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My humble opinion about sustainable pathways for the development of Tigray

My humble opinion about sustainable pathways for the development of Tigray


Open message to H.E. Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael


Dr. Yohannes Aberra Ayele (Associate professor)



“Sustainable development is the pathway to the future we want for all. It offers a framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance” Ban Ki-moon (former UN Secretary General)


I will start by wishing you success in the Herculean task on your back and the Gordian knot in your hands of leading the poorest but the humblest people of Tigray on the path of sustainable development. It is no use for the people of Tigray to engage in heated political debates, spend more than enough time lamenting actions taken against them, and classifying and reclassifying politicians and parties as enemies and friends.The time is ripe for dwelling, with full energy and attention, on the fundamental cause of what I want to call the “Tigrean problem”. Historically, the Tigrean problem was founded on political marginalization resulting in economic marginalization. The solution to the problem was first to end political marginalization. That was accomplished a quarter of a century ago. However, the golden opportunity of the hard-earned political liberty for ensuring economic prosperity and eliminating poverty was wasted.

The fact that economic power implies political power has brought Tigray back to square one of political marginalization. It is not how many you are but how much you have that matters in political influence. Everyone knows the tiny Catalonia is the most spoilt of regions in Spain because of its wealth. The choice for Tigray is either to wade in the swamp of endless hostilities to regain political significanceor to plunge itself into sustainable development endeavorand allow the political importance to recover on its own. In the following section I have listed down some points I felt are sustainable development pathways that may fit into Tigray’s economic, environmental, andcultural uniqueness.

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Path-way 1.Build a Water frugal economy and society

Water is a key to life and to development. Tigray is far from being a water rich region. The Region is predominantly dryland with a long-term tendency for the situation to get worse unless a major climate shift occurs. Most of its streams have dry-beds during the dry season. There is no significant body of fresh water; and its groundwater resource is not so abundant. Any development strategy for Tigray must give this deficiency a serious thought. Unfortunately the existing extraction rates and patterns of water use seem to be oblivious to this hard fact. You find the water-guzzling eucalyptus both on the shores of Lake Tana and on the dryer hills overlooking Mekele City; lawns and swimming pools; rain-shower heads and flush toilets equipped with large cisterns; washing cars with high discharge-rate hoses; rearing livestock, crops and other products with high virtual water; wetting dust in the streets and curing concrete with potable standard water.

These are some of the most inappropriate and unsustainable water resource management practices in a typically dryland environment. As urbanization in Tigray is increasing at a rapid rate extravagant water use is going to increase with the introduction of high water demand manufacturing and service sector. Moreover, “Modern” water utilizing life styles (washing machines, dish washers, flush toilets, swimming pools, gardening, car washing, showering, etc.), that accompany the increasing affordability of “standard” housing, have accelerated the demand for water.

Development is expected to bring about high enough standard of living and wellbeing to everyone. However, when it comes to water use there is no “standardized” water use. It all depends on your situation. Simply copying water use from others is harmful. When you drink alcohol it is only you who has to know how much intoxicates you and how much more kills you not the brewery or the distillery.

There are three approaches to water resources management: the “supply-side”, the “demand-side” and the “water-soft-path”. The “supply-side” is a hydrology and engineering approach where every demand for water is to be supplied. It is just a matter of diverting rivers, damming running water, and digging wells whenever there is demand for water.  The unquestioned demands go without water when there is a shortage or lack of budget, technology, experts, and above all,a new source water. The “demand-side” is an approach in economics which focuses on demand and tries by several methods to reduce the demand for water rather than trying to match the supply with the endless demand. Introducing water appliances that are efficient, metering, and progressive tariffs are some of its key methods. The “water-soft-path” is different from both in that it questions the use of water in the first place. The logic in this approach is why we have to use water for everything? Can’t we do some things without water? Some examples are: dry toilets, wiping rather than washing your car, brooming your floor and corridors rather than washing them with potable water.

In order to make water use and development sustainable in Tigray the demand-side and the soft-path approaches have to be mainstreamed into the rural and urban planning and management systems. Virtual water has to be considered. Virtual water means the amount of water we use to produce something. Cattle take more water than goats and bees. A list of virtual water of all products can be found on relevant web pages. Products with low water intensity should be given priority in Tigray or in the drier and more water deficient parts of the Region. In a virtual water trade these can be exchanged with other places that produce high water intensity products. Some incentive system is need for such firms; and even some legal enforcement may be necessary.

