Cobblestone’s Rocky Road

It was in early 2005 that the concept of using cobblestones  to construct roads was first introduced to Ethiopia. While on a trip to conduct research in collaboration with IHS Erasmus University in Rotterdam,Holland, five officials from the Dire Dawa City Administration including Biniyam Wubshet, general manager of Dire Dawa City Roads Authority (DDCRA) observed a new type of road that they were unfamiliar with.

During their stay in the ancient Dutch metropolis, Biniyam and his colleagues noticed that many of the roads in the city were built with black, rounded, shiny stones that had a lacquered finish. They found out that they were called cobblestones. Much to their surprise, they also found out that the cost of constructing a road using cobblestone is four times cheaper than using concrete asphalt.

Both Biniyam and his colleagues were amazed and delighted at their find. Coming from a country looking for feasible solutions to transportation infrastructure, their discovery opened up new avenues of possibilities that they did not know existed.

“That was my first experience inEuropeand I was not expecting to find the famous cities I had only read about to be paved in something that simple and inexpensive,” Biniyam said. “I was delighted and excited.”

His optimism was justified. The cost of double or triple surface concrete asphalt is incredibly high. Many of the cities inEthiopiado not have the financial capacity or budget to cover the costs, and thus infrastructural development can be slowed down.

“In 2005, double surface concrete asphalt construction and treatment could cost around eight to 10 million Br a kilometre while constructing one kilometre of road using a cobblestone only costs 1.6 million Br,” Biniyam told Fortune.

Those figures have risen significantly in the last eight years, the cost of a kilometre of cobblestone has reached 3.4 million Br; while those for asphalt have risen to 13 million Br a kilometre.

Immediately after returning toEthiopia, Biniyam started preparing a feasibility study for the construction of roads using cobblestone in Dire Dawa, the second largest city in the country next to the capital.

At the time the population size and urban activities in Dire Dawa were increasing. With increases in imports and through-traffic Dire Dawa’s need for infrastructural development increased exponentially.

“The facilities that we had were no longer supporting the population or all the new needs that were being created,” said Binyame. “The through-traffic of heavy trucks in the city is increasing, as is the normal access requirement for the local population”.

Three months later, his feasibility study saw the light of day, when a pilot project was implemented in the centre of Dire Dawa. Cobblestones were laid on 200m of road with very encouraging results. Dire Dawa, like so many times before in its colourful history, was now the local pioneer in the use of cobblestone for road construction.

Encouraged by the success of the DDCRA, the Ethiopian Road Fund (ERF), established in 1997, to finance the maintenance of roads and road safety measures, has given priority to towns building roads using cobblestones.

In a letter dated July 12, 2007, the ERF wrote a directive to towns and cities to follow Dire Dawa’s example. Towns were instructed to allocate 30pc to 50pc of their resources to the construction of labour-intensive cobblestone roads. To provide and incentive the ERF pledged an additional 25pc of those same resources.

Experts from the DDCRA were sent to each of the cities to train officials and experts about using cobblestone for the construction of roads, according to Binyam.

Mekelle was the second city to train workers about the different processes of producing and paving with cobblestone in 2006. A few months later, Adama, Hawassa and Bahir Dar followed suit.

To further cobblestone use and its impact on local development the World Bank financed Urban Local Government Development Project (ULGDP) has also played a role, allocating 300 million dollars in a performance-based matching grant.

This grant is transforming cities where cobblestone projects are being implemented. For the first time, these cities have access to transparent, predictable funding, as long as they meet objective performance criteria.

Cities like Mekelle have benefited greatly from this, with the project helping local administrations to better plan and deliver services and to improve infrastructure identified by the local government and population.

Three years after being introduced to other major urban centres, cobblestones finally found their way to Addis Abeba. At the time there were 69 cobblestone enterprises with 910 workers.

At the end of 2009, when the Ethiopian government took over the project, more than 2,000 small and micro-enterprises had been created, providing employment for around 84,000 stonecutters and 4,700 pavers who had laid 1.2 million square metres of cobblestone across the country.

