Development projects are scarce measured on the damage they cause to the environment. The Ethiopian landscape is suffering, in a manner that bears resemblance to the early 1930s United States, when the Dust Bowl occurred, writes Ambessaw Assegued (email@example.com).
If the city of Adama, the crown jewel of the Awash Basin, is sometimes mentioned as the Port of Ethiopia, Serkalem, a sprawling beer garden in the Arada section of the town, is its nerve centre. The beer garden, a holdover from the days of the empire, started life as a Tej Bet, a drinking house of local honey wine.
On a recent Saturday evening, Serkalem is dimly lit by candle lights, and every nook and cranny of the noisy bar is filled with what looks like regulars. Most of the patrons are sitting around in small groups, all engaged in heated discussions that often crosses over to the adjoining tables.
At one table, a disabled veteran of the Dergue era is leading the conversation from a corner table. The discussion is about a dust storm that has downed a few electric power poles leaving the entire city engulfed in pitch darkness.
“Are they rationing the power supply to different cities?” asks an apparent newcomer to the group.
“No, no. It is the wind this time,” replies the veteran, eager to draw the stranger into the conversation. “Two power poles are down, and another is leaning at a terrible angle,” he continues showing the angle of inclination with his arm. “It is the third gust we have had this week.”
He is referring to dust storms that rise and sweep across the Awash River Valley blinding everyone and everything along their dust-sodden paths. Theses frequent storms, ominous harbingers of desertification that should worry all of us to a looming ecological calamity, are now well established in the region. The spectacularly huge dust storms churn up the bare ground in a tempestuous fury and wildly traverse across the valley floor casting brief but foreboding anxiety on everyone.
At Serkalem, the storm has left layers of tiny particles of sand and clay on the tables and chairs and has filled every nook and cranny with silt deposits that, despite the repeated efforts of the waitresses, resist cleaning. The disabled veteran, a fidgety man of apparent means, seems to have independently grasped the enormity of the environmental problems posed by the dust storms. The other regulars around his table are politely sceptical, dismissive and unwilling to be drawn too deeply into an alarming conversation.
It is a human aversion to avoid unpleasant realities, and the veteran is unable to sustain the discussions on the storm with his drinking buddies. But the stranger, sitting a little standoffish from the group, is willing to provide the fodder that the veteran needs to keep the conversation alive, however languidly.
The trouper talks with an instinctive understanding of the dust storm, their increase in intensity and frequency over the years, and what they involve in nature. He correctly assesses the cause as being the wanton removal of the woodland vegetation cover from the valley floor, and the uncontrolled surface land mining that is in full swing across the Rift Valley.
When the stranger argues that the winds are not strong enough to knock down the power poles, the veteran talks about how the storms have uprooted corrugated metal roofs, vendors’ stands and some trees. He recalls how the dust cloud has turned the clear sky dark that afternoon, as it picks up the exposed topsoil and swirls it into a dense black blizzard.
Some 85 years ago, Avis D. Carlson, writing about the United States Dust Bowl in a New Republic article describes a similar event.
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face. People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk,” she wrote.
The Ethiopian dust bowl may be forming across the Eastern Rift Valley while our attention is averted towards amassing glittering Chinese trinkets and presiding over the plundering of the country’s natural resources. The degradation of the Ethiopian natural landscapes from topsoil depletion, the decaying conditions of our rivers, to the uncontrolled quarrying of the ancient ridges may have once been a mere concern, but it should now be of mortal worry to all of us.
The current state of natural resource pillaging in Ethiopia resembles the attitude of the frontier days of the United States when settlers, unrestrained by environmental considerations, ploughed and removed the native vegetation of the prairie that ended up in the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl.
The main problem is that the fate of the Ethiopian natural landscape is left in the hands of ill-informed officials issuing permits. Land grants and permits for resource extractions are issued willy-nilly, without any understanding of the environmental consequences, without standards, without monitoring, or the imposition of penalties for non-compliance with existing protective regulations.
There may be laws in the books meant to protect against such hazards, but they are either not being adequately executed or need reforming.
If there are any lessons to be learnt from the United States Dust Bowl experience it is that today the protection and conservation of natural resources in the country are recognized as being of paramount public concern. Strict promulgations and enforcement of environmental laws by federal, state and local governments have successfully reversed the negative trends of the 1930s.
Ethiopia should immediately adopt the well-developed and successful American experience of natural resource protection to avert an impending environmental calamity. Changes and progress are inevitable but must be steered towards improving the quality of life of citizens and bring tangible benefits to the public.
Serkalem has magnificently embraced changes brought about by a revolution and regime turnovers to survive, flourish, and manage to retain much of its history. Today, it thrives in the shadows of monolithic gentrification that bear no alliance to the past. Remarkably, Serkalem still retains some of its old charm – a time when low-rise roofs, coloured-stucco facades and tree-studded streets graced the Arada neighbourhood of Adama.
During a warm night when the electric power has been knocked off by a violent dust storm, Serkalem remains a busy place. The cavernous building, which extends to different sections of the building inside and sprawls out into the cobbled street, is full of noisy customers, stressed waitresses, and busy vendors of roasted beans, boiled potatoes and Samosa.
In one corner of the bar, and try as he may, a lone disabled veteran is unable to convince others in his group that an environmental hazard looms in the peaceful valley.
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