Behind Ethiopia’s MDG success on water supply

With Ethiopia celebrating reaching the Millennium Development Goal on halving the number of people lacking access to safe drinking water, Yosef Tiruneh, WaterAid Ethiopia’s Media and Communications Officer, takes a closer look at the country’s clean water status.


4 Aug 2015

World Water Day 2015 was not just another annual event for the Ethiopia WASH sector. This year Ethiopia celebrated halving the proportion of people who do not have sustainable access to safe drinking water, meeting the water aim of Target 10 of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7C.

The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) indicates that 57% of the Ethiopian population uses safe drinking water, up from 14% in the 1990 baseline year – an estimated increase of 48 million people. 

However, more than 42 million Ethiopians and most health facilities still do not have access to an improved water source (National WASH Inventory report, 2012). Sanitation targets are still off track and require concerted efforts by the government and all stakeholders involved.

A lack of equity

Behind the MDG success are several factors that require honest reflection if all Ethiopians are to have access to safe drinking water. One important issue is equity. The divide between urban and rural settings and between rich and poor people, and the issue of including everyone, have not been thoroughly examined. In 25 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, use of improved drinking water is more than 25% higher in urban areas than in rural areas; in Ethiopia this difference is greater than 50% (UNICEF/WHO, 2014).

A young girl washing her hands under a running tap.
Sinafikish Tesfaye, 11, fourth grader, enjoys access to clean water in her school in Chano Chalba, South Ethiopia, through WaterAid supported project inaugurated in May 2015.

Capital changes

Addis Ababa has a better supply of water than does the country as a whole. The city has a population of more than five million, and the city administration claims water coverage is about 98%. But population growth and the rapid expansion of the city to its outskirts has made provision of an equitable supply of water difficult.

Few areas receive a consistent supply; in some sub-cities in Addis residents get water three days a week. Because of this intermittent supply, people who can afford to do so buy water from elsewhere in the city, while poor people wash their clothes and bathe in city streams.

Residents evicted from the city centre, to make way for redevelopment with big buildings and modern shopping malls, are relocated to peri-urban parts of the major towns, depriving them of clean water until supply is expanded.

In the past two years, the Addis Ababa government has begun new projects to increase water supply and reach areas with poor service; however, efforts have not matched the city’s expansion and population growth. 

The rural poor

Despite a marked reduction in poverty during the past 15 years, most of Ethiopia’s rural population still lives below the poverty line. Provision of basic services, including clean water, is a major challenge. 

The 2015 JMP update notes that seven out of ten of those without an improved drinking water source live in rural areas. About 80% of the 90 million population lives in rural areas, and not enough water is produced to meet the needs of the rural poor.

Gaps in water management

In urban areas, people live with intermittent water supply and limited wastewater treatment facilities. Water utility enterprises struggle to produce enough water and distribute it continuously. The water that is produced is wasted by poor management, including leakages.

Moreover, because of low tariffs, many service providers do not cover the costs of operation and maintenance. Consequently, the service providers strongly depend on government subsidies and external funding. 

As acknowledged by the government, the quality of safe water services is still not up to desired standards, and this needs to be addressed. Ethiopia may have met its MDG target, but there is a long way to go before the country has the facilities needed to provide water and sanitation equally for its population and raise more people out of poverty.

Yosef Tiruneh is Media and Communications Officer at WaterAid Ethiopia. 

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