Welqite town in Central Ethiopia Regional State simmers with its 250,000 residents. There, the most precious commodity is not gold, but a simple jerrycan brimming with lifeblood—water.

Rukiya Hassen, 14, rises two hours before dawn, rushing to queue at the Yonas Hotel. It is one of the few places where residents can quench their thirst - for three Birr a jerry can. She has to load five of them onto a horse-drawn carriage and hurry back home in Bekur district before school starts. With a seven Birr round trip from the hotel to her house, fetching water is Rukiya's every other-day routine before school starts.

"Somebody has to get water," she said.

Rukiya is one among the many residents who line up at the hotel, once at dawn and again in the afternoon, to secure water. In Welqite, running water is a luxury afforded mainly by the wealthier residents, as taps flow only once or twice every couple of months. The cost of installing a small water pump can exceed 50,000 Br, while excavating to reach underground water sources can cost even more, depending on the depth.

This leaves many at the mercy of subsidised offerings by businesses who dig deep to meet their demands.

Water shortages turned tragic in February of last year when protests erupted, resulting in clashes between residents armed with jerry cans and security forces, leading to three fatalities, according to a report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. The incident remains etched in the memories of residents, serving as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for access to this essential resource.

Abdu Abjuko, a 23-year-old handyman at the Hotel, vividly recalls the tense Thursday morning when the underground well dried up, triggering increasing restlessness among the residents. As tensions escalated and more people marched toward the town hall, Abdu claims security forces responded with heightened aggression. He observed an abrupt halt in business activities and the increased presence of security personnel patrolling the streets.

"I was nervous," he told Fortune. "The town became eerily silent the following week."

The prevalence of heavy security in the town has become a fixture, as tensions periodically erupt into violence, especially since the establishment of a new regional state in the city seven months ago.

Central Ethiopia emerged as the fourth offshoot of the former Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples Regional State. The latest administrative structure has forced the Welqite City Administration, juggling a 640 million Br budget, to address growing infrastructure demand and competing political interests.

Welqite is supplied from two water reservoirs. Boze Bere, located 27Km from the town, can collect around a million cubic meters of water and needs four additional pumps to be at full capacity. The smaller one Tatesa, can store around half a million cubic meters but is powered by only a single pump.

According to Wonde Amde, the newly appointed head of Welqite Water Service Utility Enterprise, most water intended for the reservoirs is siphoned off midway by illegal channels. He accents the significant problem posed by illegal pipelines, exacerbating the town's water supply issues.

Wonde observes that the limited water that reaches the reservoirs usually lacks the power to reach residents' taps due to frequent power outages and ageing water pumps.

"Half an hour of a power outage leaves the town dry," he said.

To address these issues, Wonde said a special task force will be formed soon to properly determine the exact degree of illegal water lines, as the Utility's 13,000 registered customers are clearly below the real demand. The town plans to implement a medium-term strategy aimed at providing water to residents at least every three days. However, it requires substantial capital investment, nearly half of the city's budget.

"There is a clear mismatch," Wonde told Fortune.

Meanwhile, the town spanning 7,260Skm struggles to maintain the operation of its five water pumps. Replacements are lacking, and there is insufficient budget allocation for fueling the generators in three districts (Weberye, Addis, and Bekur) which are further stratified into six kebeles.

Welqite serves as a vital trade corridor connecting Jimma town in Oromia Regional State with Addis Abeba. It is also the largest of the five city administrations within the Gurage Zone in the regional state, with 84 million Br of its budget appropriated from the treasury.

Endale Tiyu, head of the finance bureau, reveals their plan to boost revenue collection by nearly 200 million Br in the current year. This increase aims to fund crucial capital projects.

He acknowledges the obstacles posed by fluctuations in construction input prices, which prompted a reevaluation of cost estimates for ongoing projects. However, he believes in persevering with these projects rather than abandoning them altogether.

"It's better than terminating the projects," he said, underscoring the significance of maintaining momentum in infrastructure development.

The financial strain faced by the administration to purchase 200ltr fuel daily for the pumps in the Tatesa water reservoir adds to the woes, according to Endale. To address this issue, he reveals that they have reached out to federal authorities, urging them to facilitate the purchase of electric transformers.

With water supply identified as the city's foremost priority, Endale reaffirms the administration's commitment to ensuring access for all residents: "It's our number one priority."

Following recent meetings between officials from the Zone and town administration, a comprehensive action plan has been devised to tackle the acute water network problem. This plan encompasses 19 tasks aimed at addressing various aspects of the issue. Key initiatives include doubling the town's electric supply to 400KV, mandating that hotel developments incorporate underground water development into their projects, repairing primary water pipelines, and fixing two electric transformers.

