The Case For Holistic Water Resources Planning And Management In Addis Ababa


  • There is a need for the city of Addis Ababa to plan for and manage its water resources holistically.
  • Different sectors in government have to work together in order to protect river systems. 
  • Natural infrastructure can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits simultaneously.

I am taking you to the city of Addis Ababa founded in 1886 as Ethiopia’s capital. Its location was chosen by Empress Taytu Betul for the hot springs, abundant water resources and lush woodlands to serve as firewood. Now, more than a century later, a bustling capital city of nearly five million inhabitants, Addis Ababa suffers from water and electricity shortages. Addis draws its drinking water from the Gefersa and Legedadi reservoirs fed by rivers entering the city, as well as the Akaki well fields, supplied from the city’s groundwater. Hydropower plants dependent on rivers and other water bodies in the country generate 90% of the Ethiopia’s electricity. All of Addis’ rivers feed into Aba Samuel Lake and fuel hydropower generation. The outflow from there enters the much larger Awash River. One would be correct to assume rivers are vital for the city and every appropriate measure should be in place to protect and preserve water resources. In reality, Addis Ababa’s rivers are in dire straits.

IMG-20200813- Addis Ababa rivers map
 Map of Rivers and Streams in Addis Ababa. Source: Adopted from Rivers and Riverside Project 

A case in point is the Little Akaki River, which the Hopeful River Initiative (HRI) has been working on since 2014. The Little Akaki is a ~12 kilometre long tributary to the Akaki, winding its way through tightly packed neighbourhoods of Addis. It is highly polluted by solid and liquid waste, as riparian communities know all too well. The HRI has confirmed the pollution through observations and river water tests. The sources of pollution are manyfold, including industrial and agricultural effluents, sewage and solid waste from households and industry. Each of these sources of pollution can be attributed to a breakdown in the governance system of basic services provision and regulation enforcement.  Looking at the solid waste collection system of the city, 65% is collected, and out of this only 5% is expected to be recycled, 5% is composted and the remainder is disposed in landfills; while the uncollected 35% is dumped in unauthorized areas, usually rivers.

Contrary to many cities in the world, in Addis Ababa rivers and riversides are not valued; they are seen as receptacles of waste. Rivers are hidden by urban planning which didn’t take them into consideration, and are covered by roads to the point where many residents of the city are unaware of their existence. Owing to its low status, informal settlements and poor people reside close to the rivers. They are exposed to floods, contaminated water, waterborne diseases and bad smell. Furthermore, they lack access to basic services such as road connections, water supply and sanitation. The wealthy on the other hand construct buildings facing away from the river as if it doesn’t exist, except as a waste disposal channel.

The current state of the river has socio-economic, health and ecological impacts.  Repeated floods affecting households and farmlands along the river erode not only the soil, but also the resilience of the inhabitants. With all its contaminants, the Little Akaki’s water cannot support aquatic organisms.  Yet, the same water along with its heavy metals is used to grow vegetables consumed in the city. The long-term health impacts are particularly harmful to young children. 40% of the city’s population either doesn’t have acess to potable water or is limited to intermittent access. In the past eleven years alone, the city has seen at least four outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea and Cholera, which have been linked to poor hygiene, access to water and consuming vegetables grown in the city.

At the Hopeful River Initiative, we have realized rehabilitating a river requires a concerted effort from various sectors within government as well as citizens, non-profit organizations and businesses. It also requires a long-term engagement that the three-to-five year cycles of donor funded projects don’t lend themselves to. At the same time, if implemented in a collaborative manner while focusing on natural infrastructure, the potential benefits are manifold. Therefore, for the past two and a half years the HRI pursued ideas that can generate multiple benefits of ecological rehabilitation, provide long-term predictable sources of finance and fulfill social needs. One such idea that recently won a grant from the Partnership for Green Growth (P4G) is developing a high ropes course by the riverside of Little Akaki. The high ropes course will serve as a team building and entertainment space for companies, families and individuals, and provide community gathering spaces, clean and safe playgrounds for children and opportunities for small businesses.   

The high ropes course can be constructed using sustainable lightweight materials, while the riverbanks and soils will be rehabilitated using plants and permeable materials in order to contribute positively to the hydrological cycle. It will add value to the river and serve as an example for other rehabilitation efforts. HRI plans to approach the design up to implementation phases through a participatory process, particularly focusing on nearby communities. HRI believes co-created community spaces will be instrumental for behavioral change in communities, government institutions, and businesses. The space will give the opportunity to personally experience and appreciate a better alternative as well as provide a tangible part of a vision. Through its research, HRI identified behavioral change as a key aspect for removing barriers to rehabilitate the river system. Additionally, the high ropes course will generate income for maintenance and fund continuous activities such as water resources monitoring and community engagement. For example, none of the rivers in Addis Ababa have stream gauges, which makes it difficult to form analysis and make informed water management decisions.

The high ropes course is one part of the plan that caters for the whole river system. HRI is formulating a plan that looks at protecting the sources of the river, and restore depleted vegetation upstream. The plan envisions working with different sections of city administration to reestablish preexisting wetlands and flood plains, as well as establish rain gardens, parks, street greenery and recharge sites to reduce runoff, flooding and improve water quality. Even the hot spring lake that drew Empress Taytu to the city has dried up due to overuse, but the ground water source still supplies hotels and public baths. A focus on natural infrastructure techniques means regenerating these valuable ecosystems and establishing additional ones along the built environment.    

Mending the breakdown of basic services provision such as sanitation, sewage infrastructure, and enforcing regulation requires a concerted effort involving all stakeholders. It requires understanding of the full system in order to plan and think holistically about water resources, including river ecology, the economy and the people. These are the elements that make up the hydrocycle. With the help of the P4G grant, the HRI will bring stakeholders together as one of the first steps towards restoring the natural capital of rivers and riverbanks, making them healthy, productive and rejuvenated urban spaces.  

Milha has over 10 years of experience in sustainable development policy, working mostly in multilateral organisations in the areas of environment, climate change, water and agriculture in Africa. She is currently also serving as Chair of the Board for Tena Kebena Youth Environmental Association.

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