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As plastic water bottles clog Addis Ababa’s open drainage lines, flooding is looming

Some twenty years ago, seeing a person holding a plastic bottled water on the street and even a guest bringing a case of two dozen of bottled water to your home were not the scene in the city’s social landscape. Bottled water was served in few restaurants, hotels and some recreational places. Soft drinks were sold with reusable glass bottles. Fast forward in 2019, those glass-bottled soft drinks are available only in few places. They are being replaced by those ‘non-returnable’ plastic bottles. Well, soft drinks are the least of the city’s problem for now. The plastic bottled waters are!

According to an article published on the Reporter in 2018, there are about 67 bottled water companies in Ethiopia. Their major markets are large urban areas and small towns. Every year about 6 billion plastic bottles are package by the 67 companies, but the recycling practice is almost non-existent or just starting, which is evident from the visible littered bottles all over Addis Ababa’s streets. On the launching ceremony of Top Water, a new brand added to the existing ones, on April 12, 2018, the company promised to recall and recycle some 66 million plastic bottles it manufactures annually. That is yet to be seen, but for now plastic bottles are clogging the city’s open sewer and covering water bodies such as rivers and streams. For the ordinary pedestrian in the city, stepping on a littered bottle is common, and no one seems to care about picking it.

For the last several centuries Addis Ababa city faced with incidents of heavy rain and flash floods in some neighborhoods. Although the sub-tropical highland climate makes the city experience a nice weather all year long, rainy seasons can bring heavy rain, sometimes with hail. Especially, in July and August, the average rainfall goes as high as 280 - 290 millimeter (11.02 - 11.42 inches). Yet, flood is not a usual occurrence in Addis Ababa, until recently. According to a document by UNICEF, between March and September 2006, 71 cases of flood was reported only in Addis Ababa city. An over-one-century of rainfall analysis, particularly considering the rainy season (June to September) showed an increasing trend of rainfall approximately by 18 mm per decade.  In recent years, news articles after news articles are reporting a gruesome picture of Addis Ababa’s streets looking like a lake, and rainy seasons mean flood to the city.

Some researchers blame climate change, economic development and urbanization, rightfully so. But I have a new theory related to the latter two. Economic development and urbanization changed production, consumption and waste generation patterns, which causes the clogging of open sewers and drainage lines with the plastic bottles. A research by Dereje Berhanu and his colleagues, published in 2016, analyzed the connection of flooding in Addis Ababa and climate change using soil and water assessment tool. Their conclusion is that urbanization and climate change contributed to 10 percent and 25 percent increase in peak flow of storm waters, respectively. This may be true, but the urbanization piece is of a particular interest to me. Urbanization, for Addis Ababa is beyond the surface run off that increases every year due to the construction and the city’s economic growth. The open drainage lines and rivers that are blocked by the plastic bottles and other solid waste materials exasperate the occurrence of frequent flooding in the city. A simple observation is enough (although scientific method of analysis is necessary to understand the issues in order to look for a well-informed decisions) to prove that the water bottle epidemic is added to the list of major causes of recent aggravated flooding in Addis Ababa. To make things worse, most of the urban poor lives in slum areas that are located at the low land of the city. Those slum neighborhoods are the ones that are heavily affected by the flooding.

Plastic bags and other waste types have a tendency of being washed away with the water, polluting water bodies and coral reef biodiversity. However, a bunch of empty plastic bottles have the ability of creating a clogging effect in the open drainage. Every place I have been, in the open, I observed one common thing. Those plastic bottles are everywhere, including in the drainage lines.

So, these days, it doesn't take a heavy rain to create a flash flood, but just a small shower or drizzle. The flood on September 4, 2017 was a unique one. Many took note that even areas that are not usually affected by the flood are covered by water. I am not implying that plastic bottles are the only reason, but it is contributing its lion’s share of being one of the causes of the flooding problem. It was not common for a flood to kill people in urban areas, especially in a big city like Addis Ababa, but a flood on July 6, 2017 killed five people, injured many others, and damaged several properties. One may call it a coincidence, but with an increase in the number of empty water bottles everywhere, especially at open drainages and rivers, there is an increase in flash flood that cause a more than usual destruction of property and the loss of human life. Rainy season is coming, and something must be done!

With continued economic growth, there is no slowing down in consumption and disposal of plastic bottles, and it is contributing its share of damage to the environment. In a time where countries in the developed world try to undo what they did to the environment for the last several decades, countries like Ethiopia are just starting on the creation of a consumerism society. Continuing business as usual doesn't benefit the society at large. We shouldn't wait for the worst to happen before it gets better. We can start now and start it from educating people. Only the few educated are aware and conscious about environmental problems. Knowledge of environmental consequences of our day-to-day activities are close to nonexistent. Local governments and federal environmental protection agencies need to make a concerted effort to educate people. Through the media, stories, drama, flyers, banners and local community associations, the idea of environmental protection needs to be disseminated. People need to know the immediate local pain and global consequences of individual choices. The choice is theirs, but people need to be educated. They need to know that there is a choice. Most of the lay people I talked to do not know the connection between throwing a plastic bottle on the street and hurting the city. These two actions are too far and too disconnected for them. Especially for the less-educated elderly people I talked to, the concept is too dramatic, too laughable. I am too abstract for some, and too young and naive for others. The young and educated ones are somehow receptive. Any talk about the danger of plastic bottles, or any plastic waste for that matter, is an aha moment for them. They want to know more so; environmental activists and governments can use such social segmentation to spread the environmental protection narrative. Yes, money is needed for all this, and it is limited. But there are several ways to go about it. If there is a will, there is a way.

Schools are the best venues to spread the message and influence behavior. I am not only talking about college campuses or high schools, but we need to start this from day care and kindergarten. Make environmental science part of the curriculum. In fact, it is easy to influence behavior at young age, and whatever is learned early can be a behavior, a culture or a lifestyle later in adulthood.

Bottled water manufacturing and packaging companies also have huge responsibility of taking care of the city and the people they thrive off of. To the least they should be bothered by the scene in the city. The bottles they packaged and produced are all over the city. They may be living in upscale neighborhoods, far away from where the liters are, but they need to share the responsibility. There should be a mechanism in place for them to commit some money that can be used for education, training, awareness creation, recycling and most importantly providing disposal bins to separate plastic bottles from other types of wastes. The city government has responsibility to call all the companies involved in producing bottled waters to be part of the solution and to call them upon their social responsibility. The companies can get help to set up a recycling facility. That way, they still have the consumer market and at the same time reduce the material input and the waste production.

Ed.’s Note: Mintesnot G. Woldeamanuel (PhD) is a US Fulbright Scholar at Addis Ababa University and a Professor at California State University, Northridge. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Mintesnot Woldeamanuel