Faculty Helping Ethiopia Develop Water Infrastructure

What commodity is more valuable than all the gems, money, precious metals and wealth on Earth?

Water.

In the drought-ravaged expanse of Ethiopia, a sign in front of the Ministry of Water Resources (Addis Ababa) states simply: “Water is Life!!”

In April, a large multi-institutional team of researchers from UConn and Ethiopian universities was awarded a prestigious USAID/Higher Education for Development (HED) planning grant to support sustainable development and management of water resources in Ethiopia. UConn is committed to advancing hydrology studies and to bringing much-needed practical aid to regions of the globe where clean, plentiful water is scarce.

UConn Provost Peter Nicholls hailed the award. “UConn is committed to the application of our expertise to global grand challenges. What is more basic, more pressing, than water? We are deeply proud that UConn faculty are involved in this project to address Ethiopia’s water crisis and contribute to a transformative educational model that will allow Ethiopian citizens to solve the nation’s problems. I applaud our USAID/HED team.”

The team, headed by Drs. Michael Accorsi, Mekonnen Gebremichael and Guiling Wang of the Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department, and Drs. Jeffrey Osleeb and Carol Atkinson-Palombo of the Department of Geography, aims to help Ethiopian universities increase their capacity to educate their students and conduct research and outreach that will contribute to solving the water management and distribution challenges that plague their country.

Dr. Accorsi commented, “Increasing the capacity of Ethiopian universities is critical to economic development in the country. The Africa-U.S. Higher Education Initiative is an innovative program in that it directly addresses this need. It has been a distinct pleasure to work with our Ethiopian partners. They are extremely motivated and dedicated to moving this project forward. There is a tremendous opportunity, here and now, to make a difference.”

Based on their preliminary work, the team was one of just 20 (out of over 300) selected by USAID to submit a detailed, long-term planning proposal that includes the overhaul of the technology curriculum at Ethiopia’s three largest universities. They are joined by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from UConn, Addis Ababa University, Mekelle University and Hawassa University; IBM — through their “smart” water management initiative; Bentley Systems – a leader in the development of water management software; and the U.S. Geological Survey. The project is ambitious and requires significant matching funds from private donors to trigger substantial government support.

Ethiopian Odyssey
In July, six UConn faculty and staff members traveled to Ethiopia to meet with colleagues at three partnering universities as well as officials from various Ethiopian water bureaus, ministries and government units that will be key to the project’s success. Their experiences — from their exchanges with colleagues, officials and citizens to a serious accident that temporarily interrupted their plans — strengthened their intention to seek substantial funding support from USAID to move ahead with the project.

Despite abundant water reserves fed by nine river basins — including the Nile River in the northwest — across Ethiopia: half of the Ethiopian population walks up to four kilometers every day to fetch water; over 70% of Ethiopia’s population does not have access to safe drinking water; agriculture is primarily rain-fed, causing food insecurity, while less than 5% of the nation’s potential irrigable land is under irrigation; only 2% of the nation’s potential hydropower is utilized; and water-related diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, are major public health problems. Recognizing this, the Ethiopian government has placed water at the forefront of its National Poverty Reduction Strategy. Despite the challenges, Ethiopia recently ranked second on the African Rainbow Consulting’s Star of Africa index, out of all 53 African countries, for water resources and overall potential for successful investment.

After a week of successful meetings, presentations and agreements with officials, the UConn team was en route to various locales in the country when their journey took an unexpected turn. A car carrying three of the team members was involved in a serious auto accident that injured Drs. Accorsi, Osleeb and Atkinson-Palombo. Over the next 24 hours, their experiences seeking medical assistance underscored why the USAID partnership is so vital to Ethiopia’s future.

With the help of Drs. Gebremichael and Wang, along with Robert Weiner of Engineering Computing Services, the injured members were transported to a town hospital, where the lack of electricity made it impossible to X-ray Drs. Osleeb and Atkinson-Palombo, both of whom sustained serious injuries. They next traveled to a hospital in the major city of Mekelle. Dr. Osleeb recalled, “When we arrived at the beautiful, brand new hospital, which did have electricity, we were shocked to learn there was no running water — anywhere in the hospital. The lack of water was a problem, but there was also a profound lack of trained medical personnel, so although we were the only patients in the emergency room, we were there six hours before our examinations were completed.” They eventually found skilled medical attention and relief in the trauma unit at a hospital operated by a Korean organization in Addis Ababa, where a Norwegian physician tended to their injuries. The dire conditions they witnessed in Ethiopia strengthened the resolve of the UConn researchers to find a sustainable solution for water resource management in developing countries.