Another sustainable water strategy for Dryland Tigray is “roof water harvesting”. Much has been written about why rural rainwater storage has failed in the past. Evidences showed that it was the management of projects that failed not the time-tested rainwater harvesting. In the urban areas of Tigray where the per-capita water use surpasses that of the rural areas, roof-water harvesting can be a boost to the availability of additional water. Rainwater is lost as flood creating massive problems. Catching rainwater from our roofs can provide ample water for non-potable uses of water (gardening, toilet flushing, car washing, floor washing, concrete curing, dust settling, etc.), which account for the largest proportion of water use. The initial cost of installation of roof-water harvesting is of course a little high. This discourages people from installing the system. Urban governments in Tigray can start from the wealthier people, large institutions, factories and service providers who use more water. Laws requiring the installation of the systems have to be promulgated in the regional parliament or in the respective city-councils to enforce installations. Fifteen Indian city governments have decreed the installation of roof-water harvesting systems by the size of plots.

Instilling water “conservation ethic” in the minds of the young generation is a very important long-term approach to bring about responsible water use behavior. Water wasting should be made a taboo in society. Schools have to insert this into their curriculum. The Education bureau of the Region has to see into this. Civic groups, like “societies for water conservation”, can be organized for a more effective public ownership of the effort.


Path-way 2.Building drought resilient economy and society

Drought recurrencein Tigray, induced by the ENSO phenomena, is a rule rather than an exception. Although Western Tigray is relatively drought-free, even Raya, the sub-region with bimodal rainfall and normally considered to be more humid is frequently hit by drought. Due to the lack of sustainable actions against the adverse direct impacts of the disaster in the rural areas, people spontaneously flocked into urban relief centers and many remained there permanently. Drought induced rural to urban migration has been one of the dark shades of the history of the Region in addition to the brutal wars that were devastating hundreds of villages.

Drought response in Tigray, as in other parts of Ethiopia, has been reactive. Once drought passes and normal rains resume the last disaster evaporates from the minds of everyone. A dangerous amnesia grips policy makers and implementers. The Drought Mitigation Center of USA named the situation as the “Hydro Illogical Cycle”. Unfortunately, the next drought always becomes a surprise. National and regional plan targets, particularly for agriculture and urban development, are set without including contingencies for drought or without mainstreaming permanent adaptation to drought into development planning. In Tigray adaptation of rural and urban livelihoods to recurring drought should form the kernel of development planning.

One key aspect of the adaptation to drought as a sustainable development strategy is change of public’s food habits. This can be done through incentives and awareness creation through the media and the school curriculum. As discussed in Path-way 1, rainwater harvesting, water and virtual water trade (intra-regional and inter regional) can also be part of the drought-adaptation strategies. By change in foodhabits I mean shift from water intensive food products to less water intensive food products. A habit of consuming beef and milk on regular basis is not compatible with drought-adaptation because the production of beef and dairy-products requires huge quantities of virtual water. People suffer; even die of hunger when drought kills larger livestock due to thirst. Beef consumption is well known as price-inelastic-demand. Such economics does not work when you have the money but have no water for the cattle! 

Path-way 3.Working for a more balanced regional urbanization

The level of urbanization in Tigray, which means the proportion of people, out of the total living in urban centers, has exceeded the national average since the 1990s. It can be said with high degree of confidence that the future of the Region is a future of urbanization. The peace and stability that prevailed in the last half century which was unheard of for several centuries has triggered rapid rates of spontaneous urbanization. Of course you don’t normally plan to create cities and towns; the economy and the society do. However, you don’t set the urban specter loose as it becomesa burden on people’s lives as time goes on. The least public policy must do, to instill some order into the spontaneity of urbanization, is to reduce urban primacy and support the economic viability of medium-sized towns.

