Ethiopian scholar Geda Kebede Oncho completed his PhD on water quality monitoring

17. May 2021
scholar and award winner Geda Kebede Oncho
Geda Kebede Oncho completed his PhD, focusing on sustainable use of Ethiopian highland freshwaters, at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna in April 2021. In this article, he provides some insights into his research and his experience as a PhD student in Austria.

Ethiopia is endowed with various running water systems. In the rural area, many people directly depend on river water for drinking, domestic purposes, bathing, crop irrigation and watering of animals. Awash River is one of the most used rivers in the country. Unfortunately, little is known about the Awash river’s microbiological safety. So far, efforts to monitor the water quality were based on total coliform bacteria, macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects), and physico-chemical analysis. These monitoring approaches are, however, unreliable to depict levels of microbiological risk for human health. Hence my PhD research aimed to identify the major drivers of microbiological pollution, track the source for microbiological pollution and test the indicative power of different indicators to design and initiate sustainable water quality management. The dissertation was supervised by Univ. Prof. Dr. Wolfram Graf (BOKU) and Univ. Prof. Dr. Andreas Farnleitner (TU Wien & KL Krems).

To realize this a variety of datasets were collected for analysis. Samples from soil and river water, and a number of riverine water physicochemical variables were analyzed during a one-year cycle. In addition, samples were collected from livestock, humans and wildlife species from the central highland of Ethiopia. The findings of my thesis showed that the overall microbiological water quality of Awash River is poor. Its use for unrestricted irrigation, bathing, and household purposes may cause significant public health hazards. Furthermore, the monitoring approach explained in this thesis may provide insights into using more holistic monitoring schemes than a single indicator to assess freshwater systems in developing countries to understand the overall picture of water quality particularly when it comes to public health risks associated with freshwater. From an economic perspective, the results underline the immediate need for actions related to the risks associated with the use of Awash River water. Fixing pollution problems could have a strong economic benefit as community health spending might decrease with improved water quality. The genetic MST methods tested for the first time in Ethiopia for identifying ruminant and human-associated bacterial fecal contaminants in an extensive regional fecal sample bank also performed well.

The research presented in this thesis was carried out as part of the Sustainable Highland River Management (LARIMA) project funded by the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC). As a result, the findings of this thesis work assisted in the completion of the project's work packages and activities. For example, it will enhance the human capacity development of Ambo university regarding education and research in the field of aquatic resources monitoring. Individually, the scholarship was extremely beneficial to my future professional development because it allowed me to focus on biomonitoring, which is not widely used in Ethiopian academic institutions. This was further reinforced by the experiences I had during my research, such as working in a team, self-management and developing good work habits. The project also has significant contributions to the capacity development of the country. For instance, biomonitoring that has flourished in various regions of the world is at its infancy level in Ethiopia. So far, no policy has adequately addressed it. As a result, it is critical to raise the issue of developing a sound biomonitoring forum in Ethiopia from a science, academic, and political standpoint.

Part of my thesis was also awarded the Neptune water prize of 2021 for the water research category on 15 March 2021. The Neptune water prize is an Austrian environmental and innovation award for water-related topics.

In the future, I would like to continue what I started during my PhD studies particularly on water quality monitoring related to public health. Together with other experts from Austria and Ethiopia as well as interested African universities and other partners, I plan to come up with more outputs on biomonitoring to assist the government on biomonitoring policy development.

Geda Kebede Oncho is a lecturer at the Department of Biology, Ambo University since 2008. He completed his PhD at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Aquatic Ecosystem Management (IHG), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna in April 2021. He served as the head of the Biology Department at Ambo University. While working at the University of Ambo, Geda has been involved in coordinating and implementing activities of the LARIMA project. He obtained a master’s degree in applied microbiology from Addis Ababa University and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Haramaya University.