assistance, they are much better off.  They have food, purified water, and the children have returned to school. 

Hilwel with P&G cup 2Hilwell tells me that they really like the water purification packets and need to keep receiving them because their water is so bad and before receiving them they suffered frequently from diseases. 

After meeting with several additional households, I’m asked to meet with the elders who have gathered at the town center.  They tell me that the P&G water purification packets have been of great benefit to the community.  But they explain that they are needed for the entire community and not only the families with malnourished children. 

Elders 2The men explain that they’d be willing to purchase the purification packets once they had recovered financially but in the next year with losing most of their assets of livestock, they aren’t able to purchase them.  I tell them that I agree that it’s unlikely they can afford the packets given their situation and that, given their highly dirty water, I’m not surprised they feel a great need for the packets.

When I tell them that I’m from the United States, they ask what the world knows about their situation because to them it’s very severe.  I tell them that the world knows about their situation and that it’s considered the top humanitarian crisis in the world.  They respond that people need to know that they are severely impacted and have lost their livestock and that they need clean water because water is life.

Our next stop is the village of Ardaonna.  I visit the home of Sharu Abdullah, a 40 year old mother of six children.  She’s one of the households that is receiving the packets because her child was malnourished.  Little Suleiman is eight months old. 

Sharu Abdullah w Suleiman 2When Sharu first took him to the clinic, she was told that he was severely malnourished.  She was a bit frightened but she wasn’t surprised because the drought had killed all of her family’s 40 cattle, 15 of their 20 goats, and they also lost their donkey.  Without cattle, they didn’t have enough food for her family. 

When Sharu first took Suleiman to the clinic, he was suffering from diarrhea and vomiting because of the unclean water.  The community health worker, Ibrahim Ali, showed Sharu how to use purified water from the P&G packets to make oral rehydration therapy to treat the dehydration from the diarrhea.  He provides additional packets every month so her family can have clean water.  He also gave them Plumpy Nut as a quick energy food to help Suleiman recover.  With the purified water and the Plumpy Nut, Suleiman recovered quickly and now he’s no longer malnourished. 

Sharu Abullah smiling before & after 2Sharu explains that not only Suleiman but her entire family is healthier now with the support of Save the Children.  She tells me however that they’re not receiving sufficient amount of the water purification packets.  She receives 30 packets every month when she goes to the clinic.  But Sharu explains they have 9 people in her family and it’s very hot so they drink a lot of water.  They need 2 packets per day versus the 1 packet that they receive.  Currently, they’re running out of packets after two weeks and she boils and drinks the dirty water for the rest of the time.  I think back to the worm in the dirty water that I saw earlier and can’t imagine drinking the boiled muddy water.

As we walk to the next household, Ibrahim explains to me that only providing the packets to the malnourished children has created a problem in this community where everyone desperately needs clean water.  And, given their current allotment, they don’t have sufficient stocks to provide Sharu with the number of additional packets that she needs. 

Helima Gole 2It’s become extremely hot now but Helima Gole agrees to show us how she uses the packets to treat her water.  Her son, Brahim Bashir, was determined to be suffering from moderate malnutrition and edema when she took him to the clinic five months ago.  It’s clear that Brahim is now a healthy weight and he seems a happy child playing with his sister as we chat in the shade.






 Helima Gole stirring 2Helima Gole filtering 2

There are eleven people in Helima’s family and they use 2 water purification packets every day.  This is twice the amount that they’re allotted so they boil water during the 2 weeks every month when they run out.  It takes a big part of the day to boil 20 liters for her family when you include the time to collect wood in this arid region.  And, they’re still left with very dirty water full of insects and who knows what.  I’m not surprised when she tells me that she really wants enough of the packets for her family for the entire month.

Brahim Bashir 2Similar to the other households in this community, Helima’s family lost all of their cows in the drought. They also lost all of their goats and their donkey.  I know they used the donkey to haul water so asked her about the burden of hauling water.  Currently it’s about a 6 mile round-trip for her to haul the water, which is the average distance that women carry water in sub-Saharan Africa.  But she explains that it was much worse at the height of the drought before the recent rains. 

Hilwel with P&G cup 2Astonishingly, Helima was walking 40 kilometers every day to collect 20 liters of water for her family.  This was taking most of the day but she had no choice if her family was going to live.  Her making this journey was literally a matter of life and death for her family.  I’m speechless for my admiration for this woman and thank her for our visit.  I tell her that we’ll do what we can to provide more packets.

I’m asked to meet with the elders in this village and they make the point that we’ve heard as we’ve walked through the village.  They need more of the packets than they are currently receiving.  They’d be glad to start purchasing the packets in about a year if the rains come as expected, but currently purchasing them is just out of the question. 

Drinking 2When we debrief back in the Save the Children office with Mohammed, I tell him that I empathize with his dilemma. They currently do not have enough stocks of the purification packets to provide everyone in the community since the program was established to help families of the malnourished children. And given the very large size of the families, even some of the families of the malnourished children are not receiving a sufficient amount. The community is clearly telling us that they want and need the packets and that all of them need it. They have no option to purchase them at this point.

P&G cup before & after 2Looking at the glass of water before it’s treated and after it’s treated with the P&G water purification packets, I’m left with only one answer.  These communities need to receive more of the packets so no one is left with making the decision of who deserves clean water. Everyone deserves clean water.  I’m confident that we’ll step up and do more. I hope you’ll consider helping.


Since returning to the US from Ethiopia and writing this blog, I’ve corresponded with Save the Children’s team.  I’m thrilled to report that they’re going to do more to address the needs expressed by community members during my visit.  Not only are they going to increase the allotment and extend the donation of the P&G water purification packets to the communities that we visited but they’ll also expand it to include other nearby communities still suffering from the drought.  In total, Save the Children will reach 90,000 beneficiaries in Ethiopia and provide additional water purification packets to treat 40 million liters of clean water.  Thank you to PSI, Save the Children, CARE, Americares, Oxfam, Global Medic, Goal Ethiopia, Action Against Hunger, Child Fund, International Rescue Committee, and the Clinton Global Initiative for this fantastic response.



I have hauled water while camping and considered it an annoyance. I cannot even begin to imagine hauling it many miles every day as a necessity to save my family. How do we help as it asks us in the last line?


Thanks for your comment. One of the easiest ways to help is to "like" us on our new CSDW Facebook page. Every "Like" donates an additional day of clean drinking water. And, tell your friends about this effort so they'll also like us.

We also have new ways to help on www.csdw.org including a fund raising tool kit. Financial donations are very much appreciated and every $30 provides clean drinking water to a family for a year with the P&G water purification packets. If you are a P&G employee then the Company will match donations to csdw.org up to $5000/yr.



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