Girma Niqbeshewa, the head of the Welqite Administration Secretariat, attributes the water shortage to systemic managerial inefficiencies that have accumulated over the years, as well as pervasive infrastructure issues. According to him, the Water Enterprise has struggled even to meet its basic financial obligations.

"It has not even been able to pay salary to employees," Girma told Fortune.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, he underscores ongoing efforts to modernise the Enterprise's practices, with a focus on enhancing income-generating capabilities and updating tariff management systems. He stresses the imperative of implementing streamlined operations, which entails enhancing staff discipline, clarifying stakeholders' responsibilities, and cracking down on illegal water usage intended for the reservoirs.

Girma expresses concern over illegal actors exploiting the water supply,  exacerbating the woes faced by the water infrastructure.

"The integrity of the supply system needs to be safeguarded," he said.

Escalation of political tensions in the region has diverted the focus of city officials towards maintaining peace and stability, instead of prioritising infrastructure development. Recent clashes between polarised groups resulted in fatalities.

Opposition party members underscore the complex interplay between political dynamics, governance structures, and socioeconomic development in addressing the multifaceted challenges facing the area.

Mohammed Abrar, chairman of Gogot for Guraghe Unity & Justice Party, attributes many of the issues to the unresolved advocacy for self-autonomy over several decades. He said the new structure lacks the legal framework, infrastructure, and investment climate to effectively address the needs of residents.

"It has had detrimental effects on economic activity," he said.

Business closures have become a recurring occurrence over the past few years, driven either by protests against the new administrative structure or by concerns over property damage during conflicts. This atmosphere of tension has cast a pall over once-vibrant markets, leading business owners to tread cautiously in their operations.

Birhanu Kiflu, a lifelong resident and businessman in the Merkato market, notes that the security situation has only recently begun to resemble some semblance of normalcy, particularly in the last two months.

He observes cross-country drivers and passengers contribute significantly to the town's business activity by making brief stops. However, Birhanu reflects on the reluctance of businesses to operate in the city due to security concerns, exacerbated by the presence of special security personnel whose wages are partially funded by businesses.

"No one wanted to risk being here," Birhanu told Fortune.

Birhanu feels that the taxes imposed by the Administration do not align with the level of infrastructure development, with several projects suspended or delayed for years. He observes that water scarcity has worsened over the last five years, despite calls for reform and the establishment of a new regional structure. He attributes this stagnation to a bureaucratic regional administration that has historically prioritised group identity preferences over addressing the population's urgent needs.

"There is a significant problem in governance," he said.

Findings of 'The Impact of Ethnic Heterogeneity on the Quantity & Quality of Public Spending,' a working paper by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over two decades  ago, suggested that the technical efficiency of public expenditure decreases in ethnically heterogeneous societies. This study underscores that allocating funds for purely public goods becomes less technically efficient as the population becomes more fragmented along ethnic lines, even when keeping other socioeconomic and demographic factors constant.

Some residents of Welqite remain hopeful for significant improvements in the infrastructure and economic activity if peaceful conditions persist over an extended period. Mohammed Awol, a transporter and part-time security guard at the town jail, notes a recent campaign that has addressed activists spreading false narratives and causing disruptions. He believes that sustained peace can pave the way for development in the city.

Mohammed acknowledges the lag in infrastructure development, citing the deteriorating conditions in the correction facility where he works. However, he remains optimistic, asserting that where there is peace, development inevitably follows. Although the water scarcity issues plague the town, Mohammed continues to rely on alternative sources such as the Wabe River on the outskirts to meet his water needs, highlighting the persistence of difficulties despite the desire for progress.

Experts emphasise the complexity of political and administrative capacities required to address the infrastructure needs of urban populations effectively.

Adem Kedir, a lecturer in urban governance at Addis Abeba University, underscores the importance of having a comprehensive database that captures both qualitative and quantitative aspects of a population. Such data according to Adem serves as a foundation for formulating long-term policy targets tailored to the specific cultural, economic, and political dynamics of the urban environment.

Adem points out that no single political structure can be deemed ideal for infrastructure development. However, he stresses the significance of long-term planning to achieve meaningful outcomes.

He suggests that a mayor, when empowered with sufficient resources and support, can effectively serve as a manager within a well-functioning bureaucratic system. However, he acknowledges that many towns in Ethiopia have evolved organically, with regulatory bodies emerging much later than the initial establishment of urban settlements.

"Infrastructure development has struggled to keep pace with population growth and density," he said.

Adem advocates for a public engagement-intensive approach that nurtures the emergence of an administrative framework shaped by residents' shared challenges and aspirations. He believes it will align governance structures more closely with the needs and priorities of urban communities, ultimately facilitating more effective infrastructure development.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 06,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1249]

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