Addis Standard (Addis Ababa)

25 July 2014

Ethiopia: Noisy Addis Abeba

Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
An informal settlement in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

opinion

The streets of Addis Abeba have long become permanent exhibitions for earsplitting noises; it is no longer shocking to find schools and hospitals built adjoining bars, workshops and restaurants; nor residential quarters housing a host of bars and nightclubs; and churches, congregations and mosques are getting noisier by the day. Yet no authority seem concerned enough to speak louder.

In May 2009 Forum for Environment (FfE) held its first public meeting for that year in Addis Abeba aimed at raising public awareness on a specific concern related to sustainable development and sharing information on relevant activities with a diverse audience, among others. One of the major topics discussed at this event was the problem of noise pollution in the capital Addis Abeba, which the participants said was not being addressed sufficiently. Noise pollution in the capital had reached a limit where it was enough to call for proper attention from all concerned bodies, according to the participants.

Sadly, public resentment on the lack of a quiet environment hasn't subsided in the subsequent five years since. Still, out of control sound blasting from religious institutions, transport vehicles, industrial plants, construction sites, nightclubs and bars, and music shops, to mention few, are threatening to turn the political capital of the continent Africa into a pandemonium of auditory anguish.

The ills of unwanted and often disturbing sound - as noise is traditionally defined - is countless; from cardiovascular effects and a rise in blood pressure leading to premature death, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), to causing hearing impairments, and to bad hormonal responses - especially that of stress hormones - to interference in social behavior exhibited in such outrageous conducts like aggressiveness. The overall level of noise emanating from the capital Addis Abeba is surely not at that stage - fortunately - but only yet. However what's happening and the manner by which it is happening is causing enough of its own nuisance.

Legal volume control, please

Although there are proclamations dealing with public nuisance in the country's constitution dating as back as 1957, the question of why no one is doing anything about it remains unanswered.

Article 44 of the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) grants every person the right to a clean and healthy environment, an outlook happily shared by the country's environment policy introduced in 1997. Furthermore, Article 92 acknowledges the government will "endeavor to ensure that all Ethiopians live in a clean and healthy environment" and "government and citizens shall have the duty to protect the environment."

The reality is the difference. Contrary to the Advertisement Proclamation 759/12, for example, which prohibits "advertisements causing sound pollution through any sound magnifying machine, which does not comply with the sound limit set by the appropriate governmental body," the streets of Addis Abeba have long become permanent exhibitions for earsplitting advertisement noise, both public and private (the state owned institutions like the National Lottery Administration and the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA) being among the worst offenders); although the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (another offender itself) publically denounces it, new religious song album promoters find it easy to violate the Church's own 'rule' when renting a commercial vehicle equipped with loudspeakers to drive around the city with a blast of message and song to promote their music albums. Perhaps more disturbing, however, is the fact that it is no longer shocking to find schools and hospitals built adjoining bars, restaurants or shopping facilities; nor is it disturbing to find increasing numbers of residential quarters housing a host of night clubs and bars in their midst. Ironically, these out of sync arrangements are visible in recent state run housing projects as well.

Unlike some countries such as Japan and the United States of America which have specific legislations on noise, in Ethiopia noise pollution is governed under such laws as the Environment Impact Assessment Proclamation No. 299/2002, which defines a "pollutant" as anything that "directly or indirectly produces toxic substances, diseases, objectionable odor, noise, vibration, heat, or any other phenomenon that is hazardous or potentially hazardous to human health or to other living things."

In addition to the civil code, which in article1225 forbids citizens from causing damage or nuisance to their neighbors, the Environmental Pollution Control Proclamation No. 300/2002 prohibits any person from polluting the environment by violating the pertinent standard. The Federal Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), as a government body with the power to formulate policies, strategies and standards, has specified maximum tolerable noise levels based on the general requirements set by WHO.

Accordingly, the EPA has set 75 decibels (dB) for industrial areas, 65 and 55 dB for commercial zones and for residential districts respectively during day time, whereas 70, 55, and 45 dB respectively for industrial, commercial and residential areas is the limit during night time. Since countries take the settlement patterns of their people, their advancement of technology and the burden of industry into account, noise standards vary from one place to another. Nevertheless the EPA's effectiveness in bringing its own standards down to earth and enforcing them accordingly is far from satisfactory.

Table - Category of Area Upper limit of Permissible Noise in dB

Noise Standards for Ethiopia (EPA)

"The existence of legislative basis cannot grant its effective implementation," says Tesfanesh Tadesse, who has done her master's thesis on "Challenges for the Effective Implementation of the Environmental Pollution Control Legislation of the FDRE." According to Tesfanesh, one of the possible explanations holding back the works of the authority is poor urban planning that leaves industrial, commercial and residential areas meshed up all together, which in turn makes the job of enforcing noise control an incredibly strenuous one. The EPA, says Tesfanesh, suffers from an array of human, material and financial resources to assert its own legal duties.

But even if areal categories can somehow be sorted out, there are some who question the authority's competence in tackling the problem simply because the worst offenders are powerful religious institutions.

At irregular intervals district authorities summon their attention, manpower and financial resources to conduct a mass raid on pubs, nightclubs and music shops. In December 2013, for example, Kirkos sub city suspended from service 30 pubs, nightclubs, bars and restaurants that it said were too noisy. It lasted just for a month. Random moves like this, which are a result of convenience than a persistent monitoring and control mechanism, lack the necessary consistency to bring a real difference. "Isolated efforts in mitigation of environmental pollution can at best lead to partial success or perhaps, temporary amelioration," says Tesfanesh in reference to the absence of meaningful institutional coordination between the EPA and other relevant units.

