The adverse impacts of hyper urbanization & industrialization on Mekelle & its environs

(Tesfai Hailu)

As the biblical wise man put it centuries ago, “Where there is no vision, a people perish (Proverbs 29: 18), which is strikingly apparent in Mekelle’s urban development and industrialization. Indeed, for policy and decision makers, it appears that development is constrained to building and factory construction with little regard for their social, environmental and health impacts which will be tackled hereunder.

1) Displacement of farmers and their families: In an attempt to quench the unquenchable city expansion thirst, farmers are being continuously displaced from their land with no proper compensation (that should have taken not only their own but also their children’s future into consideration) as Dr. Arkebe Oqubay – during his recent industrial park opening speech – admitted.

No one in his/her right mind would oppose to development when the end goal is the common good of the people and a city’s, region’s or a country’s sustainable future. However, when land is rationed not only to local residents for housing, but also to “diaspora” and foreign “investors”, the policy and its implementation practices ought to be scrutinized to see if the “development” is worth the displacement being experienced by citizens.

2) Food insecurity: It’s typical to hear proponents of “development” applaud this turn of events, and assert, “Do you know, this place used to be rural area. There was no single house to speak of, but look now!” Just recently, Awramba Times blogger Dawit Kebede proudly displayed modern houses at ዓዲ ሓውሲ (Addi Hawsi) with a footnote that, a few years back, the land in the picture was good enough for sheep and goat grazing.

Yet, what these naive souls fail to realize is that – as recently as two decades ago – these lands were sources for a variety of food crops – teff, wheat, barley, maize, sorghum and legumes – not only for households living on subsistence farming, but also for consumers in Mekelle. Admittedly, the farms around Mekelle didn’t have the capacity to fully supply food to the city even when the population was a fraction of what it is now, but they certainly alleviated food aid dependency.

The other argument often made in favor of urban development and industrialization is, “We don’t need a vast land for agriculture. Do you know, x & y countries produce adequate food and, in fact, export to other countries.” Maybe so, but could it be that x & y have given priority to farm mechanization/modernization and agro industry along with urbanization?

3) Population growth: Arguably next to Addis, Mekelle has become a haven for skilled and unskilled job and fortune seekers from all corners of the region who flock to the city. The population is said to be around 300,000. However, there are tens of thousands of construction workers, daily laborers, house maids, service sector and sex workers as well as the unemployed who carry IDs from other towns, cities, even regions but are not registered in the city for various reasons, yet have made Mekelle their permanent home. Thus, it wouldn’t be exaggerative to estimate the population of Mekelle at half a million or more, and growing by the day.

4) Water scarcity: Waiting for running water for days, if not a week, has become the new normal in Mekelle. Were it not for hand dug wells, which their health and safety is questionable, the city would be unlivable.

5) Housing crisis: Mekelle was known for an abundance of affordable housing for years. However, lately not only houses in the middle of the city, but even those in the suburbs have become too expensive. As a result, sharing a room with someone and group living have become part of life for a number of people.

6) High living cost: The price of food and other living necessities in Mekelle is now unaffordable even for middle-income workers and households.

In a recent trip to Maichew (120+ km. south of Mekelle), for instance, it was appetizing to see the prices of food at restaurants to be less than half that of Mekelle, while the portion of the meal was much bigger. This goes to show that price increase on food cereals and other ingredients is not the sole culprit, but rather the demand created by over population is equally to blame for the ever rising living cost in Mekelle.

7) Crime: From the petty crime of pickpocketing and mobile snatching to the serious and dangerous offence of home invasion and nighttime mugging (widely known as “hanging”), crime is on the rise in Mekelle, hence it’s not uncommon to hear residents express their legitimate fears.

8) Social conflict: When resources are limited and cost of living is high, social conflict – between natives/longtime residents and newcomers, as witnessed recently under the disguise of football rivalry, for example – is not new. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in our culture to look at all emerging problems through political lens even when the problem and its remedy are socioeconomic. The typical blaming of “anti-peace forces in our midst who want to divide us” may very well be a wrong diagnosis and a band-aid solution to a disease that requires critical lifesaving surgery.

