State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


“The Water Table is Dry:” The Reality of Urban Development

Just a short week ago, MCI published a feature about a project carried out by the people of Nebar Ketema, a peri-urban neighborbood in Mekelle, Ethopia, who, with support from New York’s Community Lab, are bringing safe water through community action and a small grant to buy pipes and fittings, a water meter and cement. While the partnership of Community Lab, Sparks MicroGrants, the Millennium Cities Initiative, the Mekelle municipal authorities and the people of Nebar Ketema brought great hope to the community, development is not always a rapid or linear process. This report, entitled, “The Water Table is Dry,” was written late last week by Community Lab’s Aileen Chang, a Columbia University graduate student currently working in this arid Mekelle suburb.

I would like to share something awful that I witnessed today in Nebar Ketema. I went to Nebar Ketema today to poll the villagers about how long it takes for them to walk to the current water point. When they arrived, they were frantic about the water supply.

The underground water that had been supplying them contaminated water has virtually dried up, meaning that one of the two areas where they used to collect water is completely dry. This site was densely populated with people collecting water when I last visited only two weeks ago. Today, only two pigs populated the spring site bathing in mud and feces. A foul smell emanated from the site.

At the other site, water still trickled out, but it takes 1 hour to fill a jerry can, which is 20L of contaminated water. At mid-day, I counted a civilized line of 34 jerry cans. The people told me that the owners of those cans had been waiting since mid-night the night before to collect water. They said that after the workday, the line is three times as long.

The standard minimum need for water is 20L/day. Right now, water sufficient for 24 people per day is meant to supply 6,000 people.

Although the timeline for the completion of the water point was set for this Monday, construction still has not begun, due to various administrative delays. The community had dug 500m of trenches for the pipes through rocky terrain. Despite finalized contracts, supply orders and other administrative work that has been done, from the perspective of the community, there have been no developments towards safe water so far.

The people have been dying of diarrheal diseases for the last 6 years; soon they will start dying of sheer dehydration.

I drove directly from Nebar Ketema to the water supply office, feeling horrible. We are now racing to complete these two water points by Friday, if everything goes according to plan. Luckily it rained two days ago, and people have collected rainwater.

As I was walking towards my comfortable taxi, a man said this to me, “I am always carrying my children to the hospital because they are ill from the water. We have dug 500m of trenches within two days of your last visit. Why don’t the people come to build the water pipes? You must tell them, because you are white.”

There are sounds of thunder right now outside the office window, and I am thankful. All I can do is make phone calls to push the construction process and pray that the rain in this arid town will sustain the people of Nebar Ketema until next Friday.

Since this article was written, things have brightened for the community: the construction finally began on Saturday, so hopefully Nebar Ketema will see water flowing its way soon. As Aileen’s letter demonstrates, though, despite projects based on wonderful ideas, the best intentions and adequate financing, delays resulting from infrastructure constraints and limited government capacity threatened the lives of these often unheard villagers. In the developing world, with gap-riddled systems and vulnerable populations, new sets of challenges accompany each hard-won step.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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Dave Bridge
14 years ago

I really hope that as I type this the people of Nebar Ketema, while the problems of water supply in the developing world are not new – advances in technolgy make purification so much easier – personally I think it’s a stain governments of both the US and Europe that we allow so many people to die of preventable disease.

Having said that, having sepent many years in African nations the peoples “in-time” nature does make longer term planning more difficult than the through time norm in the west.

Thanks for helping keep this issue in the news.