[Above photo: The new piped water system in Gonbisa Kusaye, Ethiopia significantly reduces the time women and girls spend collecting water, allowing them to redirect that time to other activities, such as farming, earning an income or going to school]

Water1st’s approach is essentially built around answering one question: What does a poor Ethiopian woman who spends 5 hours each day with 40 pounds of water strapped to her back want? The answer is obvious: she wants to end her walk for water. And not just because carrying water is hard work. Because time spent carrying water is a major obstacle preventing her family from escaping abject poverty.

This is why in Ethiopia, Water1st supports the construction of piped water networks, complete with pumps and storage reservoirs.

They’re more expensive than hand pumps or home water filters, or slow sand filtration, and not very common in rural Ethiopia— less than 5 percent of the water solutions there. But we strongly believe the additional investment and challenge is worth it. After all, piped water systems are what we have all opted for in our homes.

It’s not just that this is what the world’s poorest want, although that’s a key to having a project succeed in the long term: If people want it and value it, they tend to take care of it.

Having water supplies close to every home also makes it easy for participants to use more water, particularly for one of the most cost-effective preventive medicines known to humankind: hand-washing.

Households in Ethiopia pay an affordable amount for the water they use, just like we do here. Funds are then available to purchase materials for maintaining the water system.

What’s more, these systems are expandable. During our visit to the community of Kelecho Gerbi a few weeks ago, a system that is now 2-1/2 years old, the water committee reported that several families have requested permission to extend the piped water network to their homes. These requests for household connections are very good news and demonstrate the value the residents of Kelecho Gerbi place on their water system. The water committee is planning to grant permission for these extensions, with construction costs paid entirely by the homeowners. Each connection will have a meter, and, just like us, homeowners will be billed for actual water use based on the meter reading.

The costs of Water1st projects in Ethiopia have ranged from $75 to $150 per person to provide piped water at multi-faucet public taps designed to allow people to walk and fill their containers in 15 minutes or less.

While the up-front cost is higher, the cost of water down the road is much lower.

Dr. William Daniell  of the University of Washington has recently led research in Cambodia evaluating different types of water systems, from rainwater harvesting to large-scale piped water systems. When his research team factored in the value of transport time, the cost per liter of water over a 10-year time period was two to ten times lower for piped water systems than for other types of water systems with lower up-front construction costs.

Using this model, piped water systems would likely do even better in rural Ethiopian communities where, due to lower population densities, walk times to public water points are higher than Cambodia.

A 2013 study from Burkina Faso in west Africa, demonstrated that people are willing to pay 10 times more for the same volume of water when it is provided at a convenient public or household tap rather than a more distant hand pump.

This information really isn’t surprising to us. It is exactly why piped water into the home is the option most people reading this post prefer.

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The water systems constructed in Ethiopia are metered, allowing the local water board to detect leaks and breaks in the system and allowing them to demonstrate accountability by matching the meter readings at the taps to the funds collected from users.

Piped water networks are more complicated than hand pumps. With multiple communities using the same system, our local partners have to put more effort into organizing communities and creating structures for them to manage the people and finances necessary to keep their water systems operating. Thus, the systems we are supporting in Ethiopia have had their share of challenges to work through as newly created water utilities learn to manage employees and ensure their water tariffs are sufficient to cover operating expenses.

We are grateful for the support of Water1st supporters who allow these systems to be constructed in the first place, and who also provide the necessary funds to support us and our local partners in routine follow-up visits that are critical in building the capacity of rural water utilities to becoming completely self-sufficient.