Photo - Waste from the Moha soft industry Mekelle.
Photo – Waste from the Moha soft industry Mekelle.

9) Pollution and environmental degradation: Factories are evidently essential for producing consumer goods; providing jobs as well as foreign currency saving and, in some cases, gains. But, on the downside, they are notorious for creating pollution and harming the environment.

So, the key is to mitigate the problem by maximizing the benefit and minimizing the adverse effects. Unfortunately, adverse effects don’t seem to be taken into consideration. Cement, chemical, glass, steel, plastic, textile, soft drink as well as alcohol factories, etc. are mushrooming in and around Mekelle unabated.

And – while the preview is already at display, such as the Pepsi factory at እንዳ የሱስ (Enda Yesus), Mekelle University, Arid Campus, which residents living and working downstream from the plant are complaining of exposure to factory waste and odor – the worst is yet to come.

(Come to think of it, the Pepsi factory is a symbol of city planning gone awry. What’s the point of locating a factory across from a university campus in the first place? In a well-thought-out city planning, the Pepsi compound would have been part of the university or home to a company/org. that caters to the university and surrounding communities by providing essential materials and/or services.)

10) Health problem: The city is at high risk of pollution related health problems such as asthma and transmittable diseases like cholera, which could be triggered by over population, scarcity of water and unsanitary living. In worst case scenario, there is the risk of cancer from exposure to industrial pollution.

Mitigating solution

a) First, policy and decision makers have to recognize the byproducts of hyper urbanization and industrialization, and thereby be prepared for what is possibly, if not inevitably, to come; learn from past lessons, and thereby avoid future mistakes.

b) Urban development should not be constrained to a regional or zonal capitals, but rather expanded and spread out to woredas and tabias (towns and villages), which will minimize the City’s suffocation by pollution and its pull factor for economic opportunities.

c) Land granting or leasing for housing and industry should never be a political decision used for political consumption. Rather, a genuine and thorough expert study that takes a given area’s socioeconomic, environmental and health benefits and risks should be the determining factor.

d) Agriculture, which is vital to food security, should be recognized as a paramount importance to development. Fact is, society can build roads, bridges, skyscrapers and factories – which undoubtedly are all essential – but without food and water they surely would be of no value.

To draw a relevant example, an Israeli agriculturalist who saw the current housing construction at ደብሪ (Debri) and was familiar with the area beforehand asked me in bewilderment, “In Israel, we allocate a fertile land for agriculture, and build homes in unfertile areas such as hills. Why is this happening here?” Indeed, it’s worth asking wouldn’t it have been better if that vast farm area had been left to the farmers or utilized for agro-industry development as supposed to housing.

e) Fifth, land transferred or appropriated to “investors” yet sitting idly for years or underused should be ceased by compensating land owners for the money they spent to acquire the land and build construction. In that event, the failed “investors” cannot cry property rights violation when the land that was awarded to them belonged – for the most part – to home and landowners for generations (ነባር ትሕዝቶ). As importantly, they have no legal or moral ground to stand when it’s evident that the land that was awarded to them is not bearing the intended fruit.

And taking such action has at least three interrelated benefits:

1) It will give decision makers a renewed opportunity to allocate the land for suitable and sustainable purpose to individuals or groups with proven capacity to put the land into its well-planned use.

2) It would be utilized in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.

3) It would minimize further expansion to the countryside, and the unnecessary displacement of farmers and home owners.

To sum up, as staying the course on the current shortsighted and visionless land transfer and appropriation is doomed to put Mekelle – Tigrai region’s capital and most populous City – on a downward spiral of socioeconomic, environmental and health problems, it’s high time to come up with an all-encompassing and visionary approach to sustainable urban and industrial development.


Guest Author

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