At the end of 2011/12 fiscal year, the programme had been rolled out to 120 towns and cities across the country; around 2.2 million square metres have been finished; and an estimated 130,000 people (45pc of them women) are employed in the sector. Awassa, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, Dire Dawa, Harar andAddis Ababahave now established their own training schools.

To date, the Addis Abeba City Roads Authority (AACRA), responsible for the implementation of the project in the capital, has constructed close to 500Km of cobblestone roads by organizing upwards of 2,500 enterprises. The entire endeavour has created 40,000 employment opportunities.

Out of the total 100 million Br used to construct the roads, 35pc of the money was contributed by local communities.

Like any other resident of Addis Abeba, Birhanu Selamneh, 38, contributed 800 Br to the construction of a one kilometre cobblestone road in his neighbourhood. Birhanu lives in Gazebo village aroundMesereteKirstosChurch, located offSierra Leone St.commonly known asDebre Zeit Road.

Birhanu and his neighbours were pleased that the road they had put up their money for only took three months to be completed.

What did disappoint them was that it only took an additional three months for them to see the road become damaged.

“I was surprised to see a road that should have been operational for a long time was destroyed in such a short period,” Birhanu told Fortune.

Most of the cobblestone roads Fortune visited around the Merkato, Kotebe and Betel areas are in bad shape, just a few months after their construction was completed.

Cobblestones, are naturally formed from  rounded stones that have been smoothed by water. They were used to construct the very first roads, particularly inEurope.

Cobblestones were largely replaced by quarried granite setts, also known as Belgian block, in the 19th century. Cobblestone is often wrongly used to describe such treatment, which is the same kind that is being implemented inEthiopia. Setts were relatively even and roughly rectangular stones that were laid in regular patterns. Unlike the naturally formed cobblestone, setts require a stone resource base.

This has been the undoing of the Ethiopian cobblestone endeavour.

“A limited resource base and the lack of qualified consultants for the design and supervision of cobblestone road construction are the sector’s main constraints,” a civil engineer, who has been following the issue closely told Fortune.

Cobblestone road construction consists of three steps, a quarry producing raw materials; transforming the raw material into standardized cobblestones or setts; and laying the cobblestone.

“Although proper supervision is needed in the third stage, coordination among different stakeholders is essential in the first and second stages,” said the expert who has been in the road construction sector for the last 17 years.

AACRA has different quarry sites around Tafo located in southern outskirts of Addis Abeba, Yeka District, Hanamarim Area in Akaki Kality District and around Gelan.

These quarries rest on close to 500ha of land combined.

One of the quarries located in Yeka District is Cheffe cobblestone quarry site, which started operations three years ago. Close to 250 workers belonging to 38 associations operate as chisellers. They sell their stones to stonecutters working at the same site, which has 109ha of land.

Amanu Bedaso, has been working at the Chefe site for last two years as stonecutter. The 3,000 stonecutters are organized under 262 associations.

However, for the last five days Amanu has been sitting idle because he was supplied with poor quality stones from the quarry.

Amanu and his colleagues have to pay 238 Br for one square meter of stone and an additional 180 Br to transport them.

“The type of stone I received cannot be used to construct roads,” he told Fortune.

His is not the only livelihood that has been affected by the decrease in quality. Zenash Mekonnen left her day job as a waitress and rotating washer woman thinking that she would be able to earn a more steady income by chiselling  cobblestones. A year ago, she and fifteen women from her neighbourhood in Meri, past CMC founded an association and began work. With the quality of the stones decreasing with each truckload, the steady income that they were hoping for did not come.

“Even if we did the work, we couldn’t sell the stones, which meant that we could not get paid,” Zenash told Fortune.

The association that she was once so keen to join has now disbanded and she and the other members have returned to their former jobs, and continue to try and make ends meet.

