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The Culprit Which Can't Be Named

The Monitor (Addis Ababa)
November 11, 1999
By Minas Gelan

Addis Ababa - In its evening broadcast of November 3, 1999, the Ethiopian Television presented a programme on a serious environmental problem affecting the lives of thousands of people. Just like most fairly-rated products of journalism, what made the programme interesting was the fact that it involved conflict.

The focal point was Woreda 24 Kebele 14 in south-west Addis. On one side of divide, were large quarries producing vital construction materials including stones, gravel and sand.

On the other side of the contradiction were residential quarters, a school, a garment factory and the country's only fistula hospital. The operation of the quarries involves a lot of digging and the use of dynamites as well as the unintended but virtually unavoidable emission of dust into the atmosphere.

The nature of such line of activity can hardly be in tune with the basic environment required by a residential quarter, a school or a hospital. According to interviewed individuals, the main physical damage resulting from the work of the quarries, especially the blowing of dynamites, is the cracking of buildings.

Erosion, subsidence and the destruction of vegetation were cited as some of the direct results of the functioning of the quarries. Pollution-caused eye ailments and respiratory diseases, especially asthma, were among the major health implications of the mining activity in that locality.

Also mentioned were 'noise pollution' and sanitary problems engendered by ubiquitous dust. The above-mentioned complex impacts of mining on people and the environment can hardly be disputed.

The big question here is how such a lamentable scenario was created in the first place. As part of a quest for answer, the TV programme included the reactions of two senior officials in the Works and Urban Development Bureau of the Addis administration.

One of them spoke of the city's master plan while the other tried to give the genesis of the contradiction. The planning official demonstrated an impressive blueprint of the city and spoke about general principles of plot classification and allotment.

He wasn't prepared to evaluate the concrete conflict from the viewpoint of his planning principles. Noncommital as the official was, he qualified his replies with the usual conditional word-kehone (if. . .).

More illuminating, though less convincing, were the statements of the other official who represented the mining and energy section of the bureau. He gave a fair background of the contradiction and showed some understanding of the problems raised.

Not much was volunteered by way of solution. Three of the four quarries will be closed while the major one owned by the city's administration will keep on operating because, according to the mining official, it involved an enormous amount of investment.

In a poor country like ours it may not be that easy to shut down important production sites because of their impact on the lives of people or the work of social establishments like schools and clinics. This being the case, it can be assumed that those affected by the operation of the quarries may not get a quick remedy for their trouble.

The concerned authorities must feel obliged to search for a solution to this problem. They must at least be sensitive enough to refrain from licensing further mining work in the area and aggravating the problem.

The most important feature of the incident could be the complete and blatant disregard of the harmony and compatibility factors. Any city needs residential quarters, clinics and schools, just as it needs quarries which produce construction materials.

Given proper planning, these needs are not competitive. Rather, they are complementary.

Whenever work on meeting these demands leads to a conflict of interests, (just as the above-mentioned case) human error must be blamed. The error could result from ignorance or corruption.

An explanation given by the official of the mines and energy department needs mentioning. Saying that the quarries had a more than 3-decade of existence, he argued that it was the residential quarters and the social facilities which came closer to the quarries and not the other way round.

But who presided over this gradual development of contradiction? Who allotted the plots for the housing cooperatives and the other institutions, which the official accused of asking for trouble? Hushhhh! The same municipality; the mammoth culprit which neither of the officials dared name explicitly.

Copyright (c) 1999 The Monitor - Addis Ababa. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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