Ethiopia's fast-growing capital aims to become greener and cleaner

by Elias Gebreselassie | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 October 2014 19:01 GMT

A labourer works on the electrified light rail system in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, June 25, 2014. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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The city administration is rolling out a 10-year master plan, but many residents aren’t convinced it is working yet

ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, has a name that means “new flower”. But for the 4 million plus people living there, it’s more likely to conjure up images of worsening pollution and traffic gridlock.

The city administration is rolling out a 10-year master plan, from 2012 to 2022, which it hopes will make the fast-developing city greener, cleaner and pleasant to live in. But many residents aren’t convinced it is working yet.

Alemu Dagne, 48, an engineer and father of two, says he misses the clean air of the once-sleepy city.

“Every day I have to set out for work at 6 am (on public transport) and commute back home starting early at 4pm, as the road is clogged with cars, which not only crowd the roads but also pollute the air,” he said.

He hopes the city’s new light rail system, powered by electricity - with the first stage scheduled for launch in January - will provide a cleaner, faster mode of travel.

According to Asamenewe Tekleyohanes, legal affairs officer at the Addis Ababa City Government Environmental Protection Authority, the capital suffers from four types of pollution: air, water, soil and noise. The body is conducting a new study with a local green group on air pollution, especially from cars, and technologies to reduce it.

The authority says it has procured an instrument from overseas to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of the city, the nation’s economic hub.

“Development has its own adverse effects, so in addition to awareness training, we are carrying out inspections on industries to check whether they have put in place cleaner technology to offset potential pollution,” explained Tekleyohanes.

CRACKDOWN ON INDUSTRY

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forestry gave industries a five-year window until January this year to start controlling pollution or face consequences ranging from warning notices to closure.  

The agency is now taking administrative and legal measures against non-compliant industries, given that Ethiopia is a signatory to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and pollution generated in the capital could impact neighbouring countries, Tekleyohanes said.

The authority’s measures may be helping to reduce industrial air pollution, but the problem of vehicle fumes is harder to tackle, he added.

The authority plans to check emissions levels in its next annual inspection of cars, regardless of model and age, at facilities with modern equipment and trained personnel, with a view to taking steps to reduce vehicle emissions.

According to Ethiopia’s “Climate-Resilient Green Economy” strategy, the country plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told September’s U.N. Climate Summit in New York that the government was targeting double-digit economic growth so it can become a medium-income country by 2025, while at the same time curbing emissions.

As part of that plan, it is investing in clean and renewable power, he added. By the middle of next year or soon after, it will have increased power generation from renewable sources to 10,000 megawatts (MW) from the current 2,268 MW.

RELATIVELY FEW CARS

Addis Ababa’s rising levels of pollution can be addressed, argued Negash Teklu, executive director of the PHE Ethiopia consortium, which brings together NGOs, researchers and government agencies working on population, health and environmental issues.

“We want to initiate a comprehensive strategy to make the city green - be it sewerage systems, industrial plants and parks - using the city’s own master plan,” he said.

There is anecdotal evidence of pollution shortening life expectancy in the city with rising numbers of lung cancer patients, heart attacks and waterborne diseases, he warned.

On a recent visit to Dhaka in Bangladesh, Teklu noticed that the number of cars on the roads was “impossible to manage” compared with Addis. Dhaka has more than 5 million cars, while Addis has less than a tenth of that, giving it a better chance of reducing pollution through the use of electric vehicles and cleaner public transport, he added.

One solution might be to take old cars off the road by restricting imports of secondhand vehicles, and replacing them with new environmentally friendly cars, he said.

CITY FORESTS

Abrehet Gebrehiwot, another official with the city’s environmental protection authority, believes forests could help resolve pollution woes.

Her office is striving to protect local forest cover, especially in the city’s northern districts, while also replacing the foreign eucalyptus tree - known for soil leeching - with local tree varieties like olive, juniper and hygenia.

“We want to use Addis’s forests as a carbon sink, (for emissions) coming from cars, factories and homes, in addition to using it as protection against dangerous rays and foul smells,” said Gebrehiwot.

Yet, despite awareness campaigns and well-publicised tree planting drives, the city’s rising population and its increasing demand for land - whether for private, industrial or residential needs - are becoming a threat to some of its most treasured forest areas.

The master plan for the city envisages forest cover of 22,000 hectares or 41 percent of the city’s area, but it remains at only around 14 percent.

Teklu said Addis should look to the city state of Singapore as a model for meeting its environment and development needs in parallel. There most buildings have green spaces on each floor, as well as on their roofs, he noted.

Many cities around the world are regarded as top places to live due to being green, healthy and having good public transport, rather than being judged according to the number of cars or size of their industries, he added.

Addis “has to be like them, and be a green, clean city”, he urged.

(Editing by Megan Rowling)

E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.

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