Building Bridges Between Madison and Ethiopia

Cars, Bajaj rickshaws and bikers all compete for space on the streets of Bahir Dar. Photo courtesy Rahel Desalegne.

To cross the Blue Nile River in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, there’s only one option, short of braving the dark waters below. An aging, narrow bridge serves all types of travelers: cars, bikes, mopeds, rickshaws, pedestrians, even livestock.

And, as you might expect, that kind of competition for two lanes can quickly—and routinely—bring traffic to a standstill.

“It has lived its life,” says Rahel Desalegne, an adjunct professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a native of Ethiopia. “There are a lot of safety issues and it doesn’t serve the capacity.”

Desalegne is part of a UW-Madison team that’s lending expertise as advisors on the design of a new bridge that will accommodate—and encourage—multiple modes of transportation in the city of more than 600,000. It’s one of several projects the department has undertaken in recent years in the East African country and part of a global mentality: Civil and environmental engineering faculty currently have ongoing research work on five of the world’s seven continents, improving infrastructure and examining environmental issues.

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