To make matters worse, the limited low quality resources at the Cheffe site have now been completely exhausted. AACRA has advised the associations working out of there to relocate to the Qatila site located a few kilometres further out from Cheffe.

The Qatila site has 190ha of land, although the resources available are identical to the ones that were depleted in Cheffe.

Despite needing the work, Amanu sits twiddling his thumbs waiting for a second truckload of stone to be delivered to him. The truckload that he did receive did not contain any decent stones, which meant that he would not be able to sell them, even if he were to cut them.

He now patiently waits for another shipment, hopefully one with a higher quality stone.

“Because there are only two dump trucks at the site to transport the large stones, I have to wait my turn,” said Amanu.

But he and others like him can only wait and hold out for quality for so long. All of the stonecutters and chisellers financially depend on the sale of their stones to survive.

“After waiting days, I have to accept poorer quality, otherwise I don’t eat,” lamented Amanu.

This trend, which is forcing us to supply stones of poor quality to our customers, ultimately leads to poor quality cobblestone roads, he explained.

Raw materials for the construction of cobblestone roads are basalt, granite and trachyte. These three are high density stones, which are of extremely high quality and durability.Ethiopiais full of basalt stone, which is formed in volcanic areas, particularly in the Rift Valley. But, for efficiency, and time management, those resources have not been tapped to build cobblestone streets in urban areas.

The lack of quality stone supply in Addis Abeba and environs is forcing the Authorities to shift to other types of stones like limestone and sandstone, said the expert close to the issue.

Such types of stone are very common in architecture, especially in Europe andNorth America. Many landmarks across the world, including the Great Pyramid and its associated complex inGiza,Egypt, are made of limestone.

However, its use in road construction is limited to use as an aggregate, which is the solid base for many roads, argued the expert. The stone by nature does not have the quality or capacity to be a finishing material for roads, which requires more strength and durability than it can offer.

Before introducing and implementing the new technology in Addis Abeba, a serious pilot project testing its limitations and capacity was needed to verify its feasibility of the choice, according to him.

“If they had taken the time and done things like they were done in Dire Dawa, maybe things might have gone better,” he observed.

Under his supervision Biniyam saw the construction of close to 73Km of cobblestone roads in Dire Dawa, compared to the 47Km of total asphalt in the city, the efficiency of the cobblestone method using high quality materials is clear to him.

“Most of the stone supplied to construct cobblestone roads in Addis Abeba, are sand and lime based,” he stated. “This has the potential to decrease the longevity and resilience of the projects.”

The supply is, however, despite the availability of basaltic stone in the whole country, according to the engineer.

“What was expected from the authorities was to find this resource based on research,” he said.

Sandstone is more  difficult to hold together. Moreover, it does not have the capacity to resist large loads. Using it as a material to build roads, which were made to carry heavy loads is not a sensible option, according to Biniyam.

However, Geremaw Berhe, roads expert at AACRA argued that rather than the quality of the cobblestones, the problem lay with the ineffectiveness of Weredas, which are responsible for handling the preparation of the sub-base that the cobblestones are laid on.

The success and longevity of any road project ultimately rests on the preparation of the bedding layers and the use of appropriate bedding materials, said the expert.

“The specification for the bedding layers is dependent on the load that they are expected to bear,” he explained.

“It is the responsibility of each Wereda in Addis Abeba to clean the areas for the roads and to do quality work for the sub-base,” said Geremaw. “ACCRAis only responsible for the construction of the road after the District has completed the sub-base”.

“Since it is done voluntarily, the organizers of Residents Committees do not worry about the quality of the sub-base,” according to him.

A member of the committee organized for the construction of a cobblestone road in Gazebo village disagrees with Geremaw observations.

“If AACRA finds the construction to be below standard, the Authority should stop the construction and order Wereda officials to make the necessary changes,” according to the committee member, who requested anonymity.

“The quality and durability of the constructed cobblestone roads depends on a number of parameters,” said the expert. “Basic material and work-quality assurance mechanisms must be in place, and the Authority should supervise their attainment.”







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