Destructive Constructions

Years have passed since the Ethiopian government decided that that best way to attain economic development is through infrastructure investment. Supported by great public spending, Ethiopia has seen massive construction projects that are upending the natural features of the nation, writes Ambessaw Assegued (

A family of four stops along a path of a famous hot spring resort in the Rift Valley and looks at a huge statue of what appears to be a black African rhino. The statue is one of many that dot the resort.

“This is definitely an awraris,” said the woman emphatically, but her husband objected, arguing that it is a kerkero.

It all begins at the entrance where a stylized sculpture displays a woman, children, ostriches and vervet monkeys playing in a dried-up water fountain structure that needs repairs. Part ways from the main driveway is an oversized statue of a smiling Mickey Mouse, the famous Disney character, sculpted in white, grey and orange plaster.

A little further in stands a stretched lion sculpture, followed by a giant Bunny Rabbit figure greedily hugging and holding carrots in his hands and mouth. And then the statue of the awraris, or the kerkero, comes into full view.

The father takes pictures of his two children while still insisting that the creature in dispute was a kerkero. They continue to take more pictures of each other against the backdrop of the riverine vegetation of acacia, white stinkwoods, sycamores, and wild-oleanders. The family avoids a blackened rock relief of a reptilian creature that gazes benignly away from the river bank and toward the adjacent ridges.

As the visitors approach the entrance of the Olympic-sized swimming pool, they are greeted by sculptures of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and, well, it is all Mickey Mouse in there. The hot spring resort resembles a confused theme-park menagerie of storybook creatures, not a spa retreat.

The resort has the potential to be a world-class establishment on par with Japan’s Takaragawa Onsen, featured in a list of the world’s top 10 hot springs, according to a 2013 piece by Reuters. Alas, that may be too lofty a dream for a backwoods enterprise still searching for its soul.

Set against the backdrop of the mighty Awash River, and bordered by beautiful natural sceneries of ridges covered by vegetation, wetlands, and savanna scrubland, the resort is ripe for a well-designed and thoughtful development. Instead of concentrating on improving its public hot baths, the swimming pools, the broken furniture, the neglected bathrooms, the indifferent staff and the unkept landscape, the management has embarked upon a construction project along the side of a naturally occurring ridge.

A huge excavation machine is busily digging on, or more like gouging out, the hill to construct what appears to be a new road. The exhumed rocks, dirt and soil are pushed and dragged downhill onto the slopes, wiping out the native prehistoric habitat of scrub woodland. Unfortunately, the resort has misplaced its priorities and has embarked on destroying the very asset that can work commercial magic for it, its natural landscape.

This resort establishment is a microcosm of the rest of th e country. The entire Ethiopian natural landscape is under attack by bulldozers, excavators, and loaders that are ferociously ripping up and gouging the hills and valleys of this ancient land. When the issue of protecting the natural resources of the country is raised amidst the mad rush for developments, a defensive argument is presented as a response, stating that it is the cost of progress.

A variation of this destructive apology response is that Ethiopia is a “developing country,” as if to say that even a defective development project is good enough for us. This irrational way of justifying the deficiencies of both public and private projects is indeed detrimental to development.

If a project disregards the natural environment and its implementation degrades the quality of life for humans, how can it be considered as a developmental success?

When development is justified regardless of the cost, then the current state and rate of road building can take place. The country can celebrate its massive road construction even if it means that the roads are built without proper drainage, inappropriate grades and compactions are used in the installations, or that the road finishing is laid with brick-sized rocks and stones.

Apparently, the success of road construction is simply measured by the increasing number of the linear length of roads. It is not measured by the quality of work or the quality of the services they provide to citizens.

If a newly constructed culvert – a drain crossing under a road – is damaged during the first rainstorm and as a result ruins a newly built road, where is the progress in that development activity?

The goal of a project is to provide a specific service to the public. If it fails in that area, then it should be deemed a failure. It should not be touted as a great achievement.

A high-rise builder in the middle of a busy urban street will accept deliveries of gravel, rebar or rocks and use the pedestrian sidewalks as a dumping and storage area for the construction material. The fact that depositing building material on city streets creates environmental hazards for and inconveniences the public is of no concern to the builder because there are no standards to follow. And, if there are standards, no one is paying any attention to them or enforcing them.

It is as if a group of men wielding picks and shovels can just show up anywhere in the city and excavate trenches, remove sidewalks, or have trucks dump gravel and sand on the streets and sidewalks.

For weeks and months on end, the opened trenches and the tilled sidewalks are left gaping, while the excavated material is just piled haphazardly without any care for public health or safety. Since there are no signs that describe the project, or that inform the public as to how long the project will last, everyone just tumbles and scrabbles to get around the hazards and the inconveniences.

The famous resort along the Awash River is no different in this respect. Massive construction and building activities are going on inside the premises, seemingly operating under the assumption that the activities, by themselves, represent progress. A confused menagerie of sculptures may lead to a playful and enjoyable family debate, but it is no substitute for creating a world-class resort that attracts well-heeled tourists or for providing comfort to local visitors.

The family continues to debate the statue when a group of workers come up and join the argument. Half of the newcomers defend the woman that the sculpture represents an awraris, and the other half mistakenly votes for the kerkero version. After a little while, the matter is dropped without a resolution, but the woman was correct.

The now extinct species of the black rhino, Diceros bicornis michaeli, is what the statue depicts; it is an awraris, not a kerkero, the latter an Amharic word for a wild boar. The habitats of both animals in the Awash River Valley have long been decimated by humans, the last of the awraris having been reported in 1983 by M. J. Largen, a biologist.

By Ambessaw Assegued

Published on Mar 17,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 933]



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