Why Cities Smell Bad

One of the most intractable challenges Addis Abeba has faced for decades is the manner of waste disposal in the city. But it is not just the capital, as urban cities such as Adama too grapple with the problem. Lack of it has led to streets that are often flooded and, worse, smell bad, writes Ambessaw Assegued  (assegued@anfilo.com).

It is not much of a rain and it does not last long enough to account for the havoc that befell the city of Adama, in the Oromia Regional State, in the aftermath of a recent storm.  The rain results in runoffs that start to run along the edges of the street and spread quickly to the middle of the roads.  A murky mix of slurry mud and litter flows in search of drains to discharge its toxic cargo.

Alas, the network of crisscrossing concrete channels, the open-drain systems designed to carry the stormwater away from the urban centre, are already plugged with discarded plastic bottles, sand, dirt and debris.

The runoff jumps over the chocked drains and inundates the paved and cobbled roads.  It seeps into the narrow alleyways, pathways, and into the front and backyards of the surrounding congested buildings and turn entire neighbourhoods into impassable rivers of soot.

These open and dysfunctional drain systems are ubiquitous features of the Ethiopian urban landscape from the north to the south, and in all directions east and west. Most city officials and planners prescribe to the same faulty design notion of open-drainage systems first inaugurated by the Dergue four decades ago.

Since then, the municipal officials have either not had the means or the presence of mind to evaluate the systems’ performances and improve them.  The results of delayed maintenance are on full display throughout the city that afternoon.

By early evening the water has receded leaving Adama soaked and shocked, and most of the conversations revolved around the storm.  Just east of Saint Mary’s Church at Kebele 15, two young ladies are standing outside a metal gate, one of them braiding her hair, while they survey the damage of the storm.

Piles of gravel, sand and rocks that workers have left stockpiled in the middle of the road have blocked the moving water causing it to pond and rise inundating the surrounding homes and businesses. The unfinished cobble road in front of them has been unstacked by the raging storm, and all manners of debris are strewed wildly across the streets and against the fences.

“There, that is the woman,” says one of the ladies while she adjusts her hair and points with her chin to a mother who is carrying a little boy on her back and approaching them. “We could hear her scream for help, so we waded into the water to get to her. When we got to her house she has climbed on her bed with her child and refused to hand us her baby.”

She is telling the story with eager excitement that her friend responds matching it.

“We eventually managed to get her out still clutching her son,” she laughs as she finishes her story and the mother joins them and they tease and chat together for a while.

Soon, other residents approach and the group stayed together relating their own experiences of the eventful day.

A certain degree of complacency and resignation is evident as the community discusses the flooding that temporarily paralyses the city. The general sense is that there is nothing that any of them can do about it and they expect flooding to occur regularly.

What is disturbing, however, is that in a city where frequent flooding has occurred the municipal authorities have done no visible preparations or maintenance to avoid and mitigate a potential disaster.

The officials seem to opt for a solution of benign neglect, a policy proposed to President Richard Nixon by the poet and politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who urges to do nothing about a critical problem with the assumption that the issue will resolve itself.

Benign neglect may have been used as a coping mechanism for an existential threat when other practical solutions are absent or are difficult to tackle. But there are simple practical actions that the city can undertake to avert repeated flooding disasters in Adama.

In the short-term, regular cleaning, maintenance and repair of the existing open-drain systems will dramatically alleviate the immediate problems.

But there is a more sinister and intractable problem that is exasperating the drainage problems of the urban areas – uncollected solid and liquid wastes. Although city managers continually advise the public by radio pronouncements,  and banners to properly manage the wastewater and rubbish that urban dwellers generate, the authorities themselves have failed to put into place any effective waste collection mechanisms.

As to solid waste collection in Adama, or Addis Abeba, it mostly consists of stuffing the trash into plastic jute-bags and pilling it up on two-wheel carts that go around the neighbourhoods pushed by three or four young men. The carts deliver the trash to collection centres scattered along the sides of the city streets where the bags are stacked up into little hills of festering and putrefying refuse.

Strangely, these dumping centres are located on demolished building sites and appear to be strategically located to assault the passerby with their nauseating stink and stench.  There is one such dump site near the old Nur Market in Kebele 17 located in Adama that survived the flood, while another menacing mountain of trash finds itself in Kazanchis, Addis Abeba,

To make matters worse, responsible agencies for solid and liquid waste management seem to exist behind unapproachable veils. They have relegated themselves the task of issuing public admonishments rather than implementing the work to providing the equipment and human power to collect and dispose of the accumulating waste properly.

What is an individual expected to do with the waste that is generated if the municipal authorities fail to provide the necessary collection and disposal systems?

The result is that parcels of garbage are strewn carelessly along the streets and drains are filled with trash. Liquid sewage is directly discharged into the open channels, and the drains fail to provide the flood protection that they are designed for.

The ladies and their neighbours around St. Mary’s Church remain noticeably nonchalant because there is not much that they can do on their own.

As the evening draws, they retreat to their homes as if this is just another ordinary day. The next day, few heads turn to notice when workers arrive to clean up the wreckages.

The ill-equipped workers push the sand and debris around to the sides, pull out trash from the congested drain boxes and leave it stacked up on the surface, and otherwise perform maintenance services to make the neighbourhoods passable, but leave the threat of flooding unaltered.

By Ambessaw Assegued  (assegued@anfilo.com).

Published on May 12,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 941]



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