The Horn of Africa, aptly named for its shape, hosts four African countries: Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Located along the top ridge of this geological curve is Eritrea, a country that is home to 3.5 million people and territory of an existential water crisis.

In 2018, WaterAid identified Eritrea as having one of the lowest access to clean water close to home worldwide. In June this year, a nationwide alert was issued to ration water, reduce flushing, and prepare for water to be cut off. This action follows the closing of water purification and bottling plants by the government with no public announcement as to why or information on how to receive help during this time.

collecting water eritrea

It is assumed that the closing was due to the lack of resources or from the prolonged drought that threatens the country for so long. Eritrea remains notoriously guarded against media and questioning by not only the outside world but also by the people that call the country home.

Access to not only water but also the information regarding it is a human right, one that should be provisioned and protected by governments to ensure life, not threaten it.

While this affects the lives of millions of people, water poverty is a challenge faced daily by many Eritreans, the cause of which is complex, from hydrogeological processes to political management and even war. For Eritrea, the answers are not simple, and with political unrest a staple in its history, it has not prioritized the management of food and water, and the citizens are paying the price.

Eritrea: A Country of Its Own

For 30 years, the country was governed by its neighbor Ethiopia. During this time, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea leading to unrest in the country and instigating a war of independence; while the war was won and freedom gained in 1991 the aftermath and consequences of war remain with a widespread economic loss of infrastructure and livestock.

These events are the catalyst for mass migration, where between 1995 and 2019 over 1.5million people moved from rural to urban areas.

  • Many citizens are forced into compulsory military service, and the arable land of Eritrea was deserted.
  • In 2014, only 4% of the 26% of usable land was being cultivated.

eritrea crisis

  • Most of the population is between 0-14years of age, accounting for 41.12%.
  • 18.59% of the people are 15-24 (the age of enrollment into the military being 15), and shockingly, only 4.51% of the population is over the age of 65.

But what does this information mean when considering the future of the country and its access to clean water?

There is a considerable disparity between the youngest and oldest of the population, with those on the younger end forced into military service and those on the higher end unable to work, leaving agriculture susceptible to management without consideration for environmental impact.

The Eritrea government boasts traditional and fruitful farming practices in the Revised National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for Eritrea (2014 – 2020). However, deforestation (the cutting of large areas of forest/woodland), introducing alien species that threaten crops and endemic species, and eutrophication of water are a more realistic image.

From Mouth to Mouth

Only 26-50% of the population has access to water, which is produced mostly from groundwater. Other than the Setit, the rivers in Eritrea are seasonal, meaning they do not supply water annually. The Setit river runs along the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia from the Sudan Kashm el-Girba Dam, which allows for proper irrigation and consistency in the water supply. Water, like everything, has a process and the journey it takes to get to us is often overlooked.

It is particularly important in countries with scarce and polluted water, as it is often the source or mouth that pollutes it, despite efforts to keep the water clean.

  • The Khashm elGirba Dam offers an enormous supply of water, yet neighboring the dam are refugee camps where the management of water, sanitation, and waste is often overlooked by over 500,000 people seeking refuge there.

Along the river are distant villages, towns, highlands, and deforested terrains, opening the water to a host of diseases and pollutants, the majority of which are from anthropogenic (human) interaction.

Different Country, Almost the Same Problems

In countries such as Uganda, Nepal, Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, waste disposal will leave little to be desired.

  • Many rural areas have no sanitary facilities meaning open defecation is regular, and where there are latrines (large holes dug into the ground), many do not have sewage systems and so human waste feeds into the soil.
  • With mismanagement of agriculture, the deforestation of areas due to farming, and through the mining of resources, large areas are left open for when the season changes and rain occurs.
  • In Eritrea, when it rains, it pours, and deforested land becomes susceptible to flash floods. While this may seem useful, water becomes polluted from the matter it runs through in a process called Eutrophication.

The open defecation from humans and livestock and the poorly designed latrines allow for water to become polluted with feces, the water continues flowing to the pocket of water which humans use for everything from washing their clothes, to drinking.

Open areas are particularly susceptible to flash flooding, causing mass soil erosion where large quantities of matter from soil to litter are taken with it.

Diarrhoeal diseases account for 842,000 deaths per year worldwide, with many attributed to an unsafe water supply.

These diseases, among other symptoms, cause severe dehydration, a consequence that cannot be managed in a place where dangerous water itself is the cause of the problem. Dengue, Malaria, Scabies, and Hookworm are all other outcomes identified from using contaminated water.

Deadly Waters

These diseases account for a majority in the high death rate and low life expectancy in Eritrea, where 110 under 5 in every 1000 die, and the average life expectancy is 67.5 years, according to the Eritrea Action Plan (2014 – 2020).

  • Infants who rely on breastfeeding are susceptible to these same diseases where the mother carries the conditions and polluted water in her system, feeding them to her infant in a process called biomagnification.
  • Medical tools used to assist in childbirth and healthcare are cleaned with the same water that is rife with disease.
  • Dishes used to feed are cleaned with the water and rice is boiled in it.
  • This water, which is used to sustain life, is irreversibly affecting, and shortening it dramatically.

Now, with the closing of multiple bottling and filtering plants, many are turning to unsafe and life-threatening water sources, increasing sickness, biomagnification of diseases and toxins, and in time, death.

Making Changes in Eritrea is Not Impossible

eritrea water crisis

In 2014, the Eritrean government produced the Revised National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for Eritrea in which they identified areas of focus, importance, and outlines in what could be done to eradicate environmental issues by 2020.

They noted the potential risks to marine and water pollution through ecological degradation, expanding marine activities, coastal habitation, and industrialization near water points.

Some targets include:

Target 5: By 2020, the rate of loss of all-natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation are significantly reduced with funding of 2.75million USD.

Target 8: By 2020, pollution, including from excess nutrients, has been brought to levels that are not detrimental to ecosystem function and biodiversity, with funding of 550,000 USD.

Target 14: By 2020, ecosystems that provide essential services, including services related to water, and contribute to health, livelihoods, and well-being, are restored and safeguarded, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities, and the poor and vulnerable, with funding of 1.35million USD.

In 2009, The Action Plan for Integrated Water Resources Management was produced, with targets and actions in place to effectively control the water resources, reducing poverty, increasing food security, and management of water allocation and use. Since publishing, little has been done to meet the targets of the plan, and the current status is dire.

Access to water requires education, commitment, and management by not only the government but the citizens that utilize it. It is vital that anyone who encounters water to consider the implications of their interactions with it. This begins with proper information not only of the outcomes, but also ways to manage their water.

How Can You Help?

Technology without Borders or Technik Ohne Grenzen is a  charity that develops solutions to water sanitation provides education to Third World Countries, raises money towards, and assists in the construction of multiple water aid projects Worldwide.

The group coordinates development with the help of local people, meaning that when they leave, the residents are not only informed of how the system works but also with a sense of pride and responsibility towards the upkeep of the system.

Constructions of dams are a long term, clean, and fruitful solution to water poverty in Eritrea. With wells drying and the water table falling, it is essential to create a clean store of water.

With the aid of residents, the RSCE constructed a surface dam in Balwa. The dam collects water during the rainy seasons, filtered through the sand to improve sanitation, and stored in an underground deposit for use in times of drought.


These projects require more than funding, but also discussion and education. It is high time we talk about practical solutions and ways to help, holding the governments that manage the water responsible for implementing solutions, and the outcomes should they fail.

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