Wednesday, August 10



The name of our html testing blog, AABAMA, comes from the provisional title for a megapolis of some 8 million souls planned for some undetermined post-totalitarian future in the transportation corridor of central Shoa. The Addis Ababa - Bishoftu - Adama - Metropolitan - Area (we suppose that Finfine - Debre Ziet - Nazret - Metropolitan Area was also a possiblity among other combinations) was the subject of a thesis by an erstwhile urban planning / resource management scholar but eternal friend of ours.

The idea was to get far ahead of the curve of rapid and unplanned urbanization that was then sweeping the developing world of the latter 20th century and the anticipated acceleration of that phenomenon with time. Planning was very definitely to be somehow 'organic' in nature so that the visionary disappointments of Brasilia, Abuja and frankly, Washington D.C. could be avoided along with the existing chaos of Rio, Lagos and what Addis Ababa threatened to become in the future.

A broad park and tree lined central highway was to connect the three anchor points with room for expansion, rail lines and light rail lines on either side. Taking advantage of the natural terrain it would be just below the level of city streets that met above it and it would serve as an alternative to the rivers around which so many other cities take shape. Connections to the sea would be by new wide guage rail to Assab and Djibouti and by pipelines to refineries there.

The presence of abundant water resources given appropriate dam building and modern aqueducts was also planned for. Arrayed along that river were to be areas zoned for industry, commerce and residential living that might take decades to develop - but would do so in an orderly manner as determined by population pressures, resources and most fundamentally the profit motive. Up to a quarter of the land area within the corridor but excluding surrounding farm land was to be left 'green' for parks.

You see, beyond the basic plan and the provision of services, people were to be left alone to their devices and there was always room to be left in the plan for future pressures and development. The result was to be the evolving economic core of a rapidly developing country with other cities as regional centers of similar development.

The intracacies of it all including the 'symbiotic' development of the sewage and water treatment system as well as the varying national architectural styles to be used are way beyond the scope of this or any other post. Anyway, revolutionary democratic means of staying in power at all costs with their attendant social policies and economic policies will not allow for natural Ethiopian development over decades or even a century.

There is little growth today beyond foreign aid and remittances from abroad and the economy is in the midst of a long contraction in absolute terms. Therefore, relative prosperity and rational urban development independent of any level of ferenji aid is unlikely given a hostile setting to normal economic development. Chaotic urban growth will remain the norm - but alternatives must still be considered.


The point we are slowly getting around to has to do with a somewhat absurd throw away question that was asked during his thesis defense, "how can you justify such an investment of resources right on top of the Great Rift Valley?" That produced a laugh and this, "well why don't we evacuate San Francisco and Tokyo right now?"

There are reasons that people build cities and towns and roads in particular and similiar places and they rarely have anything to do with whether or not California will physically secede from the Union or if a new sea will one day bisect Ethiopia and connect the lakes of Central Africa to the Red Sea. Thinking that far ahead is certainly silly but the possibility of even earthquakes may influence building codes and infrastructure planning ... just don't try and tell people where to live and economies where to grow.

If AABAMA made sense at all it was because it was being built where society had already decided to build and where it had thrived. Emperor Menelik who founded Addis Ababa did not just do so because of the rather pleasant view from Entoto or the volcanic baths just down the hill. People always build at places that already have strategic importance based on natural paths that develop into caravan trade routes and later railways and highways.

Take the natural world for instance. However erratic may be the process that ants use to find spilled soda, the path that their scent lays down will eventually become the easiest way between two points simply based on the repeated trial and error of small changes, usually born of error. That is how evolution works.

Animals now, or even dinosaurs in their time, just don't walk through thick jungle or forest to get to the watering hole or feeding grounds. Every natural setting like that has game trails which are essentially roads used by prey and predator alike. It is just more efficient that way for all concerned. Early man probably used some of the same trails for the same reasons and after the discovery of agriculture set up the first communities on the same principles that an elephant or triceratops had for defining home.

There is a fine military history of North America called Fields of Battle by John Keegan. Initially enjoyed for its depiction of strategy and battle, we realized at about the same time years later that what he was really writing about was the geography of warfare. The reason that capturing New York during the Revolution was important was not just because of the symbolism of taking a big city but had to do with the reason the Dutch built it there to begin with long before.

location, location

Similiarly, the reason Bastogne was important during the Battle of the Bulge was that all the local roads passed through it - that is why the rangers and paratroopers held it so desperately and why the Germans wanted it so badly. Without the road network of Belgium or New York's magnificent harbor, who would really care? For that matter, the length of Broadway was once an Indian trail and then an increasingly important country road until the city expanded up the whole length of the island. It seems likely that Broadway was once a long set of game trails roamed by ice age mastadons or the like - and the subways below it follow the same path today.

In military terms there are natural and repeatedly used routes of invasion into places such as the Ethiopian highlands and Ethiopia as a whole. Neither the Battle of Adwa nor the Battle of Gundet were sites of pivotal battles by chance. One must assume that today the Ethiopian General Staff has projects in place to continually survey such routes and sites on the ground and with its own aerial photos and purchased satellite images, GPS readings and the like.

