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The Kolobo School Water Project

Exeter Medicine students help secure clean water wells for schools in Ethiopia

An international project supported by Exeter Medicine students has secured a supply of clean water for four schools in Ethiopia, to tackle health problems caused by poor hygiene and sanitation.

The University of Exeter Medical School and the University of Wollega in the town of Nekemte, Western Ethiopia, have been working together since 2013 to share teaching and learning, and Medicine students have been visiting the area regularly. In 2016, they started collaborating with the local Red Cross branch to tackle the lack of clean water supply, and set up a charity to support the work.

Now, the latest of four water wells has been built and will provide clean water to a secondary school near Nekemte. Previously, Kolobo School was part of a survey conducted by the universities that showed 80 per cent of the local population were suffering from gastrointestinal infections.

Professor Julie Thacker, Clinical Director of the Exeter Medicine programme, said: “We’ve clearly seen that infections caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene are a serious problem in the area, as there’s no free access to clean water. It’s not only a health issue but can contribute to people getting stuck in the poverty cycle when having to spend money on medication to treat their infections. This is what we hope to address.”

With the Kolobo School Water Project, the collaboration resumed the construction of water wells after their work was interrupted in 2019 and 2020 due to social unrest in Ethiopia and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the previous two years, they had built three hand-dug wells for two elementary schools and one secondary school to ensure they have access to clean water.

Mr Weyesa Oljira, head of the local Red Cross branch in Nekemte, said: “We’re very pleased that we were able to finish the water well for Kolobo School this year, thanks to the ongoing support by the University of Exeter Medical School. In total, we estimate that the wells we built now provide 8,500 people with free access to clean water which is a significant improvement.”

The costs for one well are between £3,000 and £8,000. Medicine students and medics set up the charity Medical Education, Sanitation and Health in Ethiopia (MESHE) that has raised a total of £17,000 so far and crucially supported the project’s ultimate goal of improving health care in local communities.

Cassie Brewer, medical student at the time and a qualified doctor now, said: “I was privileged enough to visit Nekemte as a medical student and therefore got to see the positive impact of the project first hand. People suffering because they can’t access clean water in the present day was simply unacceptable and everyone in our cohort was keen to do their bit. We often had pub quizzes and other fundraising events to raise money for the charity. The trip and the work of the charity have been inspirational, and it’s certainly something I will continue to support.”

At the University of Exeter, the work in Ethiopia was started by Associate Professor Robert Marshall and is led by Professor Julie Thacker and Professor Ian Fussell, Associate Dean for Education for the College of Medicine and Health. Both travelled to Ethiopia with their students, as well as Professor Jurg Ehmann from the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust who has strongly supported the project.

As part of a new collaboration with the UK based charity Lalibela Trust, they are also looking into supporting the development of a new Maternity Hospital in Lalibela, a town in Northern Ethiopia, as well as clean water facilities for the outlying communities.

You can support their work by donating to the MESHE charity on their new JustGiving page.

If you are a Medicine or Nursing student at the University of Exeter and interested in getting involved, please email either Ian Fussell: I.Fussell@exeter.ac.uk or Robert Taylor: R.Taylor2@exeter.ac.uk. 

Date: 15 December 2021

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