Ethiopian water project ‘led to malnutrition’

Before the arrival of tap water, women in the Arsi region of southern Ethiopia walked six hours a day to collect water. Copyright: IRD

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Development projects that focus on a single technological intervention could have unexpected and potentially detrimental effects on communities involved, say researchers in a study published in PLoS Medicine today (14 February).

They say a project that provided tap water to remote communities in southern Ethiopia has triggered population growth, which in turn has led to an increase in childhood malnutrition.

This, say the researchers, highlights the need for development programmes to be multisectoral, by promoting contraception in addition to their primary activities for example.

Women used to walk for up to six hours a day to collect water but, thanks to the project, the task takes just 15 minutes now.

Researcher Mhairi Gibson of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, found that the women also had more energy, and gave birth to more children, after tap water became available.

But because the amount of available food was unchanged, supplies had to be spread increasingly thinly across the growing population.

As a result, the children born after tap water was introduced had poorer nutrition than those born when their mothers still had to fetch water from distant wells.

The study suggests that the increase in malnutrition could be partly due to women having more time to spend caring for their children, which, along with improvements in the quality and quantity of the water supply, has led to more children of low-birth weight surviving.

Gibson, who undertook the research for her PhD, says the women she studied were fascinated by the results.

Prior to the study, contraception was something they “just weren’t interested in”, she says.

Traditional values dictated that larger families were better, so family planning was not only unavailable, but also considered undesirable.

But during her study, Gibson found that attitudes were changing and the villagers wanted to know how they could limit the number of children they had.

Link to full paper in PLoS Medicine

Reference: PLoS Medicine 10.1371/journal.pmed.0030087(2006)