Ethiopia: No Respite for Low Income Residents, Sanitation Woes Escalate

In a run down and dusty section of Addis Ababa – far from its skyscrapers that have defined its progress for the last decade – is a suburb known as ‘Autobis Tera’, near Merkatto, one of Africa’s largest open-air markets. The working-class district whose key features includes desolate infrastructure, crowding, pollution and neglected apartment blocks is where Alemnesh Kebede resides with her children and grandchildren.

At the compound that has several double room housing units whose monthly rent is subsidized by the state, Kebede, aged 61 is grappling with the stress of sharing already strained amenities like tap water, electricity and bathrooms together with other five families with young children and adolescents.

Nevertheless, Alemnesh is privileged compared to her peers residing in other low-income suburbs of Addis Ababa who lack access to basic sanitation facilities and are often forced to defect in the open, exposing them to a host of water-borne diseases.

“Look at our toilet which is shared by so many families. It is always untidy, emits a foul smell and it is not safe for use by our children and their offspring,” Alemnesh said.

“There is no privacy for us while using this toilet whose unhygienic condition has worsened health challenges among residents, forcing us to spend a lot of money to treat infectious diseases,” she added.

According to a 2016 study by the Wash Ethiopia Movement, and reported by the Guardian Newspaper of UK, the vast majority of residents of Addis Ababa, equivalent to about 90 percent, do not have adequate toilets and often resort to using “open pit latrine or pit latrine without slabs”. UNICEF estimates that over 22 million Ethiopians, mostly in rural areas, practice open defecation.

Bizunesh Eshetu is also worried and feels her neighborhood is neglected at best and forgotten at worst. Like her neighbors, she is forced to use a toilet that overflows with human waste, emits a pungent smell and is worried about the young girls who use a latrine that lack basic privacy and whose safety is highly compromised.

“I wish there was a way to show our living arrangement to authorities or anyone who can lend a helping hand. The smell can be overwhelming and I assumed the predicament that I grappled with while growing up with such toilets was not going to be extended to my children but here, we are”, Bizunesh remarked while surveying the overcrowded compound where her house is situated.

According to a recent study done by the Habitat for Humanity, the majority of Addis Ababa residents, upwards of 80 percent who reside in the poor, desolate and overcrowded sections of the capital are forced to share a very limited number of equally dilapidated toilets.

But that is the reality for the majority of low-income residents of a metropolis often described as the capital of Africa by virtue of being the headquarters of so many continental blocs including the African Union.

The sanitation crisis has also replicated itself in rural Ethiopia where members of any given family often resort to relieving themselves in the open, to the detriment of their health and safety.

The SDG 6 mission calls for “ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and ending defection”, yet the challenge in Ethiopia in meeting that target remains a lofty dream. Such shortcomings have polluted the environment where adequate toilet remains rare to a majority of its population, now pushing 120 million.

As for Alemitu Gemeda, a mother of three and resident of Sululta, a working-class suburb of Addis Ababa, her plight is worsening by the day. Alemitu’s aging apartment lacks modern toilet facility and her entire household has converted a secluded and bushy backyard into a bathroom.

In addition, Alemitu is grappling with inflationary pressures and the dream of using a modern bathroom remains a mirage.

Zemednesh Ali who is aged 81 and is a resident of an overcrowded district of Addis Ababa with lots of elderly too weak to stand on their own, is too frail and vulnerable to harsh elements. Her bedroom is adjacent to a public toilet and for many years she has shared her tiny living quarters with her mentally challenged adult daughter.

At the peak of her youth, Zemednesh used to advocate for better living conditions for her low-income neighbors though minimal results have been realized.

Currently, Zemednesh’s plight has only gotten worse as she grapples with dire poverty and shrinking living quarters that lack some of the most basic amenities like clean toilets.

“I am an old woman. Already, I have lost the sense of smell but I worry about the children who reside with us and am not sure what motivation they have to come back home when my abode looks this desolate”, she remarked while opening the door of her run down toilet with her walking stick cane. She expressed frustration on the deteriorating conditions in her neighborhood.

And in another section of Addis Ababa, Yenenesh Demelash, 61, is living in a residential apartment, which is too small to accommodate her large family.

Yenenesh worried that as more families occupy the run-down apartments in her compound, young children might not have ample space for playing games, a situation that could jeopardize their mental, physical and mental health.

The elderly lady observed that as hordes of newcomers occupy the tiny apartment blocks in her neighborhood, the two toilets available will be stretched to the limit, amid risk of disease outbreaks.

“This is not a good development and I worry about our health once more people occupy houses in our compound and stretch the capacity of available absolution blocks,” said Yenenesh.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we will ever get the kind of support that we deserve as citizens despite the suffering we are going through due to lack of toilet facilities”, she added as she cooked dinner for her family.

Yenenesh’s neighbor going by the name Asnakech Belay, echoed her frustration and those of many residents of struggling suburbs of Addis Ababa.

“I do not think our toilet meets basic standards of quality and hygiene. It emits a foul smell and has not been renovated for many years. This toilet could even collapse anytime and we are only lucky that predicament has not come to pass”, remarked Asnakech while shedding tears even as a young man relieved himself in the open next to the main entrance to her living quarters.


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