Atsedu made it look so easy; light-footed and charging up the hill with 40-pounds of water strapped to her back. We could barely keep up and our water cans were only filled half-way. The guide kept telling her she needed to slow down for us and she would just turn around and smile.

This past February, I joined Water1st International for their 2014 Water Tour and was able to experience first-hand, what women and girls in rural Ethiopia have to do every day, multiple-times a day, to get water for their families. Not only were they carrying about 40 pounds of water on their backs, but the water source they were using was a muddy, bug-filled pit about a mile downhill from the village where they live. Although I’ve seen pictures over and over again, it truly was an eye-opening experience to see it all first-hand, and reinforced for me the reason I continue to support the efforts to end the Walk for Water.

We drew quite a crowd as we kneeled down on the wet, muddy rock to fill our jerry cans with water. Nineteen foreigners trying to scoop as clean as water as we could get by pushing away bugs and trying to keep the mud at the bottom of the pit. The women and the girls at the water source didn’t yet know that we were there with a team of people who will soon be bringing clean water to water points close to their home. For me, I was shocked to see how many girls were down at the water source filling water. It was the middle of the day, and I would have expected them to be in school. But instead, they were filling jerry cans which weigh between 25 and 40 pounds; which they would soon strap on their back and walk up hill, a minimum of a mile, to bring the water back to their homes.

After filling our cans, we asked the women if we could bring the water to their homes. They were thrilled and agreed immediately. The family I visited had 7 children but 2 had passed away as babies; one of diarrhea related illness, the other she was unsure but the baby had been ill. The mother, Atsedu carries water up a very steep hill a minimum of 3 times a day; but usually 5 times. Her daughter, who is 10 years old, also helps carry water for the family. Because she spends so much time carrying water, she is unable to attend school on a regular basis. She is often needed at home to help her mother carry water. I’m sure you can imagine the family’s reaction when we shared the news that their community would soon start a project that would allow them to have access to clean water close to their homes. As one of the women in our group stated, “It was like they had just won the lottery!”

During our visit, we were able to spend time with Water1st’s local partner, Water Action, an Ethiopian-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), that implements high-quality and sustainable water and sanitation projects. I chose Water1st International as the organization I support after spending some time researching several charities who are working to bring clean water to the poor. For me, their approach to supporting and building sustainable projects with local partners made the most sense.

All of the projects implemented by Water Action and Water1st integrate water, toilets and hygiene education to provide maximum health benefits. In the area they are currently working; the Dawo Woreda (similar to a county) within the Oromia region, they build piped water systems with a clean and protected water source. This is either a deep well or a capped spring which is then distributed to public water points. Local community members are trained in key hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing, and these individuals go house-to-house sharing the information they have learned and encourage their neighbors to adopt the new practices. Another major goal is to convince 80-100% of households to build pit latrines to further reduce the spread of diseases.

One thing I learned while I was in Ethiopia was the importance of community involvement in building sustainable water systems. Because the projects revolve around empowering communities to solve their water supply and sanitation problems on their own, the projects implemented by Water1st and Water Action are still working today, several years after implementation. The approach with the community involves the creation of a water committee which consists of members of the community. The water committee is involved with the planning, development and maintenance of the projects, as well as community education around proper hygiene.

Once the project is implemented, Individual households pay a small fee for the water which is used to help maintain and support the project into the future. One of the most encouraging things I heard as we met with the head of the water committee at Kelecho Gerbi is that households are starting to ask about installing a water tap at their home. This is a community who has had a water points that have been up and running for 2 years now, and the community has been able to experience first-hand the impact of having a source of clean water near their homes. It was very exciting to hear that more and more households are willing and able to pay the extra money to do this!

We ended our trip by attending a water inauguration ceremony for the community of Gonbisa Kussaye, one of the projects funded by Water1st supporters. Words can’t express the feeling that was in the air. Happiness, appreciation, gratitude. It was more than that. When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by the entire community: the men rode up in horses adorned in flower garlands, the women singing traditional Ethiopian songs, and the kids walking alongside us holding signs and yelling, “Bishaan Labbuudah” which means, “Water is Life.” The energy in the air was electric; and knowing that we were participating in an event that would help save, transform, and uplift lives…the feeling was truly overwhelming.

It was hard to come back to “reality” after spending a week out in the beautiful countryside of Ethiopia. But what I’ve brought with me is an even greater appreciation for what women and girls are doing every day of their lives, and what they are doing as a write this article….carrying every drop of water their families need on their backs. It’s truly hard for us to comprehend this fact. I’ve also brought back with me a greater resolve to help the organizations who are building these projects to finally help end this walk for water and provide all humans around the globe access to a basic human right: Access to clean water…and to life!

Pooja Babbrah is a t and strategic management professional from Phoenix, Arizona, and a member of our Advisory Council. Pooja traveled with us to Ethiopia in 2014.

This article was originally published in the Valley India Times in March 2014.