On November 3, 1935, Benito Mussolini has already launched his fascist invasion of Ethiopia, and his troops have occupied the ancient city of Axum. In Addis Abeba, Emperor Haile Selassie is hosting a lavish dinner at the imperial palace with a special “culinary offering of Filets de Poisson d’Akaki à là Duglêré made from fish caught from the Great Akaki River in central Ethiopia,” proclaims the website of the private collector, Jake Smith, who has secured an original copy of the banquet menu that night.

Jake Smith writes that “the menu entry is by itself an insight into environmental degradation [of the river]. Today there are no fish whatsoever in the Great Akaki River, which serves as a toxic drain for sewage, industrial waste and stormwater from the capital, Addis Ab[e]ba.”

This is the often repeated saga of today’s rivers and lakes of Ethiopia. Our natural water bodies have become toxic drains and reservoirs of neglect and degradation. Not far from the Turkish Embassy in the capital, the ancient river confluence of Bantiyketu and Kebena River widens as the two tributaries meet and dash, shifting their own characters and uniting to form the Bulbula River that flows south.

A little way downstream, passing through the convoluted and unplanned congregation of developments, Bulbula River joins Teleku Akaki River in another confluence, where the rush continues south to the Great Akaki River, passing through the floodplains and wetlands of Akaki to form yet another confluence with the Awash River.

There is an apparent rush in City Hall and the Prime Minister's Office to see the Addis Abeba River Revitalization Project off to a quick start. Why there is such a rush is shrouded in mystery.

What flows in the Akaki River now “is a characteristically greenish-dark colour [liquid], pitch dark sediment and a peculiar pungent odour which is associated to the industrial and domestic waste discharged to the river system,” describe Hamere Yohannes and Eyasu Elias in a 2017 article.

The water quality of the Akaki River is so bad it effectively excludes the existence of any aquatic life in it, rendering the filets de poisson served at the royal banquet in 1935 a thing of the past. There was a time, however, even in the 1960s, when fish were caught in the Bantiyketu and Kebena Rivers, and the Bulbula River was clean enough to swim in its ripple and pool areas where the sand and gravel of the gentle riverbeds attracted local boys and girls.

Now, the city is grappling with what to do with a river system that has deteriorated to the point of total environmental collapse. There seems to be a rush to do something about it. Opting for a quick solution, a Chinese contractor is recruited to build the river project for the city. A significant amount of money for the project has been pledged by the Chinese government. That may explain the choice of the contractor, but the environmental record of China and its companies do not inspire confidence.

Water pollution in the water bodies of China is such a problem that there could be “catastrophic consequences for future generations,” states a World Bank report of 2018.

“Toxic runoff from China's booming textile industry is one reason why many of the nation's largest rivers resemble open sewers and 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water,” writes Cropwatch in a 2007 article.

More than 50pc of China’s fresh water has been polluted by industrial, agricultural or domestic waste. Not surprisingly, China is facing freshwater shortages,” proclaims Conservation International on its webpage.

In contrast, the Great London Stink of 1858, the name coined for the aftermath of the heavily polluted Thames River, did not merely lead to solving a major pollution problem but led to world-changing development in science and engineering.

The source of what is now known as the Great Stink was the River Thames, into which the city’s sewers emptied. In 1858, a summer heat wave caused the waste within the river to ferment and smell to an unbearable level. The British Parliament then enacted a bill to create a new sewer system, which Joseph Bazalgette, an engineer, designed and constructed an 82 miles sewer network which solved London’s pollution problem. Over the many years since, the River Thames has gone through several restoration and revitalization projects which have rendered it one of the world’s cleanest rivers.

The potential benefits to restore the rivers of Addis Abeba are enormous with improvements in ecosystems, flood control, clean water, biodiversity and human enjoyment. Effective river restoration requires “recognition of physical and ecological processes, diverse forms of connectivity within river networks, physical-biotic interactions, place-specific history and complexity, and collaboration between river scientists and restoration practitioners,” as pointed out by Ellen Who, et al in a 2015 article in Water Resources Research.

What is currently proposed is the reconfiguration and alteration of the banks, riverbeds, riffles, pools and bends of the rivers which must be avoided at any cost in any sensible river restoration work. This nation should not take an unnecessary risk by rushing into this project and gamble with our most essential natural resource, our water bodies.

Why are we not implementing the most basic necessary steps and assembling an international group of experts to review the concept? Why is the awarding of the contract done without transparency Why not involve more international companies who have track records of success in river restoration work?

As citizens, we should appeal to those officials that are making this rushed decision to revitalize our rivers to pause but a little. What is the rush? Let us endeavour to build something that future generations would look at and say, “Look, what a wonderful resource they left behind for us to enjoy.”

Let us not squander an opportunity to improve the quality of life of citizens and improve the environment for the sake of building monstrosities. A look at the Addis Abeba Light Railway System that stands today deteriorating and ill-maintained, a concrete albatross in the heart of our city, should be a warning sign to us all.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 29,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1000]

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