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The failed business as usual: Supply side water management in Mekele

The failed business as usual: Supply side water management in Mekelle

Yohannes Aberra, PhD April 02, 2020

As entire Ethiopia fights tooth and nail with the Corona pandemic it has to be borne in mind that life is going to continue after whatever the cost of the spread of the virus might be. What this pandemic is showing us clearly and unmistakably is that water is our saviour. If we are forced to realize that water saves us then we must also realize that we have to save it. Water cannot save us if we don't save it first. Water guzzling cultures are not good survivors. Corona is neither the first nor the last communicable disease that vitally needs water to deal with it. When the health personnel in Tigrai wanted to show how hands should be washed as protection from Corona no water could be available. This is a worse case scenario if not the worst.

World has moved away from the pipe and concrete approach to water management as demand grows by leaps and bounds, while sources dwindle and disappear. Of all nature securities water security comes even before food security. In a drought situation people die of thirst before they do of hunger. This puts water in the spotlight of human survival and continuity of its civilization. The great ancient beginnings of the Anthropocene were mainly river valley civilizations: Mesopotamia, Lower Nile and Indus Valley. Although water is such a vital resource in societies it has never been duly treated. Water is taken for granted, a gift of God! Even during the 1972-3 drought in Ethiopia one of the verses in Tilahun's song was "...Why they (the victims) cannot even get God's water....". This implies that water is just about God little to do with how humans manage it. God created the resource and engineers supply it. This is the only hydro-philosophy that has dominated the die hard supply management approach. The management of water saving is induced by the perception of the plenty and scarcity of water at the time of extraction not proactively long before it. The Arabs say the value of water is known only when the well dries up. Until then people have a natural tendency to be extravagant about water without any sense of foresight. People might have heard that 70 percent of our Planet's surface is covered by water. So, why fret while sitting on plenty? Unfortunately not everyone is aware of the fact that the available freshwater is only less than two percent of the total. The rest is saline water unusable for most human daily needs. Even two percent is not distributed evenly throughout the globe. Depending on the geology; nature of the surface terrain and climate how much water is available at a particular point in the regional and local water cycles varies from place to place. Hence there are water plenty and water deficit areas considering the natural availability. However, this should not mean those with high quantity of water availability are water secure while those with lesser natural availability are not. Humans have reached such a stage of water use where multiple uses of water factored by the magnitude of demand (population and economic activities) have become more decisive in determining water security than natural availability alone. The concept of water scarcity bears economic meaning in the sense that it is not the ratio of people to natural water availability, like M3/person, but the intensity of water use of the economy.

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There is a possibility that the humid Addis Ababa may experience more water scarcity than the arid Khartoum. The conventional thinking is that Addis Ababa is not expected to conserve water because it is assumed to be sitting on a huge underground "tanker". The problem of water in Addis Ababa is perceived to be inefficiency of the AAWSA, Why? The AAWSA staffed with water engineers are busy trying to cater for the ever rising demand for water through the endless search for water sources, harness and distribute them. As the pace between water demand and supply becomes Malthusian, where the former rises geometrically and the latter arithmetically; and as the  loans for new and more and more distant supply sources plunge city administrations into debt crisis, few are asking new questions. The water users and suppliers are locked in a vicious spiral of demand-supply-more demand -more supply. With every new demand it is the supply that is interrogated not the demand itself.  The new paradigm about water management is interrogating demand as well, even more so. The supply side management sphere, rife with engineers and hydrologists, while trivializing the role of social science, supply every demand without pausing to ask “What are the users doing with the water supplied to them? The supply side management provides new water supply estimated to least say for 20 years for 200,000 people. It has been a normal part of life for water engineers to be surprised by water shortage in a matter of only five years. The calculation of the water engineers is based on 20 or 40 or 60 liters/per person/ day taking previous average uses or experiences from other countries. The pitfall lies here. Average water use has little meaning for societies that have a huge difference in their lifestyles induced by varying levels of the standard of living.

