The Addis Ababa Water Crisis: The Problems with Numbers, Averages, Leakages

Although water supply service has a long history in Addis Ababa, going through an entire week or even a month without water has become common in many areas of the city. This is despite the announcement by City Administration that water coverage in the metropolis now stands at 97Pct. A close investigation of the issue, however, reveals that close to 37Pct of the water produced and distributed currently is lost before reaching residents. Samson Hailu, EBR’s Research Editor, shows the implication of the loss for the city’s current water crisis. 

When the high level workshop, organized by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), kicked off in Addis Ababa on March 17, 2014, to identify best practices formulated by Least Developing Countries (LDCs) to attain the targets laid down in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Ethiopia’s achievement of expanding sustainable, safe water access to its citizens was held-up as an example for LDCs to follow.

Access to water Addis Ababa (pct)Close to 120 higher officials of LDCs, who participated in the workshop, which was organized for three days, under the theme: “Transfer and adaptation of innovative practices for improved public service delivery in Least Developed Countries,” aimed to explore challenges, pioneering practices and methodologies to facilitate the transfer of innovations, applauded Ethiopia’s effort along with three other African countries that are seen as being on the right track to cut the number of citizens without access to safe drinking water in half by 2015, and beyond. 

Indeed, Ethiopia has been among countries that have demonstrated a significant improvement in expanding access to potable water since the MDGs began in 2001. With respect to accessing safe drinking water, the percentage of households able to obtain potable water has more than doubled over the last decade; reaching 58.25Pct, according to an MDG report released in 2013. Although there are significant disparities between urban and rural areas, large cities such as Addis Ababa are reportedly enjoying 97Pct water coverage unlike rural areas whose coverage stood at only 42Pct on average in 2013, according to the report.

Paradoxically, another story is playing itself out in some areas. Residents in places like Betel, Bole Bulbula, Alem Bank, Kotebe, Lebu and other locations around the outskirts of the capital are going dry.  Instead of the almost universal urban access the report lauded, city residents, especially around the outskirts suffer from constant water shortages. Some of them can only get water once or twice a month. This contradicts the government’s asserted achievement. 

Source of water for Addis Ababa.Take a look, for example, at what is happening in Betel, for the first time in a month Birtukan Befekadu had water at her house, so 15 people travelled from nearby areas with empty jerry cans knowing she would let them fill their jugs. On that cloudy Monday in late March Bertukan’s Woreda was the only one in the neighbourhood around Betel Hospital in Kolfe Keranio District of Addis Ababa with access to water. Her friends nearby, rushed to fill their Jerry cans because they knew the water would stop soon. “Water was available two days ago in one of the Woreda’s but it was gone after a few hours, said  Beletu Goshu, one of Birtukan’s friends who was lucky to be on the spot with her three Jerry cans. 

Birtukan has lived in Betel for 16 years and the mother of two says she has never experienced a shortage like this year. “It has been almost a month since I have seen water flowing through my pipeline, which was installed six years ago and this is the worst it has been,” she told EBR.

Despite the attempt of attaining universal safe water coverage, water cuts and lack of adequate water supplies have forced many people like Birtukan and her friends to search for water in neighbouring areas. Go to places like Weyra Sefer in western Addis Ababa and there will be long lines of people from all walks of life waiting to purchase water. “We usually travel as far as Weyra Sefer and Tor Hayloch,” Beletu, who also lives in Betel, told EBR. “Most people still buy water from these places.”

After receiving many complaints, the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA), which is in charge of supplying water for Addis Ababa residents, claims that the water coverage currently stands at 97Pct because they get 350,000 cubic meters  of water to close to five million people every day. AAWSA pumps water into the city from two dams, Legedadi and Gefersa as well as 52 water wells operating in different areas of the city. Gefersa, the first dam in the capital constructed in 1943, has the capacity to disperse 30,000 cubic metres a day. Legedadi, which was constructed in 1970, is much more productive and churns out 165,000 cubic metres of water daily. The water wells located along the periphery of the city are capable of putting out 155,000 cubic metres of water daily.

Although large-scale municipal water supplies emerged in the city after the establishment of the Aba Samuel reservoir – an artificial lake located 37km south west of Addis in 1911, providing satisfactory water supply to the rapidly growing population of Addis Ababa has proven difficult. This is in spite of the availability of vast water resources in the country. 

Ideally speaking, Ethiopia has 12 river basins with an annual runoff volume of 122 billion meter cube of water and an estimated 6.5 billion meter cube of ground water potential, according to the data obtained from the Ministry of Water,  Irrigation and Energy. This corresponds to an average of 1,575 meter cube of  available water per person per year. However, currently only about 3Pct of water resources are used for drinking water supply in the country.

The Addis Ababa City Administration made several attempts to tap this huge potential and increase access to safe water. The administration became more focused after 2005. At that time there was a new program; the Plan for Accelerated and Sustainable Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) through which the city hoped to increase the number of people with access to potable water within a 0.5Km radius from 60Pct to 92Pct by the end of 2009/10 fiscal year.

This increased water access but only to 73Pct, far from what they had hoped for. During those five years, however, many peripheral areas including Betel, Alem Bank, Lebu, Bole Bulbola and Kotebe-Kara began receiving piped water.

Tsiyon Tesfaye, 40, owner of a small retail shop around Alem Bank remembers the time AAWSA installed and supplied piped water seven years ago. “Initially we used to get water at least three days a week, she said. “ And after a year, we stared to enjoy water for the entire week but recently the water shortage has become a daily phenomenon as more and more people have begun living in the area.” 

