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Sustainable Educational Buildings for the Unschooled Children of Tigray: A Proposal

By Asayehgn Desta, Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Development, Barowsky School of Business, Dominican University of California, San Rafael.
Tigrai Online 6/15/2023

Sustainable Educational Buildings for the Unschooled Children of Tigray: A Proposal



Several explanations are forwarded to explain the causes of Ethiopia’s Tigray war of November 3, 2020. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (hereafter referred to as Abiy) strongly argues that Ethiopia’s Tigray War, held on the night of November 3, 2020, was a “maintain law and order operation” against the Tigrayan forces that attacked the Ethiopian defense force’s Northern Command Base, located on the outskirts of Mekelle city (Anonymous, April 18, 2023, and Van Niekerk, P. 22 Feb 2023).

Others explain that Ethiopia’s Tigray War was caused by the administrative region of Tigray holding regional legislative elections in September 2020, in defiance of the approved addendum to the Ethiopian Constitution that postponed elections in Ethiopia until the World Health Organization declared the global threat from the coronavirus pandemic was over.

Contrary to the above assertions, Van Niekerk strongly asserts that the motivation for Ethiopia’s Tigray War was long “in gestation and preparation” since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was pushing to centralize power after 25 years of Tigrayan-dominated ethnic federalism under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (Wikipedia, cited by, Van Niekerk P. 22 Feb 2023). More specifically, Van Niekerk and others argue that, prior to initiating a full-blown war against the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Abiy used hate speech against Tigrayans and expelled Tigrayans from the federal military and the civil services (Van Niekerk, P. 22, Feb 2023).


Thus, to further fulfill his desire, Abiy ushered Ethiopia – a country that has never been colonized – to yield under the yoke of foreign powers. In other words, Abiy voluntarily compromised Ethiopia’s sovereignty by inviting Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afework – an archenemy of the TPLF – to indulge in exterminating the people of Tigray.

Stated differently, the Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces (EFDF), in collaboration with Eritrean forces, the Amhara ethnic militia, and the scrappy fano groups, invaded the administrative Region of Tigray on November 3, 2020. More specifically, the Eritrean forces were assigned to invade Western Tigray to cut off the supply lines to Sudan (Van Niekerk, P. 22 Feb 2023).

The two years of bloody war in Tigray, commencing on November 3, 2020, and ending on November 3, 2022, can be roughly segmented into three phases. In phase one, the Ethiopian Federal Defense Forces (EFDF) and Eritrean Defense Forces occupied the administrative regions of Tigray for seven months (November 3, 2022, to June 2021). After engaging in guerrilla-type warfare during phase two, the Tigrigna Defense Forces (TDF) managed to recapture Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. Forcefully enough, during phase three (August 2021 to November 2021), the TDF chivalrously marched toward Addis Ababa to oust Abiy from power. However, starting in November 2022, the TDF voluntarily decided to retreat to Tigray after being confronted by external pressure. Then, upon getting enough time to reorganize themselves to recruit more fighters and import more sophisticated war machines and drones from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and China, the Ethiopia National Defense Forces (ENDF), the Eritrean Forces, the Amhara militias, and fano groups aggressively assaulted Tigray from April 2022 to November 2022 (Phillip van Niekerk, Feb 2023).

The battles that lasted for two years (from November 3, 2020, to November 2022) caused both Ethiopia and Tigray to experience massive destruction and unbearable hardship. More particularly, the perpetrators deprived the Tigrayan population of access to water, food, electricity, and internet services. The invaders killed animals, burned farmlands, and uprooted fruit trees and gardens. Water tanks and pipelines were purposely ruptured. The existing water reservoirs were sabotaged using poisonous chemicals to cause fear and death.

