Ethiopian women collecting water from COWASH project site. Photo: USAID Photo Gallery. Photo credit: Morgana Wingard.
What is WASH?
Widespread access to water is a continual challenge for both rural and urban populations in Ethiopia. Whether it be due to mismanagement of water allocation, lack of infrastructure, or severe droughts that continue to plague the nation; many young women still have to spend hours walking, not to school, but to retrieve water for their families. In 2004 a movement was launched under the United Nations Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council in partnership with multiple development organizations in order to address the issues of water access and sanitation in Ethiopia. This movement was called WASH (Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene) and its objectives were “to promote improved water, sanitation, and hygiene practices and gain the political and social commitment required to make a real difference.1” WASH programs have been initiated in many nations to initially meet the Millennium Development Goal Target 7.C. which sets the goal of halving, “the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015” and has launched into second phases with Sustainable Development Goal 6 that aims to achieve sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation for all. In Ethiopia the WASH movement has leveraged social mobilization and advocacy activities that resulted in the development of a National Hygiene and Sanitation Strategy Protocol2. UNICEF is now supporting the second phase of the WASH program that is intended to “increase the number of people having access to water and sanitation, through strengthening the service delivery, enabling environment, and knowledge management of the WASH sector.3” The goal is to increase water access from the current 59% to 85% in rural areas and 58% to 75% in urban areas by 2020. This second phase also has a strong focus on working with the government in order to reduce vulnerability to water insecurity as droughts become more frequent and longer in the country4.
Community Project Ownership
We are now aware of what is happening from a “top down” approach to solve the water access crisis Ethiopia, but an important question is often overlooked: How do communities improve their own water situation? A good answer to this question can be found in the first phase of the COWASH program was implemented in 2011 in partnership with the Ethiopian government and the government of Finland with the goal to reach more rural communities. In this approach communities are given full ownership. They have control over the planning, financial management, construction, and maintenance of their water access project. In contrast, the majority of WASH projects only have the community members involved in the continued maintenance and operation of infrastructure. In the COWASH program funding for construction is given directly to the communities through regional micro-finance institutions set up by the Ethiopian government. The transfer of investment funds (grant) is carried through regional micro-finance institutions (MFIs)5. A major reason for the success and sustainability of the COWASH program is it entails a high amount of ownership from the community since they are involved in the life cycle of the project implementation. It also provides capacity building for rural Ethiopians and extends the reach of the WASH movement in order to achieve its goal of increased water access across Ethiopia6. The COWASH program is now in its third phase and operating in 76 Woredas of 5 Regions 7.
Women Taking the Lead
As we know poor water access and sanitation disproportionately affects women and girls in many ways. The second phase of COWASH added that gender equality should be mainstreamed into the WASH intervention process. Women empowerment is defined by the European Institute for Gender Equality as “the process by which women gain power and control over their own lives and acquire the ability to make strategic choices.8” The major goals related to gender equality in COWASH Phase II are a 50% quota of women’s participation in WASH committees and at least 25% of artisans to be trained for implemented WASH facilities should be women.
In researching the success of this phase at increasing female participation in WASH projects it was found that the majority of projects fell short of these goals. One issue that was sited was community meetings were not held at times when women could easily attend and participate9. With the implementation of third phase of COWASH last year, new entry points have been identified for women empowerment. These include targeted capacity building for women, placing women in leadership roles, creating conducive environments for women to be engaged in male-dominated productive activities such artisanship, and advocating for gender programming in the WASH sector10.
Since women are directly involved and affected by access to water they have the knowledge of what issues need to be solved and have the motivation to solve them. As the issues with water access and sanitation are solved in a sustainable way it means that girls are able to spend their time in school rather than walking to retrieve water. This will only increase their capacity and bring more empowerment for women and girls to play an important role in their community.