Population Explosion : Ethiopia's Plans to Bridge the Urban-Rural Divide


Ethiopia's population has tripled over the past few decades. Millions of farmers are leaving the fields only to end up living in the slums of huge cities. City planners believe they have found a solution -- in the remote countryside.

By Rainer Müller in Buranest

Workers on a construction site in the model town of Buranest in Ethiopia

Bente StachowskeWorkers on a construction site in the model town of Buranest in Ethiopia March 21, 2018  03:58 PM

Stories about people embarking on their future usually start with a departure. But the story of farmer Birhan Abegaz is different. He plans to stay put right where he is in his quest for happiness -- a treeless wasteland in northern Ethiopia.

The crooked huts of his village, Bura, are surrounded by solitary thorn bushes and acacias. Birhan is cultivating rice on a patch of leased land behind his hut, at least during the rainy season. A few months have passed since the harvest. The dry season is here, and the earth is dusty. The Shine River, Bura's lifeblood, is nothing but a trickle.

Married with three children, Birhan is only 28 years old, but the hardness of rural life has taken its toll on him and he looks much older. He fetches the family's water for drinking, cooking and washing from about a kilometer away. The nearest well is on the other side of the highway leading to the provincial capital of Bahir Dar, a two-hour drive away. In the past, many people from Bura and the nearby villages took this road, turning their backs on the countryside in search of a better life in the city.

What Can Keep the Farmers in the Countryside?

Since the 1970s, Ethiopia's population has more than tripled, going from 30 million to over 100 million. In the countryside, overpopulation is leading to the overuse and overgrazing of fields and deforestation. More and more people are moving to the big cities, which are growing faster than the rest of the country. The provincial capital of Bahir Dar had about 60,000 inhabitants 30 years ago, but today it has 350,000. "Apartment buildings, streets, the drinking-water supply and the entire infrastructure can't keep up with this tempo," says Ethiopian city planner and architect Zegeye Cherenet.

As a result, new arrivals end up living on the streets or in slums. In the early mornings in Bahir Dar, dozens of ragged young men stand at the intersections in the hope of picking up work as day laborers. In the evenings, their sisters and mothers go to the square and wait for johns.

That's supposed to change now, and the starting point is to be the barren wasteland next to the village of Bura. Birhan points to a construction site next to the highway. His new house is being built there, constructed out of eucalyptus wood and clay bricks. It's supposed to be the first of many. An entire town is to be built here -- with a school and a training center where the farmers from the surrounding area can learn new skills, which they can then put to use to earn money. The newly founded municipality, which is to gradually grow to around 15,000 residents, is called Buranest. The idea behind the project is that the city must come to the farmers in order to keep the rural population from flooding into the cities.

Urban planner Zegeye Cherenet in the lab at Addis Ababa University

Bente StachowskeUrban planner Zegeye Cherenet in the lab at Addis Ababa University

The project is called Nestown, short for New Sustainable Town. The plan was primarily devised by Franz Oswald, a former professor at ETH in Zurich, and Hamburg sociologist Dieter Läpple, the doctoral supervisor of Ethiopian city planner Cherenet.

Urbanization without Rural Depopulation

An entire network of this new type of settlement is to be built as part of Ethiopia's Nestown project -- half village, half town. The inhabitants are to form cooperatives to build and run their towns themselves, as well as to make and sell agricultural and handcrafted wares. "The residents can remain farmers, which is familiar to them, but also simultaneously learn urban skills," says Cherenet. Rural towns like Buranest are meant to keep the people in the countryside by offering them local opportunities like the ones they are moving to overpopulated cities to search for in vain.


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