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A wave of change ripples through Ethiopia

Written by Roger Calow, Josephine Tucker, Peter Newborne

‘Over the past four years, the DFID-funded RiPPLE programme has provided invaluable support to the water and sanitation sector’H.E. Mr Asfaw Dingamo, Minister of Water Resources, Ethiopia

The global target for water and sanitation, enshrined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. An ODI-backed initiative is supporting progress towards that target in Ethiopia, where only 26% of rural people have access to clean water, and only 8% to adequate sanitation.

With funding from DFID, ODI’s five-year Research-inspired Policy and Practice Learning in Ethiopia and the Nile Region (RiPPLE) programme shows action research at its best. Not only does it increase understanding of the challenges facing the water sector, it also tackles those challenges as part of the process.

The knowledge RiPPLE generates for policy-makers reveals issues that go beyond water and sanitation supply to encompass underlying social, economic and environmental factors. Field studies, for example, have confirmed the importance of fresh water for many purposes in rural communities, including for livestock and small-scale enterprises, as well as for domestic use.

Researchers work with Learning and Practice Alliances (LPAs) to fill knowledge gaps on water delivery: one in each region and woreda (local district) where RiPPLE is working, and one at national level (the Forum for Learning on Water and Sanitation: FLoWS). The LPAs, which include researchers and practitioners, as well as local officials and ‘champions’, carry out not only the research, but also the necessary reforms. All are tuned into local conditions and politics, so once a problem is identified, things can – and do – move fast.

In the Southern Nations region, for example, research findings from two woredas, confirming the need for greater financing, contributed to a tenfold hike in woreda water and sanitation budgets. The training of community water committees to manage user fees for pump maintenance has increased the number of people with access to safe water. And support for the regional Water Bureau has given it a strong voice in the regional cabinet.

RiPPLE also sponsors 36 students for the water and sanitation module now available as part of the MA in Development Studies at Addis Ababa University. Most of these students – many of them junior government officials – conduct their research in woredas where RiPPLE is working and return to their posts after graduation, boosting the capacity of local government on water and sanitation issues.

RiPPLE is now focusing on influencing government policy and on the implementation of vulnerability assessment. Both have global relevance as governments strive to protect poor people from the impacts of climate change.