By Mekonnen Teshome Tollera

Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa (Sheger) was born twice: first, as a crowded city; and then again, as a beautiful Sheger with clean rivers, public spaces and parks, bicycle paths and walkways along the riverside.

The city of 4.6 million people is being born again as a result of a multimillion dollar project “Beautifying Sheger” intended to decorate Addis Ababa. This 29 billion birr (about $1.028 billion), rivers and riversides development project is slowly making the city green as works for developing and rehabilitating the two rivers in the city launched in February 2019 progress.

The project, an initiative of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, is expected to be completed within three years and has created job opportunities for hundreds of Ethiopians and some Chinese too.

The project is running along two of the largest rivers of the city, stretching a total of 51 kilometres, all the way from the mountains of Entoto through the city to Akaki River.

The commissioner of Addis Ababa Environmental Protection and Green Development Commission, Alem Asefa says: “As an adaptation to climate change the riverside project will install water-permeable pavements to better deal with floods and storm water and improve water storage and use.”

Partial view of the Addis Ababa Green Park Project being constructed by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC)

The Changing Addis Ababa climate

Impulsive changes in climate including rising heat waves, drought and flash floods in Addis Ababa are negatively impacting natural resources and city productivity.

A recent study by Open Access: “GIS based quantification and mapping of climate change vulnerability hotspots in Addis Ababa” confirmed that the city “…is vulnerable to climate change impacts…”

“The degree of vulnerability is underpinned by the interaction of multiple factors mainly adaptive capacities of sub-cities, location based characteristics and changes in climatic parameters,” it accentuates.

Alem Asefa, Commissioner of Addis Ababa Environmental Protection and Green Development Commission, told InfoNile in Addis Ababa that scientific projections suggest that the city will face enormous challenges of climate change unless necessary measures are taken to significantly reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Alem further explained: “If abusing the city master plan, especially the urban green component and emissions of greenhouse gases, including those from transport and industry are not controlled in the coming years, continued growth of their atmospheric concentrations is projected to result in severe climate change.”

According to the commissioner, the most important anthropogenic influences on climate in Addis Ababa and neighbouring areas are the emissions, changes in land use, such as urbanization and agricultural activities.

Enabling Addis Ababa adapt to climate change

The rivers and riversides development project aims at curbing the serious environmental effects of pollution and habitat degradation of rivers through planning, design and management of riverside areas.

Commissioner Alem says greening is recommended for containment and abatement of air pollution in urban-industrial environment.

“Carbon is sequestered in the process of plant growth as carbon is captured in plant cell formation and oxygen is released during photosynthesis. Branches, leaves and other materials that fall to the forest floor may store carbon until they decompose,” noted Alem.

Additionally, he said, “forest soils may sequester some of the decomposing plant litter through root and soil interaction,” as he related greening efforts with adapting climate change.

Optimally designed green belts can be effective in reducing the impact of fugitive emission and pollutants accidentally or otherwise released at ground levels.

Alem says in addition to energy-efficient technologies in transport, industrial sectors, and buildings and development of green infrastructures including green development will help Addis Ababa mitigate climate change.

Polluted rivers of Addis Ababa

A number of research results from university academic and research institutions show that rivers of Addis Ababa are highly polluted due to congested residential houses and manufacturing industries’ presence around the water bodies.

For example, an assessment study on the water chemical content of the Akaki river published by Research Gate (2017) – “Pollution Status of Akaki River and Its Tributaries (Ethiopia) Evaluated Using Physico-Chemical Parameters, Major Ions, and Nutrients,” indicates that the water quality of the TAR shows pattern of behavior linked to anthropogenic sources with the intensity of human pressure associated with industrial effluent, domestic wastes and agricultural activities.

As the issue is a matter of high concern, the government in collaboration with local and international institutions is also making efforts to further analyze the water pollution and take necessary measures against polluter industries like leather tanneries and chemical industries.

Director of India Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) Mrs. Sunita Narain recently told this reporter in New Delhi that CSE has launched chemical analyses of the Akaki River, a river in central Ethiopia, to identify the concentration of heavy metals in the river and present recommendations on the possible solutions. Residential wastes, sewage flowing into the river and the disposal of single use plastic material are some of the major polluting factors of rivers in Addis Ababa.

Managing and Mitigating floods

A flood related study by ScienceDirect (2016) – “Flood Risk and Vulnerability of Addis Ababa City Due to Climate Change and Urbanization”, states that the Akaki catchment’s urbanization rate grown by 10% only from 1993 to 2002 and flooding risks in Addis Ababa has also shown significant increase.

The study attributed the vulnerability of Addis Ababa to riverine as well as flash floods due to extreme climatic events and upper catchment activities and the vulnerability to flooding is more aggravated due to a poor drainage system, rapid housing development along river banks and using inappropriate construction materials.

Therefore, the riverside development project also aims to enhance the well-being of city dwellers by mitigating river flooding, creation of public spaces and parks, bicycle paths and walkways along the site as well as to face-lift the image of the city.

