Water Quality & Contamination in Ethiopia

In many countries, women are responsible for finding and fetching water for their families—all the water for drinking, washing, cooking, cleaning.

They walk miles, carry heavy burdens, wait for hours, and pay exorbitant prices. The work is backbreaking and the water is often contaminated, even deadly. In these instances, they face an impossible choice—certain death without water or possible death from illness.

With the lack of access to clean water, many Ethiopians, especially women and children, are forced to travel long distances to get their water. In many cases, people have to fight with animals to get water, and even when they do, it’s contaminated by human and animal waste.

The result is a host of water-related diseases that are responsible for a large number of deaths, especially in children and the elderly.

Water-Borne Diseases

Contamination from human and animal waste makes water dangerous, as drinking or eating food prepared with contaminated water spreads diseases. Some of the most common water-borne diseases are:

  • Diarrheal diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Diarrheal diseases account for 1 in 9 child deaths worldwide, making diarrhea the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 5.” Furthermore, UNICEF estimated that 22% of Ethiopian children under five die from diarrheal diseases alone.
  • Cholera. This intestinal infection can result in dehydration and, left untreated, even death. Millions of Ethiopians are at risk of being infected, and drought conditions make the situation worse.
  • Typhoid fever. Although early symptoms such as fever, headaches, or diarrhea are not immediately life-threatening, later-stage symptoms of this bacterial infection may include an enlarged liver and spleen as well as intestinal perforations, which are often fatal.

Water-Washed Diseases

Lack of clean water for personal hygiene can cause a variety of serious infectious diseases, including:

  • Trachoma. A bacterial infection of the eyes caused by the inability to wash the face with clean water, trachoma is a major cause of blindness, notably occurring in Africa and Asia.
  • Shingellosis (Shigella). An intestinal disease causing stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever.
  • Scabies. Also known as the seven-year itch, scabies is a contagious skin infection.

Water-Based Diseases

Water-based diseases are those that are transmitted by organisms (parasites) that live in the water. Infections result from bathing in, drinking, or, in the case of children, playing in contaminated water. The most common parasitic diseases are:

  • Malaria. Most commonly transmitted by mosquitos, the initial symptoms are flu-like. Complications are typically severe respiratory conditions and there are many cases of deaths. The majority of the millions of worldwide cases of malaria deaths have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where Ethiopia is located.
  • Schistosomiasis. Transmitted by flat worms that infect humans by penetrating the skin to lay their eggs. As with malaria, the majority of cases occur in sub-Sarahan Africa. Although not frequently deadly, this is a chronic disease with symptoms such as fever, coughing, diarrhea, fatigue, and skin sores and infections.
  • Dengue fever. This disease is also transmitted by mosquitos, and is not usually fatal. The symptoms of this disease—also called “breakbone fever”—are, as the name implies, fevers and severe muscle and joint pain. 
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