Perched more than 2,000 meters above sea level on the high plateaus bordering the Great Rift Valley, Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is surrounded by majestic mountains.
Deep within the folds of the land flow numerous streams that are tributaries of the Sheger River. The river rises in the hills along the northern edge of the city before flowing through its heart toward the south.
There is a hidden aspect to this idyllic scenery: the region is vulnerable to climate change and to increasingly violent and frequent rainfall. At the same time, Addis Ababa is experiencing galloping urbanization. In the last 20 years, the Ethiopian capital has more than doubled in population to 5 million residents, a trend in line with other major African cities. The water now struggles to penetrate many plots of land on which buildings stand. When it rains, the streets are transformed into torrents of mud that create public health problems. The Sheger river regularly floods the downtown, its waters carrying and dumping garbage.
City residents have grown wary of the river, and dread its floods. Municipal authorities, the Ethiopian government and donors – with the support of the African Development Bank – have decided to address the flooding and also develop the potential of the Sheger River.
In 2019, Ethiopian authorities launched an ambitious project to redevelop the Sheger River basin. The African Development Bank is cooperating in this effort through its Urban and Municipal Development Fund, which is designed to support the expansion of African cities by helping them to anticipate and formulate their development plans and mobilize financing.
The Fund has made the adaptation of African cities to climate change one of its priorities, along with social inclusion. The Fund’s premise is that investment choices and models must be based on hard data from the ground – something many African cities still lack.
For the redevelopment of the Sheger River and its various tributaries, the Fund has therefore designed a strategy (see here) financed by several donors, namely: the Italian, Chinese and Korean development agencies, as well as UN Habitat. The project involves redeveloping 69 km of rivers, covering an area that is home to over 1.3 million residents.
First of all, the Fund had to step back and take a long-term view to anticipate, for example, changes in rainfall patterns over coming decades. The Urban and Municipal Development Fund began by financing hydrographic studies, focusing on extreme events and mapping flood zones.
The map below shows some of these flood-prone areas (in pink), most of which lie within the administrative and commercial heart of the city, near Meskel Square, where the Kachane Orma and Kurtumi rivers meet to form the Bantyiketu River.
The study allowed for the incorporation of climate change impacts into city planning designs. One key component of the project is the creation of stormwater retention ponds on the Sheger’s tributaries. These will fill up during severe storms, mitigating peak flooding and sparing populated areas. The riverbeds will be cleaned up and dredged to facilitate water flow. At the same time, parks and green spaces will be developed along the watercourses, which will help to absorb rainfall by becoming safe flood zones. Shared gardens will be created, where residents will be able to grow their own vegetables.
The photographs below provide a BEFORE and AFTER comparison in terms of the developments planned on two major sections of the river. The first is in the heart of densely populated squatter settlements where the Kurtumi and Kebena tributaries converge; the second is on flatter ground where the Bantyiketu River runs alongside the Addis Ababa Zoo.
View of the squatter settlements on the banks of the Kurtumi and Kebena rivers before the project
After the project and the development of the riverbanks
The Bantyiketu, which borders the Addis Zoo and the European Union Peacock Park area
Planned developments on the banks of the Sheger River
These developments are also intended to offer the inhabitants an opportunity to take ownership of the riverbanks, which will become a green corridor ideal for walks and leisure activities of a type that is too rarely seen in African cities. This is the inclusive dimension of the project, which will improve the environment and quality of life for all residents in the city centre, along the main river, and in the precarious neighbourhoods located along the tributaries. The parks will cool the surrounding neighbourhoods and help reduce air pollution.
The project also includes a major sanitation component. Public toilets will be constructed in the squatter settlements that have sprung up on the slopes of the Entoto hills which is the source of several of the watercourses, as well as a network of sewage pipes that drain wastewater to treatment plants. The city authorities are hoping for new recreational areas and clean rivers that will once again flow through the city in a virtuous circle.
While the primary goal is to avoid the enormous human and material losses caused by floods, the project’s financial projections are underpinned by eco-friendly considerations: attractive neighbourhoods with potential to trigger a boost in economic activity and to fuel demand in the real estate sector, and even in tourism. This also means new tax revenue for the municipal authorities, and therefore new investment opportunities.