ASMARA, Eritrea — Fresh, safe water is sometimes hard to come by in Eritrea, a small, poor country in the dry, arid Horn of Africa. The average annual rainfall is a mere 15 inches, but rain can often be torrential, causing unexpected floods.
Furthermore, the amount of rain varies greatly from year to year, and droughts threaten the already limited supply of water sources every few years or so. Where water sources do exist, the water quality in Eritrea is often poor, contaminated by harmful bacteria.
Around 42 percent of Eritreans live without access to improved drinking water. This means they rely on untreated water that has not been separated from human excrement, which can cause illness and death from diseases such as diarrhea and cholera.
Unsanitary waste systems contribute to this problem. About 85 percent of the country’s population uses unimproved sanitation facilities, which range from improper toilets to defecating in the open. Without proper latrines, fecal matter winds up in local groundwater, contaminating wells and watering holes. An inventory of water supplies in Eritrea found that between 40 to 90 percent were contaminated, and sewage was a major cause.
The vastness of the problem and a lack of societal awareness could mean Eritreans are drinking and using contaminated water without fully understanding the risks. Add water scarcity to the mix, and inhabitants, especially in rural, undeveloped areas, may turn to these contaminated sources because no other options exist in their area.
Flooding causes a different, yet similarly problematic issue, according to UNICEF. Influxes of rushing water can damage sewage and water treatment plants, spreading feces and harmful E. coli bacteria.
The good news is that there are strategies in place to improve sanitation and water quality in Eritrea. The Ministry of Health and UNICEF partnered to implement the Community Led Total Sanitation program in 2007.
As of May 2014, nearly 500 villages declared Open Defecation-Free status. Thirty-one percent of the rural population, 733,000 people, stopped open defecation throughout the country. Plus, the program has trained more than 7,000 village health promoters and educated villagers on proper handwashing to reduce the spread of germs.
Nonprofits like UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross also work with the government to improve access to sanitary water by upgrading water supply systems and wells, installing solar and electric powered water supplies and creating rainwater basins.
Though the deadline has passed, the government continues to work with UNICEF to meet the Millennium Development Goals of improving sanitation and water quality in Eritrea. It will then plan for the Sustainable Development Goals.
The water quality in Eritrea remains a life threatening issue for residents, as well as a humanitarian issue for the government and nonprofits. The country’s climate, lack of freshwater sources and unsanitary waste facilities make access to clean drinking water a major problem for Eritrea. However, the country is committed to making progress to improve the lives of its inhabitants.
– Kristen Reesor