Summer Centered: Tsion Syoum ’21 Explores Water Scarcity in Eritrea
The rising sophomore received funding from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship to support continued expansion of the Retaw Water Project, the nonprofit she founded in 2014.
Tsion Syoum ’21 was only 15 years old when she started her own nonprofit — and her mission to provide clean, sustainable water in rural Eritrea has blossomed since then.
The Retaw Water Project, which has received large-scale media attention since its founding, came out of a connection that Syoum felt to the northeastern African country as a first-generation American child of Eritrean and Ethiopian immigrants as well as a need she observed for improved access to this necessary resource.
"Water deprivation is an issue I am very passionate about,” Syoum said. “With the increase in climate-related issues in the world today, access to clean water becomes more critical, and though, currently, third-world countries like Eritrea are mainly combating these issues, I believe the rest of the world will soon need to sees this as a global problem.”
The rising sophomore, who lists political science and environmental studies as potential majors, built her first well in 2016. At 30 meters deep, the hand-pump well continues to provide clean water to an elementary school in the village of Sheka Wedi Bisrat.
"The success of the first hand-pump well leads to the phase two of my project: to add solar panels and pump lines to an existing hand pump for the same elementary school in Sheka Wedi Bisrat,” she said. “Throughout the year I used my social media and crowdfunding platforms to raise the necessary amount of money to begin construction and was able to achieve my goal by the summer of 2018.”
With the funds she raised through these grassroots tactics and support from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, Syoum returned to Eritrea this summer to oversee construction plans for the new solar panels and pump lines, to collect data from the community in which the system was being built, and to discuss how she could continue to help this particular village.
Syoum has found the ability to work at the project site in Eritrea invaluable compared to the remote efforts she made to direct the construction of the well upgrades during the year.
"Often, my water project disconnects me from the actual community I am trying to help, because I can’t always be there in person,” she said. “I am a first-generation American, originating from Eritrea, making my work there even more significant to me as an individual, because the country is a large part of my identity. I hoped that my presence in Eritrea would allow me to get to know the community I am working with better and will enable me to experience first hand the struggles the community I am aiding deals with on a day to day basis.”
A significant portion of Syoum’s internship is spent working alongside Eritrea’s Ministry of Land, Water, and Environment, where she shadowed government officials to learn more about the work that Eritrean officials are doing to alleviate issues of water deprivation in their countries. Syoum is also conducting independent observations of the community in Sheka Wedi Bisrat and spends her free time working with a local Women’s Association to teach English to female artists between the ages of 25 and 56.
In addition to all of her valuable work towards the mission of the Retaw Water Project and the Women’s Association, Syoum found herself learning valuable lessons by experiencing the daily impacts of the limited availability of water.
"The six weeks I spent in Eritrea living and experiencing the difficulties with day-to-day living and working with limited water made me aware of how fortunate I am to live in the States and appreciate more the essence and importance of water,” she said. “The inner city struggles with water. Though more accessible than those living in the rural areas of Eritrea, water was still carefully managed and rationed from district to district in the city. It was fascinating to see how people that live with the understanding of the scarcity of water, manage their use of it.”
"It was definitely difficult to adjust to this kind of lifestyle at the start of my internship, coming from New York, where I never put that much thought into the amount of water I use,” Syoum continued. “But the experience itself taught me that if we want to make a change in preventing further issues of water deprivation in the world today, we need to work together and act on it.”