A lot has been said about Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union (AU), one of the most peaceful cities in the continent and a city that is an embodiment of the “African Rising” narrative. Nevertheless, tidiness and waste management is definitely not one of the strongest suites of this city. Standing on the very street where AU’s new headquarters is located one can’t help but be bothered by the whiff of a strong nose-clogging odder. The pungency of the odder visibly makes pedestrians and bystanders shake to their bones. The smell comes from a clogged ditch under Roosvelt Street, around the old airport area, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Addis Ababa.
Ahmed Sultan, a shopkeeper working nearby, however, doesn’t seem to be feeling the incredible foul odder. It is almost like he has managed the unmanageable and developed a strong tolerance the off-putting smell that overwhelms the area. “I rarely feel it because I’ve already adapted myself to it,” he said. But still, even Ahmed has his limits. He says the rainy seasons are the worst since the waterbody under the street where his shop is located bring along with all kinds of unbearable household waste including toilet leakages.
In the city’s 130 years of existence, the handful of rivers and streams that punctuate the Addis Ababa landscape has received little attention. And certainly, the condition of these waterbodies has attracted less interest from city planners and the public alike. Addis Ababa has three major rivers, Akaki Major (tiliqu), Akaki Minor (tinishu) and Kebena, each with an extensive network of tributaries of smaller rivers and streams spread throughout the city. The major tributaries cover an aggregate area which is close 10 sq. km within the city limits and are known by their traditional names as: Buche, Kurtume, Kechene, Ginfile, Kebena, Bantiyileku (lower kechene) and Kostre. A watershed of some 1,462 km drains into the Akaki basin including 240km rural and 540km urban. The basin drains further south into the Aba Samuel wetland and further still into the Awash River.
For a city emerging as one of the fastest growing in the continent, sanitation and sewerage deficit in the city is a great source of pain for its residents. According to the Addis Ababa Environmental Protection Authority’s (AAEPA) survey, since the city’s sanitation coverage is so low with only 13 percent of the city’s population using flash toilets, 57 percent using pit latrines and more than 30 percent with no sanitation facilities whatsoever, Addis Ababa has been ripe for environmental and health crisis decades ago.
The first centralized sewage collection system in Addis Ababa was established in the 1960s and the system was designed to collect and convey waste water to a treatment plant located around Kaliti, then the southern limit of the city. With a capacity of 7500 m3/day, the Kaliti treatment plant was designed to serve only 200 000 inhabitants.
Despite generating large amounts of solid waste from domestic activities, Addis Ababa does not have adequate waste management facilities. As a result, solid waste is often piled on to an available open ground, stream banks, and bridges, where it is washed off into the rivers. According to the Sanitation, Beautification and Park Development Agency (SBPDA) 2003 survey, 65 per cent of the solid waste generated in Addis Ababa is collected and treated at the city’s two treatment plants at Kaliti and Kotebe. And only five per cent of the collected solid waste is recycled.
According to Jirata Nemera, a resident of the city, the fast growth exhibited in the city in terms of buildings and infrastructure rehabilitation has always been a triumph for its residents but argues that this should be at the expense of endangering the environment and its natural resources. Residing in one of the city’s older settlements for fifty years, Jirata complains that much of the problems the city faces at the moment are significantly related to environmental degradation.
“Look at those degraded parts of the city such as Ferensay (French) Embassy, Entoto and Yerer. Do you think they are maintaining the balance of nature anymore?” he raises his concern. In Jirata’s opinion an ecological crisis is imminent in Addis Ababa. Kebena, Jiratas’s neighborhood, is one of those badly affected and altered environments in the city. According to Richard Pankhrust, an economic historian, the Kabana River was one of the biggest river streams in Addis Ababa. He notes historical accounts of the river affecting lives of dwellers, particularly during the rainy seasons. In spite of the danger, many chose to settle around the bank of the river, seeking a picnic-like residential area in addition to having a reliable water supply.
Jirata also remembers the Christian festivities that were practiced around the Kebena River during Christmas time attracting Germans nationals from the nearby German Embassy. “It was a major stream for all Addis Ababans and many people used it to bath a and wash clothes,” he remembers.
