Water brings health and education to Eritrea's drought-hit villages

There is no road to the village of Shebek, just a sandy track that winds for miles across the rocky, barren plain, past endless fields of failed crops and dry riverbeds.
It is midday, but the sun is partly obscured in the bright, white sky by clouds of sand, whipped up by the hot wind. Animals and people cower from the storm. In its wake, everything is covered in a choking dust.

It is hard to believe that anyone can survive in this inhospitable desert, but thousands of people live in Shebek, and its neighbouring villages. The communities have their own churches, schools and shops. All they lack is water.

Years of drought in this area north-east of Keren in Zoba Anseba, compounded by the failure of rains last year, have meant that, until recently, villagers have been forced to walk a 22 kilometre round trip to their closest water source.

Water was usually collected by children, who had to make the exhausting trip at night. Teachers complained of pupils falling asleep during lessons, and some children were too tired to go to school. With families relying on tiny amounts of dirty water for drinking and basic sanitation, illness was inevitable and widespread.

But now the lives of the villagers have changed. The Red Cross Society of Eritrea, funded by the International Federation, has begun trucking water to Shebek and three nearby villages. The water provides them not only with the most essential element for survival in such a harsh climate, but also with a chance for their children to get an education.

As the oldest of six brothers, 13-year-old Michael Gebremeskal has been responsible for fetching water for his family for four years. Most nights of the week, he would leave his family's tukul - a round thatched hut - walk for four hours, fill two jerry cans at the water hole, then return home, arriving at dawn - just in time to go to school.

His mother, Leteslassie, used to worry about him. Her husband has been in the army for the past five years and she depends heavily on her eldest son. "How could he learn anything at school when he was up all night, what chance does he have in life if he can't learn anything?"

Michael's father was a farmer before becoming a soldier. But Michael, who is intelligent and articulate, is adamant that he does not want to follow in his footsteps. "I want to continue my education and become a teacher," he said.

He said the life of a farmer is too hard when rains do not come. "Our hopes always rise when we see the clouds, but then they go away. It's always the same," he shrugged. "Nothing will grow here."

Michael's pessimism is shared by many in Eritrea. Years of conflict, a lack of manpower due to military mobilization and the closure of borders have damaged the country's economy and infrastructure. Over 2.3 million people - two thirds of the country's population - are in need of food assistance.

The recent drought has meant that water tables across Eritrea have dropped by many metres in a short period. Wells and other water sources have dried up. Agencies estimate that 70 per cent of the population faces acute water shortages and 80 per cent of livestock are affected.

"Many communities are reported to be trekking an average of 3 to 5 hours to collect water," the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS) reported recently.

Some aid has begun to arrive in Eritrea, but much more is needed. FEWS predicts that the situation is likely to deteriorate rapidly over the next few months, unless more help arrives quickly.

Tesfamariam Ghebremichael, the RCSE's regional secretary in Anseba, said that as well as providing emergency water supplies in the area, the Red Cross is also working on long-term solutions to the water crisis. It is rehabilitating hand pumps, digging boreholes and fixing solar pumps that have fallen into disrepair.

Tesfamariam said that Red Cross water trucking had made an enormous difference to the local population. "But there are many more people who are in desperate need," he said. "We want to help as many as we can, we would like to bring more water to the area as soon as possible," he said.

The Red Cross water truck currently travels to four villages - over a distance of 20 kilometres. Close to Shebek is another village, Adi Omer, where children, were regularly walking five hours to collect water before the Red Cross deliveries began.

Standing in the midst of a delighted crowd, Adam Ali Karar, a village elder, helped to supervise the distribution of water from the Red Cross truck which had just arrived in Adi Omer. "In the past we had little choice but to send the children to fetch our water," he said. "But many would refuse to go to school the next day. Every village needs water, but what's a village where children can't go to school - it is a village without a future. Now we have water, we have hope."