Issues like where the water is, even where the roads and mountain passes are as well as where it is most advantageous to defend or attack in the short or long term can't be decided quickly. That was the central dilemma faced by Eritrea (and the central lesson of the 1980s forgotten by her rulers) when she made the solely political - economic decision to invade Badme in 1998.

It was just a strip of land, perhaps infused with great meaning, but a strip of land nevertheless that was ultimately indefensible without a deeper penetration into Ethiopia that was otherwise unadvisable and even more unsustainable. Especially against a determined foe who had not forgetten its own hard earned lessons of terrain and strategy.

Strangely enough the aftermath was won at the arbitrating table by the defeated Eritreans and lost by the victorious Ethiopians who submitted to arbitration for no discernible reason at all. The Ethiopian government's own appointed representatives voted for Eritrea despite a long history of Ethiopian posession and administration of the land in question - so the case must not have been presented with the same competence and vigor as the war.

Ethiopia's rulers then refused to give it back and even the community of donor nations, who paid for the whole war via monetary aid and loans being forgiven today, for both sides, now pretend nothing ever happened in Badme. Meanwhile Eritrea's rulers use the whole subject as a reason to be on a permanent war footing with the attendant absence of rights that entails for Eritreans. cue Twilight Zone music now.

it's about the economy

So back to the subject at hand ... cities and development require a difficult combination of planning and laissez faire that can be managed as long as natural factors such as geography, economic realities and human motives are respected. Building on fault lines may be unavoidable given the nature and present needs of humanity but the other factors can be controlled to an even lesser extent.

Addis Ababa is important to the whole country not simply because of political decisions made more than a century ago but because of the geography of central Shoa and get this ... because it is in the middle of the country and because most of it is already there to begin with. Bahir Dar is one of the few examples in the world of how a city's politically designated importance and actual geographic assignment can actually work out.

Our friend got an 'A' or the equivalent honors prize for his thesis (and lives a whole continent away from the San Andreas Fault) that this post can not consider fairly in any way. We expect that very very far from academia the best part of AABAMA was that someone was thinking of it all to begin with, hoped it could even become an issue given time and most importantly that beyond the broadest strokes it left most of the urban canvas to the citizenry and free enterprise to fill in over time.


If you are still reading at this point you might want to consider this great article Earthquake Risks in Addis Ababa and Other Major Ethiopian Cities that discusses in detail what it means to live so near a fault line. N.B. we do not know the author in any way shape or form beyond having googled this wonderful article and appreciating its value. There are a whole lot of Ethiopian Ph.D.s out here.
According to a report published in 1999, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake, which seismologist say could happen in areas of close proximity to Addis Ababa, the country's major city, could cause as many as 4000-5000 deaths, 8000-10,000 injuries and a displacement of as many as 500,000 people and a total damage in excess of 12 Billion Birr.

Addis Ababa itself is only 75-100 kilometers away from the western edge of the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley, which is a hotbed of tremors and active volcanoes. Some of Ethiopia's major cities like Addis Ababa, Nazareth, Dire Dawa and Awassa are very near main fault lines such as the Wonji fault, the Nazareth fault, the Addis-Ambo-Ghedo fault, and the Fil Woha fault lines along which numerous earthquakes of varying magnitude have occurred over the years. Other cities like Arba Minch, Dessie, and Mekele are also located in some of the most seismically active areas in the country.

The presence of the Fil Woha hot springs in the middle of Addis Ababa itself, for example, is nature's reminder that the city lies on fault lines that have been slowly building strains. It is the release of these strains accumulated over the years that cause the phenomenon of earthquake.
It goes on to describe the recent history of earthquakes and the likelihood of new and deadlier ones. In addition the author discusses how major buildings, bridges, dams and water supply networks are at risk. Amidst Ethiopia's travails of war and famine this has not been much of an issue
Even though, the country adopted its first earthquake design code of standards in 1983, traditionally, building officials in the country have never made seismic-resistant code implementation neither a priority nor a necessity. Economic conditions, it can be argued, will make implementation an expensive proposition.

However, this is a shortsighted argument as repairing potential damages from earthquakes could easily be much more expensive, if at all possible with the country's meagre sources. The good news, on the other hand, is that as more studies predict the magnitude of potential earthquakes and their possible devastating effects on the country's major urban centers, there seems to be a growing concern and awareness about the danger of earthquake hazards.

The formal adoption of a detailed building code of standards for earthquake-resistant design in 1995 is by itself an encouraging development. Its adoption, however, six years from its date of formal publishing is yet to be realized.
As we have said, building elsewhere is really not an option, there really is no place else to go - the whole country is close to the fault lines of the Great Rift Valley. Without some planning and standards it is hard to imagine how devastating an earthquake of magnitude could be to a country already reeling from decades of communist rule under the Dergue or essentially communist / aid dependent rule today. Right now, AABAMA is rather too much to plan for, but after an earthquake, Addis Ababa as we know her may not be an issue either.

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