Kefyalew Mengesha and his family of four boys and four girls are returnees in West Guji zone, which borders Gedeo zone in the south of Ethiopia’s Oromia regional state. They survived communal conflict that broke out in 2018, forcing them and their neighbours to flee their homes. For more than 11 months they lived as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in sites set up in the bordering state, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Regions.
“Escaping with my family to the collective living sites set up for the displaced in Gedeb was a very difficult experience and the move was particularly taxing because I had to carry my seven-year-old child, who is disabled, on my back,” says Kefyalew, reflecting on the agony he faced at the time. To save their lives, the family escaped with nothing but the clothes on their back, he says.
Once the security situation had improved and stabilized in June 2019, the displaced went back to their places of origin. Upon their return, Kefyalew and his family found their house, and adjacent properties, destroyed. Their sanitation facilities had also been wrecked and were unusable.
Despite traumatic memories, the returnees quickly connected with friends, neighbours and relatives. Reconstructing their homes quickly became their top concern.
Their inaccessible or unsuitable toilet facilities led to widespread open defecation, putting families at great risk of contracting or spreading water-borne and other life-threatening diseases.
For Kefyalew’s wife and daughters, the lack of access to proper sanitation facilities meant that when nature called, they had to find the privacy of a protected space outside their homes. This also increased their exposure to potential abuse, particularly after nightfall when their backyard turned into a dark forest.
West Guji is prone to diarrheal and other parasitic diseases and experiences regular cholera outbreaks. One of Kefyalew’s children was bed-ridden for several weeks in January 2018 after contracting the disease.
Besides the health risks to the community, a lack of access to sanitation facilities had additional consequences for women and girls. When a household member falls ill, women assume a greater burden of care. Furthermore, during childbirth clean water and toilet facilities can mean the difference between life and death for mothers and their newborn babies.
To alleviate this situation, IOM’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) Emergency Response team in Gedeo and West Guji began to construct latrines for returnee households and the most vulnerable host communities in Gelana last May. The work was extended to Gedeb and Chorso woredas in Gedeo zone in December 2019 and Kercha woreda in West Guji zone in March 2020.
“Sanitation coverage in Ethiopia is still very low, and through the WASH programme IOM is focusing on decreasing this gap and supporting the most vulnerable with adequate access to sanitation,” said Tabata Fioretto, WASH and Shelter/NFI Project Manager for IOM Ethiopia.
She added: “Our WASH programme is being implemented in several zones of Ethiopia and we are now a reference agency for most communities affected by conflict,”
The project has gone a long way in improving access to health and sanitation facilities for returnee communities in the two affected zones. In addition, some beneficiaries received training in general carpentry and maintenance, which enabled them to build household latrines and to provide small repairs to ensure sustainability.
Having built a latrine at his home, Kefyalew and his family are better able to protect themselves from WASH-related diseases and other illnesses. He has also gained valuable skills in construction, which will be handy as he starts to rebuild other parts of his home and seeks new job opportunities.
Alongside the construction of latrines, the WASH team also raised awareness about good and safe hygiene practices.
“I wash my hands with soap before preparing and eating food, and after using the toilet, and we always use soap for washing our hands,” says Kefyalew’s wife, Alemitu, as she demonstrates the tippy tap handwashing facility that the family has installed outside of the new latrine at their home.
Alemitu also expressed her appreciation for the invaluable information on disease prevention that was imparted by IOM staff and hygiene promoters, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the support of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, IOM has to date supported the construction of 1,518 household latrines in returnee communities in Gedeo and West Guji zones, contributing to improved sanitation conditions while also bolstering safety and dignity. About 10,013 people (5,020 female and 4,993 male) have benefitted from the project.
The provision of household latrines complements IOM’s construction of shelter, along with the promotion of hygiene, and distribution of hygiene kits in vulnerable communities.
This article was written by Tsige Gebrehaymanot and edited by Eric Mazango from IOM Ethiopia