“Addis Ababa riverside project will reduce the amount of sediments and other pollutants disposed to the rivers and create greener urban centers suitable for living through plantation and/or reclamation of the river buffers with suitable trees, shrubs, herb and grasses along the different river buffer zones which can act as efficient biological filters or sinks for particulate and gaseous emissions, generated by vehicular movements and various industrial activities,” said Commissioner Alem.

Transforming Addis Ababa into a greener, resilient and happier city

Apart from the exceptional riverside greening and Addis Ababa’s beautification effort, the government of Ethiopia has designed holistic climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies and policies and has been strictly implementing them.

Ethiopia’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP-ETH) which costs about USD 6 billion annually to address climate change, is integrating projects including botanical gardens and zoo park centers in Addis Ababa, river and riversides development, Mount Entoto and its surrounding tourist destination development projects and the Addis Abeba parks development projects are undertaken under River Basins and Green Areas Agency established in July 2018.

A group of scholars in their recent study entitled “Current status and management practice of urban green spaces in Addis Ababa: A reflection on their potential for carbon sink” write that the role of Addis Ababa’s integrated green spaces development is vital in regulating climate and is noteworthy as it plays a momentous role in mitigating climate change by sequestering a significant amount of carbon.

According to a study conducted by Samson Aynachew, the city of Addis Ababa has reserved 22,000 ha area of land for green space development. With regard to spatial distribution of public parks in Addis Ababa, this indicates that, out of the ten sub-cities of Addis Ababa, the “Gullele” sub-city has the largest share of Public Park, i.e. 9.8ha followed by “Nifas Silk” sub-city (6.2ha), “Yeka” sub-city (5.65ha), “Kirkos” sub-city (4.6ha) and “Lideta” sub-city (4.4ha).

The Addis Ababa city Master Plan categorizes the urban green areas into local, district and city level green areas. At the local level there are many open and green areas which are used for festivals; children playgrounds and other social activities. Some of them are left out spaces between residential houses and the ones which are distinguished as urban open spaces are not managed well.

The district level green areas include street sides, parks, plazas and most of the open spaces found in the center of the city. These places are officially designated as plazas, squares, streets and parks. The management of these places looks relatively good, but they are not properly managed when it comes to the use of the spaces.

City level green areas include forest areas which are usually found in mountainous and preserved areas. These areas are well managed in the sense of preservation of trees and forestation, but people do not use them since they are not easily accessible and do not have the necessary facility to be used as recreational areas.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed planting a tree in 2019
Credit: Ethiopian PM Office

Valuing urban green spaces in mitigating climate change

With the launching of the first phase of the 12km riverside development of the total 51km by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in October 2019 and some previously finalized works, the lifting of Addis Ababa’s face is being materialized and people have started to test the fruits of the greening efforts. For instance, people of Addis Ababa have started enjoying greenery luxury with the completion and opening of some sections of the riverside development around the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). The protection and cleaning work of Addis Ababa’s rivers has already started due to the fencing and isolation of the water bodies as part of the construction efforts.

As part of Addis Ababa’s beautifying project, the installation of metal holders for flower pots and planting flowers in the median divide on Africa Avenue in Bole all the way from Bole International Airport to the National Place has been finalized and are being enjoyed by the city residents and visitors.

Urban green areas play a very important role as a carbon sink. Recognizing the importance of urban trees for this purpose, the interest in preserving and maintaining the urban trees are increasing. Carbon sequestration is a phenomenon for the storage of carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to mitigate global warming, says Miss Alem Asefa, Commissioner of Addis Ababa Environmental Protection and Green Development Commission.

Tree planting drives are not new in Ethiopia. In July 2019, a massive tree planting campaign was initiated by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, aiming at restoring the country’s landscape and tackling the climate change crisis. This covered the whole of Ethiopia including Addis Ababa. A world-record of 353,633,660 tree seedlings were planted across the country in a 12-hour span.

Public recounting of the project

Residents of Addis Ababa now are also optimistic that their city is changing for the better and becoming greener than ever.

Tesfaye Abate is one of these residents who have witnessed a remarkable greening revolution in Addis Ababa. He says this could help control droughts and floods that have been affecting his community.

“I am really very pleased to see our city becoming greener over the last decades and I hope this will enable us to adapt and cope with the ever escalating effects of global warming and the changing climate.”

Professor Fekadu Beyene, Commissioner for Ethiopia’s Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission says greening efforts are imperative to curb climate change. The Professor also agrees that the river side and the intensive tree planting activities in Ethiopia notably the “Green Legacy,” a national go green campaign, are vital to adapt and mitigate climate change.

Professor Fekadu Beyene says that Ethiopia’s Green Legacy campaign is an exemplary greening activity made to realize the country’s vision of building a climate change resilient economy.

This article was published with financial support of InfoNile and the National geographic society