No one left behind: ensuring people with disabilities have access to and are involved in water and sanitation planning and management

COWASH project

Over 17% of Ethiopia's population has a disability. Among other activities, the COWASH project has developed accessible school latrines like this one in Degua Temben woreda, Tigray region.

Pioneering disability inclusive water points and sanitation, the COWASH project in Ethiopia is a national leader in empowering persons with disabilities to be part of the development process as equal partners.

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference. After attending a community training on how to improve accessibility to water points and sanitation for people with disabilities, Kidan Gebrecheal went home and installed a guiding rope from her house to the toilet in the garden for her blind husband.

“Now he can independently use the latrine, and I am happy as I save time since I don’t need to take him to the toilet several times a day,” she explains.

Basic solutions like this and improved designs for water points are just some of the ways the community-led water, sanitation and hygiene (COWASH) project is working to give Ethiopians with disabilities greater independence and access to facilities.

But while making WASH more accessible is important, COWASH’s greatest focus and contribution has been the inclusion of persons with disabilities in WASH planning and management as a way of tackling prejudices and stigma and highlighting an issue that concerns everyone.

Tigray Guiding Rope
Kidan Gerecheal, WASHCO cashier in Tigray, Degua Temben woreda, demonstrating a guiding rope to the household latrine.

A decade accelerating rural access to water

A bilateral project between the Governments of Finland and Ethiopia launched in 2011, COWASH aims to accelerate rural WASH service delivery by employing the community-managed project (CMP) approach. Promoting community empowerment, transparency and ownership, CMP involves community-led management of project implementation, finance and procurement from beginning to end.

With a 17.6% share of the population, Ethiopians with disabilities must be part of the development process if the vision of universal access to WASH is to be achieved. As a result, COWASH has pioneered disability inclusion by increasing the awareness of WASH experts and stakeholders on disability issues, making certain WASH facilities are accessible to everyone in the community, and ensuring people with disabilities benefit from, participate in and contribute to - in an equal way - WASH planning, management, operation and maintenance.

+ 4 million

Number of people with improved water supply as a result of COWASH.


Number of people participating in COWASH disability inclusion training.

17 %

Disabled persons’ share of Ethiopian population

Nothing about us, without us: People with disabilities at the centre of the solution

Working with persons with disabilities and their associations is not only right but effective. Through COWASH training and other activities, persons with disabilities have shown they are best experts on how to achieve inclusion and the accessible solutions that are needed.

Going straight to the source, in 2016, COWASH launched talks with a local NGO, the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development (ECDD). Guidelines and supporting training materials were jointly drawn up on how to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in project activities, including detailed roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders at different levels and information on accessible WASH technology solutions.

“The COWASH approach to disability inclusion has been an eye opener for the WASH sector,” says Melaku Tekle, ECDD Executive Director. “The collaboration with persons with disabilities and their associations at all levels and having persons with disabilities as trainers has been critical to the project’s success. Rural WASH is not something we had worked on before, but they took us into the field so the practical challenges of inclusion in different places became clear. The commitment of the COWASH team was very high. Although there is one person solely focused on disability inclusion, the whole team has taken up the issue.”

Melaku Tekle
Melaku Tekle leading a session on inclusive WASH at a Federal level awareness raising event for WASH stakeholders in May 2019 in Addis Ababa.

Having persons with disabilities as both trainers and trainees and being active on WASH community committees is crucial as they inspire participants by sharing their experiences. After losing his sight at the age of 14, Guade Demeke feels strongly about supporting other persons with disabilities through his work. Chair of the Ethiopian National Association of the Blind, he has led COWASH training for over 470 zonal and woreda (district) experts.

“Having all the materials in local languages has been really important as has the project’s commitment to working fully through the existing government structures without creating a parallel system,” Guade remarks. “I’m most impressed about how COWASH has managed to influence different government offices to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in constructing new WASH facilities.”

Bontu Pwd Washco Member
Bontu is a young female chairperson of a local water, sanitation and hygiene committee (WASHCO). She has some difficulties walking. Before COWASH trainings, persons with disabilities were seen as people who could not do anything and should be left alone. After the positive example set by Bontu in her role as Chair, the attitudes of the community have improved.

Not just an ‘add-on’ activity: Mainstreaming disability inclusion

WASH projects traditionally focus more on technical issues and hardware, often to the detriment of social issues. This makes COWASH’s approach of mainstreaming disability inclusion across the entire project even more remarkable. A full-time NIRAS disability inclusion specialist, Aino Himanen, supports the project at federal level and - no matter the working group, meeting, sector strategy or document - when asked to contribute, the COWASH team takes every opportunity to address the rights of persons with disabilities.

The Social Affairs Office, the government agency responsible for persons with disabilities, has been embedded in COWASH activities and has been a key player in bringing communities together to discuss progress and challenges. Its offices have been closely involved in the awareness-raising events that have been organised for administrative officials at all levels. Over 16,500 government staff have participated in COWASH disability inclusion events, and trainings at schools on sanitation and hygiene have included sessions on the needs of disabled students.

Tigray Brhan Field
Brhan Weldegebriel (left) discussing with a kebele-level DPO representative in Degua Temben woreda, Tigray.

In each of the five regions it operates, COWASH has support units where a focal person owns the issue of disability inclusion. A gender and micro- and small-enterprise specialist for the project in Tigray, Brhan Weldegebriel - who is herself disabled - has organised inclusion trainings for woredas, supported their practical implementation of activities and collected data on persons with disabilities across communities.

"Most woredas have been key driving forces in ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities in WASH. For example in Antsokia Gemza, Amhara, when planning two large rural piped water schemes serving over 1000 households, the woreda water office decided to provide water directly to the yards of ten households with members with disabilities in addition to the public tap stands. The cost of extending the pipe system to these households was minimal but has made a huge difference to the quality of life for those families. "

COWASH Learning Note on Disability

“People with disabilities are often forgotten. I’ve been fortunate as I had the chance to go to university level and haven’t faced much discrimination. I often share my own story with others to inspire and encourage them. The biggest challenge I face is the attitudes of some colleagues who see disability inclusion work as only my job and not something of real importance. But as the results are beginning to show more and more on the ground, there is a realisation that it’s possible to do better, and they are being convinced.”

Key lessons brought forward to the next phase

In addition to placing persons with disabilities at the centre of its work, a key success of COWASH’s disability inclusion efforts has been the recognition that everyone needs to take disability concerns into account in their work.

While it has been important to have focal persons at the federal and regional levels to coordinate the work, ensuring disability inclusion is understood as everyone's business has been critical.

By mainstreaming the issue and placing the leadership of disability inclusion with the water sector – as opposed to sidelining it as marginal "soft" component that other sectors should implement alongside – COWASH has laid the groundwork for achieving the vision of universal access. Work continues in January 2021 when the current phase of COWASH comes to an end and phase four begins for a further four years.