Table - Noise standards of some other countries (Pillai)

The loudspeaker wars

When Ivo Strecker, a foreigner who lived in Ethiopia for more than thirty five years, felt the good old days that were "blissfully free from loudspeakers" were rapidly vanishing, he decided to set up a campaign: Campaign Against Loudspeaker Misuse (CALM), aimed at reducing noise coming from loudspeakers in all domains of social life, but above all from religious institutions. In earlier times, "I would wake up in the morning to the chirping of birds and perhaps the faint sound of a service in a nearby church and would rise refreshed after a good night's sleep to go to work cheerfully and engage in my various activities with positive feeling and a clear mind" he says, "[U]ntil powerful loudspeaker equipment were introduced."

Mr. Strecker is not alone. Many people concerned about the level of noise in Addis Abeba accuse (rightly) the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church, Mosques, Evangelical congregations or other religious institutions, which are notorious for their persistent and abusive use of loudspeakers without any regard whatsoever to other people who do not belong to their respective faiths. In fact many believe in the existence of some sort of battle between the different religious institutions on who is making the loudest buzz.

A lecturer at Saint Mary's University who wishes to remain anonymous believes public nuisance is not the only byproduct of calls of muezzins and chants. "When you propagate your faith in loudspeakers that are set to reach outside your congregation, directly or indirectly you are criticizing those outside of it," he told Addis Standard, "this sentiment might pose threat to the peaceful coexistence of diverse faiths." What he finds hard to swallow when it comes to law enforcement is the apparent exemption of religious institutions from any accountability regarding noise pollution. "Sometimes I hear news in which business licenses of offenders are suspended but I am yet to learn any measure taken on what I see as greater [offenders]. Is it because nobody files complaints against religious institutions? I don't know."

Of cars, churches, mosques and dogs

As of late, however, many people seem to take their chances in challenging what has remained for long as untouchable. In his 2011 study, "Environmental Noise Pollution in Addis Ababa: Major Sources and Public Reactions," Aberra Birhanu of the Addis Abeba Environmental Protection Authority (AAEPA), said religious institutions were the primary causes of noise related formal public complaints filed at the authority.

According to Aberra, noise pollution is one of the leading sources of noise related complaints filed at environmental offices in the city, second only to air pollution. Noise pollution "is a serious problem to a reasonably significant proportion of residents in Addis Abeba."

Moreover other indicators like professional field observations and preliminary quantitative surveys point towards a problem far more prevalent than the measures taken to address it. "Road vehicles, religious institutions and dogs are the top high and above noise pollution sources in the city during day as well as night. Commercial activities and music-video shops/rental (during day) and sporting activities, night clubs and airplanes (during night) are also among the top high and above noise pollution sources in the metropolis," according to Aberra's research.

Percentage distribution of respondents on the degree with which noise sources pollute the residential environment. (Aberra)

- D- during day time

- N- during night time

The peculiarity of noise from a loudspeaker (coming either from religious institutions, promotional vehicles and special events such as exhibitions and weddings organized at public parks) is that, contrary to inadvertent vehicular blares, it is deliberately directed at everyone against the wishes of many.

Daniel Kibret, a prominent writer on subjects both spiritual and secular as well as a deacon at the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church, admits the existence of the problem and says the problem is exacerbated because "there is no legislation for building religious institutions. If you want to construct a church for instance, the government will provide you with a certain plot of land and that is that." According to him, religious institutions assemble their place of worship in whatever way they like. "I am not saying there should be interference but things like where to install the loudspeakers and what kind of loudspeakers to install can surely be decided. We cannot ignore the reality we are living in," he told Addis Standard.

Even though religious institutions have always been trying to reach out to their followers using whatever means at their disposal, it never took into account a diversified demographic dynamics and surely not with loudspeakers, according to Daniel. But compliance to the standards stipulated is a solution easier said than done as there is no regular and scientific monitoring of the levels of noise released from churches or other religious institutions.

The lecturer at Saint Mary University doesn't believe law enforcement officers can knock at the doors of religious institutions telling them to turn the volume down either. "They keep saying or implying it is too sensitive. It is like they are afraid of them," he says, "the officers from EPA belong to one faith or another. So it is difficult to go after their respective religion, let alone to other religious institutions. If a bar repeatedly commits offense, you can suspend its license after warnings. But if a church ignores your warnings you can't go as far as closing it."

In his study Aberra took a case study of noise complaint management measures in 28 Kebeles found in 8 sub cities in Addis Abeba. Among the challenges facing law enforcement officers are lack of equipment and professionals to tell the exact amount of extra dBs to recommend corrective actions.

Daniel wants to focus on far reaching solutions: "regarding loudspeakers, the church can have its own legislation. But the most important solution resides in urban planning. Most of the mess is created when institutions are placed in areas where they shouldn't be."

Adios peaceful days & quiet nights?

Patients and children are among the ones paying heavy prices as hospitals and schools are mostly found in the middle of commercial as well as industrial areas.

"With possible population, socioeconomic and technological growth in the city, the problem is expected to hugely increase in the future," says Aberra. "Consequently, it will continue to affect a huge number of residents."

Aberra recommends establishing permanent noise monitoring stations in the city with emphasis put along major roads, in the vicinities of major religious institutions and Bole airport; he also thinks more research on the link between noise and health as well as better enforcement of existing laws and regulations can help.

Tesfanesh, on the other hand, calls on the government to enhance the financial and human capacities of the EPA. "[T]he relevance of joint venture agreement between EPA and relevant sectoral agencies with a view to establish a regular inter-institutional collaboration and coordination is needed," she said.

Both Aberra and Tesfanesh seem to have easy looking solutions; except that, for now, they just don't seem to be at arm's reach.

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