 Changes in lifestyles and economic use of water are not normally accounted for in water supply planning. It is only through the joint actions of hydro-social and water engineering that the core issue of water supply and demand can more effectively be addressed. Addis Ababa water supply planning did not proactively address the vast condominium project, the proliferating real estate, and the flood of private house constructions and the implications for changes in water use lifestyles in the new homes. The hundreds of thousands of new houses almost invariably use flush toilets, shower and/or bath tubs, gardening hoses, carwash; some have swimming pools, etc. These were luxuries affordable to fewer people before. There is clear "water rush" which unlike the gold rush depletes finances rather than augument them. In view of the speed of the expansion of modern homes no doubt the demand for water would sky rocket. Since this is beyond the means for the AAWSA Addis Ababa is facing deep water crisis.

This is the story of the Capital which is shared by Mekele in the north. Most of the introduction is already done in the preceding paragraphs. As in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the world Mekele is well on the beaten track of water management where there is a painful relationship between supply and demand fiercely gazing at each other. Mekele is semi desert to dry subhumid with a mean annual rainfall of around 500 millimeters. The rainfall variability is high and drought recurs with increasing magnitude and duration. The city lies close to the Afar lowlands: a desertification front line. Adding to its natural water shortage is its surface geology where Agula Shale covers the city and its surrounding in a large radius. The shale is not a good groundwater aquifer. So it is needless to state that Mekele has a severe natural water shortage.  This did not prevent Mekele in its early years from supporting forests on the lower slopes of Chom'a, Adi Welel, and Dayesus hills east of the city. The then rich aquifer of Aynalem had its water table above the surface that the resulting wetlands were impassable. The tributary streams, like Illaa, Bubu, Enda Medhane Alem flowing northwest to join Geba had some base flow throughout the year. There were several high productivity springs like May KuwaKhuwat, May Shembeko, Sewhi Negus. Sewhi Illala in Gembela was large perennial grassland.

As drought recurred, as the slopes  of the Mekele watershed degraded, as the Derg war dragged for too long, and as population increased with implications for more water extraction and fuel wood supply the discharge and recharge balance was tilted in favour of  the former. The streams either lost base flow or dwindled, dust increased accelerating water demand for bathing and laundry, the high wind speed is dehydrating accelerating moisture loss from ground surface, plants and even human skin. Dry skins and weight losses became common, overflowing septic tanks and lack of proper water based sanitation posed human health hazards.

Mekele was not ready for the roaring expansion that occurred in a matter of two decades from a small regional administrative town into a huge economic hub of northern Ethiopia with nearly 400,000. The incompatibility of demographic and physical growth and the resource needs of the city is more glaring in the water sector.  The question is how does the philosophy of the City's water authority address the combined natural water shortage and economic water scarcity? My question was answered when I found myself in a workshop in Mekele last summer where I attended the Water group session. I realized that I was the only one from the water social science (a rare species) and I realized that I was in deep trouble with  water engineers and hydrologists that filled the room. When I became tired of the usual talk I in almost every workshop on water management I attended in Ethiopia and abroad, about what technologies can be used to detect, dig out and supply water, I had to jump in. I was trying to add some sense to the purely pipe and concrete dominated debates by stressing that water supply plans have to be accompanied by instilling water conservation ethic among the users before extravagance become a bad and unchangeable habit. The partipants were mad at me except Dr. Tewodros (the water bureau chief) who perfectly got my point. He tried his best to tell the chair and the participants that we cannot take only one side of the water management picture. Informally, one of the water engineers challenged me in my hotel waving my view as luxury when farmers in Tigray have no water they cannot think of saving it. It is clear that we were talking past each other. Fortunately I am used to it. Let me tell you. Had Addis Ababa learnt about conservation when Minilik gave its first tapped water instead of playing with the flowing water the following generations could have benefited from a water supply seasoned with conservation ethic for sustainability of the economy and society. Now Mekele is waiting for the 8 -billion birr mega water project. Is this truely a mega supply for a mega city? I hate to be a prophet but Mekele may face water shortage soon after completion if it does not support the supply with conservation. Roof water harvesting can be imposed by regional proclamation as it is done in India or on incentive basis as in USA, Germany and Australia.  The roof harvested water can be used for non-potable purposes. I boldly underline the need for conservation rather than waiting for phase II Giba Dam. So soon after the first loan the next can be obtained only from the "Bank of the Devil".



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