Many people living in the city’s numerous condominium housing developments are experiencing similar problems. Residents, particularly those living on the third and fourth floors do not have regular access to water, and sometimes they have to wait for as long as two weeks for water to come. Biniam Tefera, 31, a private marketing consultant, lives in a one bedroom condominium house located around Lebu. He said the constant lack of water is affecting his daily activity. Recently the Central Statistical Agency conducted a survey at four condominium sites in Addis Ababa, and found that at least 352,750 people are currently living in condominiums. Residents in these condominiums have an improved lifestyle that requires access to uninterrupted water supply every day. Alarmed by the rapid population growth and high rural – urban migration rate, the city administration, under the leadership of the former Mayor Kuma Demekssa, presented another five year plan to the City Council in 2010. It calls for increasing drinking water coverage to 100Pct and improving the continuous flow of water in the city. By the end of the last fiscal year, the administration reported that it had increased water access to 97Pct. “The administration managed to increase the water supply from 235,000 cubic meters  a day five years ago to 350,000 cubic meters  in 2012/13, Kuma told members of the Council just before he was replaced by Diriba Kuma in August 2013.

In order to achieve the plan, the administration under Kuma’s leadership, began constructing 31 wells, which are able to supply 110,000 cubic meters of water per day. Legedadi dam is currently being expanded so it will soon be able to produce 195,000 cubic meters. The city administration has spent close to 6.2 billion Birr since 2008 to increase the daily water supply to 350,000 cubic meters in 2012/13. When all these projects are completed, Addis’ water supply should increase to 560,000 cubic meters by the end of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) in 2015, according to the city’s five year strategic plan. However, the former Mayor did not hesitate to mention that the huge gap between supply and demand still poses a challenge for the administration. “The next administration will have to work hard to satisfy the needs of the city’s residents who are currently finding it difficult to access water,” Kuma said while presenting his administration’s five year report to the city council. 

The administration of Diriba, also continued to make huge strides to improve water access by providing a two billion birr budget to AAWSA for the current fiscal year. This will be spent in hopes of increasing water coverage to 100Pct in 2013/14, Etsegenet Tesfaye, public relations head of AAWSA, said.

Many residents of Addis Ababa that EBR approached wonder if the problem will actually be solved when water access is increased to 100Pct. This seems logical as residents in many suburban parts of the city are already suffering from acute shortages while water access in the city is reportedly 97Pct. 

Although the administration claims that it has increased average per capita water consumption from 85 litres a day in 2010 to almost 100 litres by the end of the 2012/13 fiscal year, many studies conducted in the area reveal that the actual per capita consumption is below the figure reported by the government due to high water loss before it reaches consumers.

The study conducted by Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, at AAU on the issue in the city in 2012, discovered that the average daily per capita consumption is below the original figure because close to 37Pct of water produced will be lost before reaching residents. Based on the current water production capacity of the city, close to 129,500 cubic meters of water will be lost each day. 

There are several reasons for the high level of water loss in Addis Ababa, according to the study. But the most important is the relatively high age of the pipe network. It is estimated that nearly 50Pct of the 5,000Km pipe network in the city was laid over 25 years ago. Therefore, it needs to be changed. Since the beginning of the 2008/09 fiscal year, the city has been implementing the strategy designed to decrease the waste to 20Pct by replacing old pipe lines. 

Due to the city’s topography, significant elevation differences are observed among different settlement areas which obtain water from the same service reservoir. The elevation differences may play a role in the magnitude of loss through leakage. Higher loss is expected in lower settlement areas as opposed to elevated areas. The distance the water has to get to as it travels from the reservoir also has an impact due to ‘head loss’, when pressure decreases due to friction as water flows through a pipe.  

In Addis Ababa the biggest problem appears to be water leaking from defective pipes. Since the city administration has a limited capacity to maintain these defective and broken pipelines on time, the level of water loss becomes high. Birtukan remembers when the main pipeline that fed water to Betel from Gefersa dam was broken. “Water was flooding the street for a day and half. She told EBR. Such is a common experience in the city. It usually takes the authority several days to shut off water flowing from a pipeline; repairing the broken pipe lines further takes weeks.

The loss of water and inefficiency cost the city a lot of money. Assuming that the unit water production cost is half of the price of selling, which is 3.80 Birr per cubic meter, the administration is losing close to 90 million Birr a year. However, the financial loss is not limited to the administration alone. Residents like Birtukan also spend a lot more money just to buy and transport water from other areas. “Last month alone I spent close to 400 Birr to purchase water with Jeri cans as well as bottled water for my children.”  Many people like Birtukan are in the same, dire situation. Not only is the lack of water making life more difficult it is hitting them in the pocketbook as well. According to the demand estimation conducted by AAWSA in 2011, to ensure 100Pct access to water, 420,000 cubic meters of water are needed every day. This amount will increase the current per capital consumption of water to 100 cubic meters. After accomplishing this at the end of the current fiscal year, AAWSA plans to focus on achieving the minimum water per capital consumption, which stood at 350 litres as recommended by World Health Organization (WHO). The average person needs a minimum of one litre of water per day to survive in a moderate climate at an average activity level. The minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation is 10 litres a day, according to the WHO.

For this to happen, the city administration plans to use a study conducted 20 years ago, which identified five potential water resources including surface water sources at Gerbi and Sibilu rivers around Entoto, a top hill north of the city. Close to 80 water holes with 301,000 cubic meters of daily capacity are also currently being drilled in Akaki, according to the AAWSA. Until that day comes where all these projects will be completed, the only way to ensure equitable water distribution for the residents of the city like Birtukan, Tisyon and Haileyesus, is to develop strategies to reduce water losses at an economic and acceptable level.


2nd Year . April 2014 . No.14


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