Water 1st Ethiopian Tour

by Stephanie Nelson

Last summer, a couple we know decided that instead of gifts for their wedding, they would ask for donations to Water 1st International, a humanitarian water project based in Seattle.

Annie said, “We don’t need anything. We are fortunate not only to have been born on this side of the world but also to have the luxuries we do. It gives us enormous joy to be able to share this wonderful day and in turn have a lasting impact on other people’s lives.”

I and many of my Covenant friends feel the same way. We grew up in average homes—not rich, but we enjoyed many luxuries, and still do. But, also, from the time we were kids in Sunday school and put a quarter each week in our little Sunday school envelopes, we were taught the importance of “helping poor children in other countries.”

Today, several of us Covenant friends in Seattle, with compassionate hearts for helping the poor in other countries, are working with Water 1st International—an organization providing clean water to impoverished people in Bangladesh, Honduras, India, and Ethiopia.

Our executive director, Marla Smith-Nilson, founded Water 1st in 2003, having had fifteen years’ experience in implementing water projects around the world. She has degrees in civil and environmental engineering, along with an intense passion for bringing clean, safe water to families without this access. Jen Norling is director of development, Kirk Anderson is chair of the board, Sandy Nelson is the volunteer graphic designer, Chris Brown is the documentarian and webmaster, and I’m the donor relations manager. Some of us were at North Park College together, and we all attend First Covenant Church in downtown Seattle.

Other generous North Park friends also volunteer, including helping out at our major fund-raiser of the year—a fall dinner in downtown Seattle attended by more than 500 interested individuals who see a film about our water projects and hear the story of lives and communities changed by water. In addition to this fund-raiser, several corporations, foundations, Covenant World Relief, and even small schools and businesses contribute to Water 1st.

Last April, we and three of our Water 1st donors traveled to Ethiopia to tour water projects and have a firsthand look at the amazing work being done by Water 1st International and our local partner organization, Water Action, to bring sustainable water supplies to the poor of Ethiopia.

Our tour started in the capital, Addis Ababa, where we heard a presentation by Water Action on the current Ethiopian political and social landscape and the role of water and sanitation projects in this context. Fifty percent of the population live in absolute poverty, and only 17 percent have access to safe water. In the rural areas, it’s only 7 percent. Deforestation is a major issue, so protection of natural resources and watershed management is imperative, improving agricultural productivity and ensuring the sustainability of underground water sources.

Ethiopia is famous as the birthplace of coffee, so to end our meeting we were given a lesson on how to perform the local coffee ceremony. We then took a city tour of Addis Ababa, where in the National Museum we viewed the remains of Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old fossil of the first human.

We spent the next three days visiting completed or in-progress water and sanitation projects in the Oromia region. We enjoyed interacting with the people and learning about their lives and how they are managing their water projects, collecting water fees and performing maintenance chores. We also met government officials who told of their struggle to meet the enormous water needs of the region. They are so grateful to Water 1st for implementing projects the government is unable to provide.

We also participated in constructing a water system for the community of Awash Boloto, where we observed how much labor is involved in constructing a new system. Using crude tools resembling shovels and pick-axes, our team of nine people worked with the villagers to dig a portion of the ten-kilometer pipeline that will bring water from a capped spring to water points in the community. We probably provided some entertainment to the local folks as we struggled to break through the tough soil.

Our final visit was to Ilamu Muja, a remote community of 2,000 people who will benefit from a Covenant World Relief grant and Water 1st support this year. It was exciting to be able to announce our grant to the gathered community. Here the women currently walk for about two hours each way to obtain water from filthy springs shared with livestock. Because of the burden of illness and the large amount of time spent fetching water, they are unable to participate in the development activities of the community.

These delighted community friends were thrilled that we were there and very moved in expressing their gratitude. “We’ve never seen people like you before,” they said. Even the local government officials were awed, saying, “We have had to stand in front of this community many times and tell them we don’t know when they will be able to have water. . . . We believe that God has brought you to us.”

Marla Smith-Nilson, Water 1st executive director, and Kirk Anderson, board chair, recognized the villagers’ involvement: “We thank you for your expressions of gratitude, and we will take your words home to our supporters. However, it’s important to recognize your role in this. We are all partners—the community of Ilamu Muja, Water Action, Water 1st, and the woreda [government] offices. And, as partners, we will walk hand in hand down the road toward the day when you have safe water in your village.”

On our final day together, our group returned to Addis Ababa where we enjoyed some sightseeing and joined the Water Action staff for a tasty traditional meal of injera bread, lentils, and vegetables.

This was an unforgettable journey of seeing the projects that we and Covenant World Relief are supporting in Ethiopia. If you are interested in joining us on a future water tour, please contact us through our website water1st.org. As we certainly learned, to understand the world, you need to see it for yourself!

It gives us enormous joy to play a part in bringing the simple gift of clean water to people who have never had it.

Stephanie Nelson works for Water 1st and lives in Seattle, Washington.

See all articles by Stephanie Nelson