Ethiopian Hydrologic Studies Excite Multi-Institutional Student Team

A team of nine undergraduate and graduate students from the U.S. and Ethiopia spent the summer intensively studying the hydrology of a key Ethiopian watershed as part of a three-year National Science Foundation-funded project headed by Dr. Mekonnen Gebremichael, assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE). The team seeks to develop reliable methods of monitoring the water resources in the region over time, using ground-based sensing methods, satellite data and physically-based hydrological and meteorological models.

Dr. Gebremichael – whose expertise lies in the interface of hydrology and meteorology – explained that Ethiopia is an important target for hydrology and weather research because “Studies have shown that weather originating in Ethiopia eventually travels to the continental U.S. One recent study reported that about 70% of the Eastern Atlantic tropical cyclones originated with incipient disturbances that developed in the Ethiopian highlands, so understanding climatological events in that part of Africa will help us better predict and understand the impact on the U.S.”

The biggest challenge in monitoring and predicting water resources variability in Africa in general, and in Ethiopia in particular, is the lack of ground-based systems for observing water resource variables such as rainfall, stream flow, soil moisture, etc. According to Dr. Gebremichael, Ethiopia is completely lacking in weather radars for monitoring precipitation, mainly due to high installation costs. This challenge could be overcome by using satellite data, but certain modifications would be required to the satellite algorithms to enable them to accurately reflect African conditions. Dr. Gebremichael is keenly interested in developing basin hydrological data for Ethiopia and comparing it against satellite data and hydrologic models to predict flood and other hydrological events. He believes such studies will help Ethiopia and the U.S. to better predict foul weather and permit Ethiopia to invest in sustainable development as more is known about water resources in the target area.

The field team included Dr. Gebremichael, UConn graduate Alana Rebollo (B.S. political science, ’07); Caitlin Balthrop, an undergraduate student in Civil & Environmental Engineering at Tennessee Technological University (TTU) in Cookeville; UConn Civil & Environmental Engineering graduate students Dawit Zeweldi, Feyera Aga and Tadesse Taye; along with Dr. Yonas Michael of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia’s largest university, and graduate students Woinishet Hailemariam, Yared Ashenafi, Muluken Bilhatu and Lensa Tefera. The U.S. contingent spent the early part of their summer researching the current state of Ethiopian hydrology studies, determining target locations for field sensors, mastering the use of geospatial and point data equipment, and developing a comprehensive plan for their activities. They also prepared the necessary paperwork to transport sensing equipment into the East African country. The team’s efforts were aided by Jonathon Drasdis, the CEE laboratory technician, who set up – and trained the students in the use of – the field equipment prior to their departure for Ethiopia.

The group traveled to Debreberhan, Ethiopia during the monsoon season and focused their efforts on the Beresa River basin, a tributary of the Blue Nile located in central Ethiopia. Dr. Gebremichael explained that the team selected that watershed because it spans a variety of climates, including a moist mountain region and dry lowlands. The group met up with their Ethiopian collaborators, including the Addis Ababa graduate students and several faculty members, and began a four-week stay during which they installed three of an eventual six sensor units that will form a distributed network and designed an experiment for conducting intensive field measurements.

Dr. Gebremichael explained that the team’s scientific objectives were to quantify the accuracy of satellite water-related products and their use in flood prediction. He also hopes to inspire inquiry-based learning and promote the development of globally-oriented scientists.

TTU undergraduate Caitlin Balthrop said, “During our days in Debreberhan, we hiked our sites, learned how to use different software to grid out our site, made agreements with local farmers to use their land for the project, and ultimately installed and programmed the rain gauges. At night, the team spent time sharing our cultures through discussion, music, movies, dance and games. I made academic gains learning how to use different hydrologic hand tools and software as well as what goes into planning a field experiment,” said Caitlin. “I also met new friends who immersed me in their culture and helped give me a different perspective on life…And I gained a stronger appreciation for civil engineering and how it impacts people all over the world and in so many different ways.”

The team members will reconvene in summer ’08 to begin the next stage of their research, which will include installation of the remaining six sensor units and continued data collection. The team’s results will be presented publicly through professional talks, web-based materials and research publications. In addition, Dr. Gebremichael expects to integrate the Ethiopian hydrologic data in his UConn classes, eventually in the form of course material and homework assignments.

Dr. Gebremichael’s Ethiopian studies comprise one facet of a larger scientific field of inquiry involving developing countries. With his colleague Emmanouil Anagnostou, an associate professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Dr. Gebremichael is examining the effectiveness of modern hydrologic tools to solve problems in developing countries. Both researchers have found the Nile River basin to be fertile ground for their hydrologic studies. For additional details of Dr. Gebremichael’s research, please visit his faculty web page at

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