Building bridges in Ethiopia
Points of View:
Our Engineers without Borders team arrived in Ethiopia on a rainy Monday morning. Summer rainfall in the Horn of Africa is driven by the southwesterly winds from the South Atlantic Ocean. The rainy season starts in May, so by mid July, there has already been considerable precipitation: Approximately 1100 mm falls on the country's capital, Addis Ababa, each year; 800 mm between June and September.
At an elevation of 2500 m, Addis Ababa is the highest capital city in Africa and the third highest capital in the world. We could see the mountains as soon as we stepped out of the airport. The landscape in this high plateau region was very green. The air was thin.
My traveling companions were engineering students from the University of Maryland’s chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB). The parent organization’s mission is to "build a better world, one community at a time." This was the chapter's eighth trip to Addis Alem ("New World"), a town about 60 km from Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is the tenth largest country in Africa. Its population of 85 million ranks second behind Nigeria’s 130 million. More than 80% of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Families are big and the population is growing. Addis Alem lies in a mountainous, rural area; its primary economy is subsistence farming. Floriculture has expanded in Ethiopia, and Addis Alem’s several large greenhouses export flowers all over the world. The town currently has about 16 000 residents, but serves a regional population of about 100 000.
Our mission in 2013
Our EWB team included four engineering undergraduate students, three professional engineering mentors (one of whom was a faculty member), and a fourth mentor, me. One of the students is from Ethiopia and served as our Ahmaric translator. Our mission was to assess the previous projects that the chapter had completed in the town and to determine the feasibility of the next project. The week's planned activities included inspecting sites, meeting local officials, conducting outreach activities about engineering at the local school, and discussing future projects. Photos of the team's visit can be found in the appended gallery.
The relationship with the town began in 2009 through a connection with Abebe Dinku, a construction management professor at University of Addis Ababa, who had spent a sabbatical year at the University of Maryland’s civil engineering department. Initial discussions with the community led to the chapter's first project: a youth center. The center provides a place for the youth to gather and play table tennis and billiards. It also serves as a meeting place for the community.
The Maryland chapter of EWB designed the one-room youth center with a sloping roof, demonstrating construction techniques that were new to the community. During the three-week construction period, the team showed the townspeople how to thread rebar through the cavities inside cinderblocks. The alternative strengthening method, casting reinforced concrete in place, would have cost more and taken longer to construct. The team bolted rather than nailed trusses together, increasing stability. Wood from local Eucalyptus trees was used. Brought to Ethiopia from Australia in the 19th century, the now-ubiquitous trees provide the country’s most common structural building material. The chapter left the community with drawings for two additional buildings of similar construction: a library and a cafe, which the town has since completed.
The following year, the chapter worked with the community to build a bridge connecting one part of the town with the central market. The river had been a hazard for many years. Several people had died after being swept into the river from timber bridges. The chapter built a steel-reinforced concrete bridge for safe passage of people and animals, demonstrating robust bridge-building techniques that could be replicated in other areas.
Improving the marketplace
The third project aimed to improve the marketplace. A commercial center serving the Oromo region, the Addis Alem market had grown over time to include stalls selling clothing, shoes, household goods, produce, and grains. The marketplace improvements were part of the town’s 10-year plan. In 2002 town officials engaged a local planning institute to examine population growth, education and health needs, and community infrastructure needs. The resulting plan was completed in 2012.
The animal auction pen is also in this market area. Because the market is not paved, it becomes very muddy during the wet season. Animal waste contaminates fruits, vegetables, and other produce stored on and sold from the ground. On its visit during the winter of 2013, the EWB team built a drainage system in the winter in an attempt to remove particulate matter prior to the water reaching the stream. Local skilled labor was used to excavate the site with a backhoe.
Because there is little treatment of wastewater or storm water in Ethiopia, the community was unfamiliar with drainage basins or with the use of sand to filter particulates and contaminants. Consequently, the technology transfer turned out to be insufficient for the local leaders to take over management of the drainage basin.
When the members of the chapter inspected the system this summer, they found that the drainage system and sand filter had failed to improve water quality, both because the system was incomplete and because of the volume and intensity of rain. During this assessment trip, we spoke with many vendors in the marketplace and evaluated improvements, including permanent stalls, paving stones to reduce mud, and a surface drainage system.
One highlight of the week was demonstrating the importance of engineering design to children in the local school. Our outreach program took place in a typical classroom of 50 children, aged 7 to 15, who sat on wooden benches. They matched photos of different bridge types in Ethiopia to designs, and demonstrated bridge strength by loading rocks onto a model bridge until it failed. The EWB team also engaged the group in discussions of water filtering and purification. The children were eager to learn. Many of them understood the critical subjects they needed to study in order to one day help improve their community through engineering design.
Continuing the partnership
By the end of the week we had negotiated and signed a memorandum of understanding with Mayor Warqinaa Guddataa Mul'ataa, who was eager to welcome the team back to continue the partnership. He and other town officials expressed great appreciation for the hard work of the students and for the technology transfer to the community through their projects.
Although the students do not speak the same language as the citizens of Addis Alem, they are accomplishing their mission using the international language of math and science. For many of us, it was our first trip to Ethiopia, but we had all made fast friends among the warm and open people of this village.
EWB is providing capacity building to many small, poor communities, and at the same time, is providing engineering students with international real-world planning, design, and construction experience. The organization is international and has chapters based on every continent except Antarctica. If you want to become involved, check out EWB's list of members.
Catherine O’Riordan is the vice president for physics resources at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland.
The University of Maryland EWB team on a suspension bridge over the Berga River in the conservation area near Addis Alem. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
Produce vendors in the Addis Alem marketplace. Lack of storm drainage and presence of animals in the market creates muddy, insanitary conditions. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
EWB team members Brett Jensen and Ed Elder assess the water outfall of the storm drainage system built in January 2013. The EWB team and the town had to work together to bring this system to its optimum operating potential. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
EWB engineers review plans for new market stalls with Addis Alem municipal leaders. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
Typical vegetarian meal on a fasting day during the summer period. Each Wednesday and Friday are Ethiopian Orthodox Christian fasting days where no meat (a staple for the people of Addis Alem) can be eaten. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
The solar system painting on the wall of the local elementary school in Addis Alem. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
Addis Alem children at the elementary school. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
EWB team members conduct an outreach program about bridges and water resource management at the elementary school. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
Typical bridge construction in Addis Alem. Several Eucalyptus logs are tied together to form a crossing. Bridges like this one are often rebuilt after every rainy season. During the rainy season, animals and people occasionally slip off and are swept downstream. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan
The Addis Alem bridge built by the EWB team in 2011. CREDIT: Catherine O'Riordan