Better monitoring of microbial hazards in Ethiopia's Akaki watershed will improve water quality for Addis Ababa's 5 million residents

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Most wastewater in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa is discharged into rivers without treatment, putting the health of the city’s 5 million inhabitants at risk from diseases caused by fecal and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. The International Water Management Institute, in collaboration with Newcastle University and national partners in Ethiopia, is monitoring the microbial quality of water in the Akaki river that runs through Addis Ababa to better understand sources of pollution and target interventions to reduce pollution and improve water quality.

Water pollution is a significant concern in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which sits in the Akaki watershed and is one of the fastest-growing African cities. Large amounts of wastewater from residential areas, commerce, industry, and agriculture are discharged untreated into local streams and the Big and Little Akaki rivers – which communities downstream depend on for watering livestock, growing crops, and domestic purposes. Sixty percent of produce consumed within the city itself is cultivated using river water.

While the city has two major sewage treatment plants, these are not being used to capacity, as only 23 percent of households are connected to the network. Wastewater is widely discharged illegally into storm drains, ditches, and open spaces; 63 percent of households in the city use shared pit latrines, while about 5 percent have no access to sanitation facilities (1).

Until very recently, little was known about the nature of microbial hazards in the Akaki watershed, but it is clear they are already causing significant disease outbreaks (2) as people come into contact with fecally-polluted water, including by consuming foods that are contaminated with it (3). Antimicrobial resistance may be becoming more prevalent, and such resistance is a global concern; it is projected to kill 10 million people every year by 2050 (4).

In 2019, experts from Newcastle University and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) began working with the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA) and Addis Ababa University to work out how to identify waterborne microbial hazards quickly and cheaply (5). Then, with support from the World Bank, AAWSA built and kitted out its own pathogen testing laboratory in late 2022.

This work was then incorporated into the CGIAR Initiative on One Health which uses a systems-based approach to reduce antimicrobial resistance, improve food and water safety, and manage zoonotic diseases, leading to better human, animal, and environment health. Through this initiative, scientists at IWMI are helping AAWSA better understand pollution sources and microbial hazards in the watershed for more targeted remedial actions.

In 2022, the IWMI team made considerable inroads into increasing the capacity of AAWSA staff to monitor microbial water quality, so that they can optimize use of the new testing laboratory. Two AAWSA staff members visited the microbiology laboratories at Newcastle University to learn from current best practices in zoonotic pathogen monitoring.

“As a result of the training at Newcastle University, I can now detect thousands of bacteria in water and identify those which developed resistance to antimicrobials,” said AAWSA water quality expert Mihret Mersha Haileselassie. “This has a great contribution to my professional development and AAWSA, since such skill is rare in Ethiopia.”

That year, the CGIAR Initiative on One Health also started a new two-year water quality monitoring campaign to better understand the relative contribution of different sources to microbial pollution and the health risks downstream, with initial sampling in 40 sites across the Akaki basin.

Over the next two years, IWMI, in collaboration with Newcastle University, plans to continue its support through on-the-job training for laboratory technicians at AAWSA. These increased capacities will in turn benefit the execution of the two-year monitoring plan.

Looking ahead, the IWMI scientists also seek to prompt national policy change towards improved waste and water management, in line with the wider intended outcomes of the CGIAR Initiative on One Health. Specifically, they hope to see increased recognition of the role that water plays in the development, spread, and transmission of antimicrobial resistance in Ethiopia’s national One Health program.

1. Hiruy, A.M., Mohammed, J, Haileselassie, M.M., Acharya, K., Butte, G., Haile, A.T., Walsh, C. and Werner, D. 2022. Spatiotemporal variation in urban wastewater pollution impacts on river microbiomes and associated hazards in the Akaki catchment, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Science of the Total Environment 826: 153912.
2. Dinede, G., Abagero, A. and Tolosa, T. 2020. Cholera outbreak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: a case-control study. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0235440.
3. Hoffmann, V., Paul, B., Falade, T., Moodley, A., Ramankutty, N., Olawoye, J., Djouaka, R., Lekei, E., Haan, N. de, Ballantyne, P. and Waage, J. 2022. A one health approach to plant health. CABI Agriculture and Bioscience 3: 62.
4. Jampani, M., Gothwal, R., Mateo-Sagasta, J. and Langan, S. 2022. Water quality modelling framework for evaluating antibiotic resistance in aquatic environments. Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters 3: 100056.
5. Acharya, K., Blackburn, A., Mohammed, J., Haile, A.T., Hiruy, A.M. and Werner, D. 2020. Metagenomic water quality monitoring with a portable laboratory. Water Research 184: 116112.

Learn more
Water security and sustainable development in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa (Video by Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub)

The Akaki river running through central Addis Ababa (credit: Magnus Franklin)

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