Yemen: A community's killing well

Posted by Abdus Sohban Public Health Engineer, Yemen

24th Oct 2012

"We want water! need water! Water! Nothing else!"

This was the urgent plea from the community in Al-Basaabias (sometimes known as Al-Madba), Yemen.

I'd arrived to carry out an assessment of water and sanitation facilities in the village and others like it in the district. It was a remote and hard-to-reach area: a two-hour drive from Hodeidah city, then another half hour of off-road travel from the highway.

There are 330 families - more than 2,300 people - living in the village, sharing one water source that, on inspection, I called the "killing well."

Only three families in the village have a latrine; the rest defecate outdoors and few practice good hygiene, such as hand-washing with soap.

The village used to have a great water supply system, and almost every family could get water at home through the piped network. It was built decades ago by an American company (but too long ago for villagers to remember the name) with technical support from a government department (the General Authority for Rural Water Supply Projects). The department is meant to ensure water supply and sanitation facilities to rural communities.   But the water system in the village was damaged about twenty years ago, except the overhead tank which still remains standing today.

With no piped water at home, the community started to use an open dug well, which people said was built about 100 years back. It's 100 metres deep and more than a metre in diameter, without any protection such as a raised side wall or a cover to keep the water clean.

People pull out their water using a rope, pulley and bucket made out of a car inner tube. Five to ten people are needed to pull out water from the well, because its so deep - and you have to plunge more than 40 metres to reach the static water level.

It's also dangerous. According to the community, several people - adults and children - have fallen into the well and died. Cases like this could increase as more people are forced to use the well, which is getting shallower day by day.

The dug-well is also a risk to public health since the water is not at all protected. People told us that Acute Watery Diarrhoea was prevalent and was the leading cause of death in the community; with malaria coming second.

That's not surprising.  People drink directly from the well, and mostly without filtering it.

We tested the water: it had very high turbidity (meaning it was muddy to look at, rather like milky tea). People drink water directly from well without filtering it - although occasionally families would use a simple cloth as a basic filter or let the water stand a while so that the mud collected at the bottom, before drinking.

Yet with some simple interventions and adaptation techniques, we could make a difference and improve the water quality.

Simple steps, already followed in some other villages, include:

  • Cleaning the well
  • Raising the protection side wall
  • Using a proper cover or lid
  • Constructing a sanitary platform and a proper waste water disposal system
  • Providing a dedicated rope and bucket

Building more wells could also reduce waiting and improve the cleanliness of the site.

Carrying out basic hygiene awareness at household level would also make a big difference, so that people could take basic steps that would help them stop getting sick.

Oxfam will soon be working in this village and nine others, under a new project to be funded by UNICEF. As a first step, we plan to make improvements to the well so that villagers can get clean, safe water. 

Across Yemen, more than 66% of the rural population don't have access to safe, clean drinking water; and more than 73% don't have access to proper sanitation facilities.

It's a huge challenge to ensure that more people in Yemen access clean water and practice good hygiene. But it's crucial. Tackling these issues is just as important as providing sufficient nutrition and food to people, especially for vulnerable children under five, if we are to begin to seriously tackle Yemen's alarmingly high levels of acute malnutrition.

Blog post written by Abdus Sohban

Public Health Engineer, Yemen

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