With an estimated terrain elevation of 2162 meters above sea level, Kebena flows down from the hills in Entoto and crosses the sloppy and shanty residences along the way to join other streams heading to Akaki River. Despite its consistent flow, however, the primary concern for residents along the banks of kebena is not sudden flooding these days; rather it is pollution and the associated health risk is the number one concern. And they believe the profound transformation the city is going through has hardly taken the environmental problems into consideration.
Considering that there is no adequate system for the collection of municipal solid waste where 35% of the discharge going into rivers, streams or drains, causing huge environmental and health risks for the community, they view the river as a real threat to their existence in the area in the years to come. The per capital sold waste emission is estimated to be 0.25kg/day. Better yet, Addis Ababa accounts for the lion’s share of the overall country sold waste emission per day which is estimated to be between 0.6 to 1.8 million tons /day.
In all fairness, since 2004/05, the city administration has put in place a citywide sold waste collection and disposal system taking care of the bulk of the solid waste in the city. Youngsters organized under Small and Micro Enterprises (SME) roam around the city collecting solid waste showing up at the doorstep of residents at least once a week. In return, the city charges residents a modest fee of 10-15 birr per month for the services. Needless to say that such system is far from being an adequate system and the reach is still highly restricted to limited households.
The situation is even more dramatic regarding the sewerage management. Only 7% of houses are connected to the municipal sewer system in the city. In most cases, even for new buildings, sewage is simply dumped into rivers or streams. Many argue that some of these rivers in Addis Ababa have now reached a point where they resemble an open sewer than waterways. This system has caused severe impact not only on urban agriculture, which depends on these river streams, but on the health condition of the general public.
According to the Swedish Society of Nature Conservation, streams of Addis Ababa are becoming heavily contaminated to cultivate backyard crops that have a significant contribution for food security for urban farmers. The rivers have become increasingly contaminated by household sewage, solid waste, wastewater from car washes and gas stations, stormwater, and wastewater from factories and hospitals most of which are traditionally located along the river banks. Measurements from the Environmental Protection Agency of Addis Ababa on river water and vegetables shows a high incidence of E-coli bacteria and the vegetables containing elevated levels of some heavy metals, such as zinc, mercury and cadmium. Polluted river water is also used to wash vegetables, the survey indicated.
A case study entitled: A Multipurpose City Park System and Housing Scheme, by Mizanekiristos Yohannes, published last year, states that besides household released grey-water, solid waste and open defecation, industrial effluence from some factories upstream is said to be a major contributor to river pollution in the city. Agricultural activities, including fertilizer and pesticide use in modern horticultural and small-holder farming activities, have also been identified as sources of damaging the ecology of the rivers.
As the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA) was unable to keep up with the water demand of city following the expansion of urbanization, high-rise constructions and population growth, drawing water from these rivers, private wells and broken mains for washing, bathing and even cooking are becoming quite common. The Authority also admits that although the basin draining into the rivers and streams of Addis Ababa is well surveyed and understood, it is poorly managed and regulated.
Tsegaye Gebremariam, general manager of the Addis Ababa City Administration Environmental Protection Authority, told The Reporter that the city’s streams and rivers will no longer remain polluted as the authority has already begun a new project that will solely deal with rivers and water bodies around the city. “Despite some efforts made by SBPDA, nothing has come out to save the rivers. So a special project overseen by the mayor’s office was launched,” he said. Speaking to the Reporter at length about the rivers that have long been ignored by both the government and people living along the river banks, Tsegaye said that Addis Ababa has suffered much from pollution in recent decades that it finally necessitated setting up a standard sanitation and beautification project under the country’s highly-acclaimed green economy initiative. “We have already gone far in applying these projects like relocating the city’s open dump into a modern landfill, recycling waste to generate energy and enclosing a botanical garden. So next on the list will be focusing on rivers,” he said.
Applauding the authority’s bold move, environmental experts signal that it is not only about the government bringing about change but the people should also beware of the devastating impact that polluted stream will ultimately cause. They warn reckless practices would bring about lasting environmental crisis that includes bacterial disease and associated epidemics. Moreover, they point out that keeping the streams out of the reach of settlement and investment is a rather clinical accomplishment.
However, until that rescuing effort kicks off, the staggering streams will remain a dumping ground and open toilets. From everyday trash like plastic bags, food wrappers, bottles, containers, human waste and unsafe disposals to larger items like car batteries, kitchen appliances and electronic tools entering the rivers at an alarming rate would eventually entail great and unbearable cost, the experts warn.