Water: Complex Problem
The multidisciplinary nature of the team reflects the complexity of Ethiopia’s hydrology problems. The team of engineering faculty has significant expertise in rainfall and water resource prediction using satellite imaging, ground-based measurements and complex modeling. Dr. Gebremichael has long-term hydrology studies in place in Ethiopia, and since 2006, with National Science Foundation support, he has led student teams who installed weather stations and studied the hydrological processes in a key watershed of the Blue Nile basin region. His research in Ethiopian water resources is also supported by his NASA Young Investigator Award. Other team members, including Drs. Emmanouil Anagnostou, Amvrossios Bagtzoglou and Allison MacKay of Civil & Environmental Engineering, bring strong expertise in hydrology, climatology, meteorology, land surface modeling and groundwater analysis.

Dr. Osleeb, who is Head of the Department of Geography, is an expert in geographic information science (GISc), a discipline in which researchers “use computers in conjunction with digital maps to analyze aspects of the Earth. As a geographer, my role in this project will be to help our Ethiopian academic colleagues develop a spatial analysis curriculum. My interest is in economic geography, which means I’m interested in looking for the best location for facilities, in this case water facilities.”

Ethiopia’s water problems cannot be solved merely by drilling wells, building dams or other structures. The USAID project is aimed at “building capacity,” helping the nation nurture its own problem solvers who can address water distribution problems. Dr. Osleeb observed that “Although Ethiopia has excellent universities, the academic model there is different. Ethiopian professors are not rewarded for research, while in the U.S., we expect faculty to not only teach but also carry out original research, publish and mentor graduate students. This research focus helps us move from the textbook to solving the real world problems around us. We will help our Ethiopian colleagues adopt a new model for how faculty members are assessed.”

Dr. Atkinson-Palombo has similar interests in the project. She said “My overarching career goal is to engage in integrative research, teaching, and education about sustainable development, especially in cities. Geography has a tradition of encouraging thought about how place-specific factors influence the complex interactions between people, the natural environment, and the built environment.”

“The field trips, particularly those in the semi-arid regions, reinforced the importance of the spatial and temporal mismatch between people and water resources,” said Dr. Atkinson-Palombo. She continued “Water is plentiful, but it is not necessarily where people live and occurs in pulses in distinct “rainy” and “dry” seasons. So there is a dire need for mechanisms to store and manage rainwater in agricultural areas where people are predominantly subsistence farmers. In more urbanized settlements, visible water-related challenges are providing the necessary infrastructure to manage stormwater and sewage.”

Dr. Guiling Wang, an associate professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and director of the Environmental Engineering Program, reflected “The need for water is so great and pervasive in Ethiopia that we can have an immediate impact in helping the country address this problem. The focus of our work is on capacity building. We won’t actually be solving the water problem directly. We will be helping our Ethiopian partners develop a more relevant engineering curriculum and a vibrant applied research program. At the same time, UConn faculty will benefit from increased competency in addressing global water issues and new partnering opportunities for research. My experience is in hydrology, biosphere-atmosphere interactions, climatology and hydrological forecasting, so I am interested in helping the universities develop a context-relevant curriculum.”

She said, “Another important aspect of this USAID project is the opportunity for graduate exchange between UConn and its partnering universities in Ethiopia. By providing students an opportunity to study hydrology issues in Ethiopia or other developing countries, and for UConn to host graduate students from our partnering institutions, we can build greater understanding and awareness of global connections and challenges.”

Dr. Gebremichael reflected, “Ethiopia has one of the world’s largest climatic variability, resulting in a highly variable distribution of water in space and time. One major challenge to Ethiopian water resources planning and management has been the lack of reliable measurements. . .Here at UConn, we have developed a tool that uses readings from government satellites and computer models to measure how much water is “available” and “consumed” across a large region. This information is crucially needed in Ethiopia, and it is bound to change the face of Ethiopian water resources development and management.”

The team’s vision is “to radically transform the capacity in Ethiopian universities to better understand and plan for sustainable water resource management by establishing an institutional structure for long-term partnership.” According to Dr. Accorsi, the partners hope to deploy various strategies to achieve their aims, including the development of an interdisciplinary, integrated water resources curriculum; graduate student exchange programs between UConn and its partnering universities; optimization of resource efficiency; centralization of water resource facilities — including databases and libraries; support for research and the research community; and efforts to secure long-term funding that will sustain the project. A major focus will be on the development of an Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources to facilitate these goals.

Rounding out the U.S. portion of the team are Dr. Anji Seth of the Department of Geography, Dr. Farhed Shah of Agricultural and Resources Economics, Dr. Jun Yan of Statistics, Dr. Eugene Salorio of Management, and Dr. Edward Rossomando of the Center for Waterborne Diseases.

Published: September 1, 2009