ADDIS ABABA, Oct 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Habtamu Worku left his hometown of Bahir Dar seven years ago and moved 550 kilometres (340 miles) south to Addis Ababa, he quickly grew to like the city of 5 million people.
Except for one thing: the ubiquitous air pollution that is a constant problem for the residents of Ethiopia's capital.
The combination of smoke from numerous factories dotted around the city, exhaust from the old-model cars that jam the roads and heat coming off buildings can make commuting a miserable experience, Worku said.
"When I came to Addis Ababa, the first thing that struck me is how little space is given to green spaces in contrast to my home city," said the 27-year-old.
More of those are what "Addis Ababa sorely needs if it's to create a healthy, functioning, liveable metropolis", he said.
For the past few years, several regions and cities in Ethiopia have been planting trees and increasing green spaces to improve the lives of their residents.
Now the Ministry of Forestry, Environment and Climate Change (MoFEC) wants to build an integrated approach among local, regional and federal government institutions to spread the benefits of urban greening to even the most congested cities.
Those benefits can include a cooler and shadier environment; less noise pollution as trees muffle the sounds of traffic, loud music and factories; - and fewer climate changing emissions in the atmosphere.
"If you have two matured trees, they can absorb one ton of carbon annually," said Yitbetu Moges, the national representative for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) at the ministry.
By getting authorities at various levels and in different parts of the country to work together on urban greening, the ministry aims to not only make Ethiopia's cities healthier, but also strengthen efforts to curb climate change and adapt to its impacts.
That would be a major step toward reaching Ethiopia's goal of building a net-zero carbon economy by 2025, Moges said.
CALLING ON COMMUNITY
Moges pointed to the cities of Bahir Dar, Hawassa and Adama as examples of urban greening programs that are already seeing successes.
Some have been implemented by federal institutions, while others are overseen by city administrations.
Having worked on Adama's 10-year-old urban greening project, "I have seen how the weather of the Rift Valley city has changed from that of unbearable heat to a pleasant moderate climate," he said.
While the goal is to do the same for Addis Ababa, Moges said financial constraints make it unrealistic for the environmental ministry to carry out a comprehensive urban greening programme in the rapidly growing capital.
"If you look at Addis Ababa, almost every square inch is taken. It's a very built-up area," he said.
"While you have some green areas, they are not well arranged. They have to be integrated to maximize the benefit to residents."
Instead, the government is working on greening the mountainous areas surrounding the city.
Planting more trees in the mountains will help offset urban pressures on the ecosystem and regenerate the city's water resources, helping stabilise the city's water supply during times of drought and overconsumption, Moges said.
Within Addis Ababa, the government is spending some money on greening small spots around the city and asking residents to get involved.
"We are planting pest-resistant, long-lasting indigenous trees along some streets, while also encouraging churches and public institutions to green their own spaces," Moges said.
A long-term urban greening programme could also help the government boost its coffers by selling carbon credits on the international market, he added.
But success relies on residents doing their part.
Moges would like to see the government offer economic incentives and make more resources available to people - including experts - to support community greening efforts.
As the environment ministry focuses on how the federal government and local authorities can work together to bring urban greening to all of Ethiopia's cities, Negash Teklu, executive director of the Population Health Environment Ethiopia Consortium, says creating healthier cities starts with urban planning.
Teklu cited Singapore as a model for the way the city incorporates environmentally-friendly features into new construction.
"Green space can be made to fit even the most crowded urban areas," he said.
Teklu said changing public attitudes is an important step, to make it clear to urban dwellers how greening their surroundings and homes can benefit them.
A sustainable urban greening programme could help alleviate poverty and help women by providing a source of income from urban agriculture, he said. That would also increase access to fresh, nutritional foods.
And green areas could be used to grow vegetables for biogas production, generating much-needed energy and easing the country's reliance on fossil fuels, he added.
"The government needs to make sure every planned house has a green package within its construction plan," Teklu said.
"If Addis Ababa's master plan can make it compulsory, it would be easier to implement for everyone from an ordinary citizen to a factory owner."
Whatever strategy Ethiopia's cities choose to take, both Teklu and Moges agree that the need for urban greening is taking on urgency.
The country's urban population is growing rapidly. Experts estimate that the 2019 census will show around 18 percent of Ethiopia's population of approximately 105 million is living in cities, a number that is expected to keep rising.
"Money can't be an excuse, population pressure can't be an excuse. Our commitment and principles need to guide us, if we are to have successful urban greening projects in Ethiopia," Teklu said.
Reporting by Elias Gebreselassie, Editing by Jumana Farouky.
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