A view of water poverty

Ethiopia, October 15, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The Gatto River, a primary water source in southern Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, and a major source of conflict among dozens of competing villages and ethnic groups in the area. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Another view of those gathered at the Gatto River on market day. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

My friend and colleague, photographer Thatcher Cook, took this picture just over a month ago in southern Ethiopia. We were visiting Mercy Corps projects in dozens of villages in the country's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region — a deeply poor area inhabited by more than 45 different ethnic groups.

This picture begins to describe that poverty by illustrating the meager flow of the Gatto River, a primary source of water for this region. But — as you can see — there's not much water to be had and dozens of people who want it.

Unfortunately, this was one of the most robust water flows that I saw during my travels in Ethiopia. Most rivers, streams and creeks were little more than dry, eroded gullies.

A dribble of water doesn't slake the thirst of families, not to mention livestock and crops. And so places like the Gatto River become hotly contested, because water — as we all know — is a matter of life and death.

I learned in Ethiopia that an estimated 70 percent of the country's challenges have to do with water. That means that water — or the lack thereof — contributes to catastrophes like food crisis, poor health, failing local economies, withering farms and heated conflicts.

This water, scarce as it may be, is fully capable of starting a war that could kill hundreds and displace thousands. It's happened before — and recently.

You can see the competition that leads to conflict in just this one photograph: some people are watering their livestock here in the Gatto River. Others are washing their clothes. Many people are bathing. Several more are trying to fetch clean water for their households. But if there is laundry, livestock and bathing here, how can this water possibly be clean?

Yet you can't tell that to a mother whose children are thirsty. Chances are that she'll have to walk a few hours to even reach that place. When she arrives and finds water, could she refuse it, regardless of what else is happening here?

That's the reality of water, the world's most precious resource, in a place like this. And it's a reality that's being lived right now by thousands in southern Ethiopia and millions around the world.