Urbanization in Tigray is dominated by the growth of Mekele City. The city has almost become the second largest city in Ethiopia and accounts for over 20% of the urban population of Tigray. The next city in the rank-size distribution after Mekele is Adigrat; but the latter is three to four fold less in population size than the former. Mekele is experiencing an astounding level of urban-primacy. Primacy is a kind of uneven urban development where the largest city in a region or country is several times larger than the next city in the rank-order. This could be an advantage in the initial phases of development in which financial, technological, and human resources should be concentrated where the greatest economy of scale can be attained. As time goes on the primate city will suffer a diseconomies of scale and become a burden to the region while at the same time draining the energies particularly of the medium-sized urban centers. Life becomes miserable in both settings, but for different reasons. The population data of urban population for 2018 shows a wider-bottomed pyramid, implying the proliferation small-sized towns and a growing primacy of Mekele, relativelyslowing down the growth of the medium sized towns.

The intervention for balancing urbanization can be approached by allocating different levels of the industrial and service sector development. Small towns which are closer to rural livelihoods could be converted into small and medium agro-processing and basic rural service centers. The medium towns can be positioned as intermediate link between the largest city and the small towns. An efficient network of transport and communication between the three levels is mandatory. One important issue that has to be kept in mind is that urban areas feed and grow by “take-home” rather than by “make-home”. The analogy I am trying to draw is related to the two categories of urban economic activities namely, Basic and Non-basic. Basic economic activities are also called “city-forming” and the Non-basic referred to as “city-serving”. Basic economic activities are those that bring in money from outside into the city; while Non-basic activities simply circulate the money obtained through Basic activities inside the city. If we want a town or city to prosper and provide enough job opportunities it has to maximize the number of Basic economic activities (exporting, selling to visitors who bring in money from outside, etc.). The Regional government can use this approach with a great deal of success, to bring about some reasonable balance in the growth of urban centers in Tigray.

Path-way 4.The American way

There are two major parties in the USA, who have more in common than not. It is not the interest of the parties that has become the interest of the people, it is the converse. Because the interest of the people of the United States is to maintain their economic and military superpower position while enjoying a meaningful standard of living at home none of the two parties have a programme that compromises the interest of the people. Hence, in terms of national goals the two parties have no difference.

Similarly the interest of the people of Tigray is to eliminate poverty and ensure equity, build a flourishing economy, and enjoy good governance, live in peace and harmony with themselves and with all their Ethiopian compatriots. Allregional/ ethnic-based or national parties, that seek election in Tigray Region, must make sure that they have the afore mentioned interests of the people of Tigray as their own party programmes. The parties can and must only differ in how to realize these interests of the people. A war between proponents of regulation and deregulation in Tigray is not acceptable. People understand practice not ideological battles. To ensure a harmonious and sustainable development of the Region the parties must eliminate any form of sub-regional affiliations and favoritism, which has for many years now plagued Tigrean politics.


Path-way 5.Strike the right balance between Growth and Development

Economic growth and economic development are measured by the GDP and the HDI respectively.GDP is the total dollar value of goods and services in a particular country in a particular year. Economic growth is the percentage change in the GDP annually. Increased investment is what is required to shoot the GDP up. The rise in GDP does not directly imply that development has occurred. The equation has been realized in the most developed countries of the world, particularly the welfare states of northern Europe and Scandinavia. HDI is a measure of the wellbeing of all people with satisfactory figures in per-capita income, education, and life expectancy.

Unless nations have policies that intentionally divert the earningsfrom economic growth to human development (health, education, happiness, democracy, human and civil rights, safety, cultural identity, and ecosystem integrity) there will be a great deal of polarization in the economy between a small number of  people who have amassed wealth and the majority living in grinding poverty. International reports for last year of GDP and HDI rankings reveal this very clearly. China, which has the second largest GDP in the world after USA, ranks 86th in HDI. Same is true for India, which is 6th in the world in GDP; but 130th in the list for HDI. Ethiopia has been registering a high GDP for the last 10 years. Last year, Ethiopia ranked 67th in the world in GDP, against 173rd in HDI. If economic growth is unbridled it results in the emergence of an economic oligarchy which become the movers and shakers of political, social, and economic life of a nation. There will be an unholy alliance between corrupt government officials and the economic oligarchy together trampling on democracy and human and civil rights of the masses of people. In the last half a century, the Tigrean society has been sharply divided along economic-class lines, where a few have created their own world of wealth and extravaganza and the majority are unable to make ends meet. Government of Tigray has to ensure that rapid economic growth is used to enhance sustainable economic development.


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