In addition to killing many young and old Tigrayans, the invaders used the raping of underage girls and women as a weapon of war. Furthermore, Isaias’ armed squads looted valuable items from hospitals, restaurants, hospitals, and educational institutions. Interestingly enough, a number of these looted items were later found for sale in a number of Eritrea’s retail shops. Hateful enough, the invaders bombed many historically known monasteries and mosques. As narrated by Van Niekerk (Feb 2023), the aerial bombardment of schools, hospitals, and historical places, along with the blockade of Tigray, contributed to the death of thousands of children. It needs to be commended that, after learning of the alarming atrocities and the unbearable human rights violations taking place in Tigray, many concerned groups filed cases against Prime Minister Abiy, President Isaias, the Somali soldiers, and the United Arab Emirates in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for intentionally committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Before 2018, Ethiopia was regarded as an economic hub of sub-Saharan Africa. However, after Abiy launched an assault on Tigray and allowed the incursion of Eritrean and Sudanese forces into Ethiopia, the country fell from grace to vulnerability. That is, Ethiopia now lacks capacity and security. It is characterized by chronic humanitarian crises, persistent social tension, and armed conflict. Furthermore, Abiy’s leadership lacks the legitimacy to provide basic social services and has sacrificed Ethiopia’s sovereignty.

More specifically, in the economic sphere, Ethiopia is faced with a decline in its Gross Domestic Product. It has encountered rampant unemployment and hyperinflation, causing human misery to be unbearable. Its external debt extended beyond the country’s GDP. As a result, Ethiopia’s foreign exchange currency reserves have declined below the three-month threshold of hard currency required for a country to import goods and services.

Socially, Abiy’s regime has disastrously failed to meet the basic needs of Ethiopia’s citizens. Ethiopia has recklessly precipitated social tension and inflicted deep humanitarian crises resulting in the devastation of health and school facilities and causing more than five million Ethiopians to be displaced. Politically, Ethiopia’s landscape is unstable. Compounded by the Tigray war, various civil wars, and a new wave of religious wars, and because of Abiy’s collaboration with Eritrea’s external forces to invade the administrative Tigray region of Ethiopia, Abiy, unashamedly, has outrightly sacrificed Ethiopia’s legitimacy (Desta, 2023).

As discussed above, after two years of civil war and unimaginable suffering, Ethiopia has been driven to social conflict, a weak economy, and a lack of a legitimate and credible government. Likewise, besieged Tigray has endured reckless starvation and an overwhelming death toll. The Tigray Defense Force (TDF) did have the willpower to defend against the invaders who had genocidal plans. However, being outmanned and besieged by hostile forces that were financed by powerful international players, it faced shortages of “… ammunition, fuel, and other necessary items to continue its war efforts” (P. Wight, November 25, 2022).

Thereby, after two years of unimaginable fighting, both the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front negotiators finally agreed to sign a peace deal in Pretoria, South Africa, on November 2, 2022 (Wight, November 25, 2022). In a nutshell, the Agreement for Lasting Peace through a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities, signed by the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), stressed identification, monitoring, verification, restoration of vital services, unfettered humanitarian access to Tigray, upholding the constitutional order, a commitment to pursue accountability, and the disarmament of Tigrayan fighters. For the implementation of the peace plan, modalities were signed by the army leaders of the two parties in Nairobi on November 12, 2022 (Wight, November 25, 2022).

With the disarmament clause, the signed agreement was very fundamental to Tigray’s security. By design or default, however, the negotiators were very ambiguous on the withdrawal of Eritrean troops from Tigray. Also, referring to the 1995 Federal Constitution, the negotiators left the territorial dispute between the Amhara and Tigrayans to be resolved through political dialogue (Wight, November 25, 2022). Given these ambiguities in the truce, the fundamental challenge that lies ahead is that Isaias’ military, the Amhara occupiers, and the fano militias are still occupying part of Tigray and are using ethnic cleansing techniques to forcibly expel Tigrayans from their territories. Therefore, given these ambiguities, the truce doesn’t seem to win the hearts and minds of a number of Tigrayans. Therefore, if we allude to the Pretoria conference, the Ethiopian federal government bears insurmountable challenges to implement the Cessation of the Hostilities Agreement it signed with the TPLF in Pretoria, South Africa on November 2, 2022.


As discussed before, Ethiopia is currently faced with a slumbering political system and a decaying economy. Therefore, Abiy can’t challenge the dictator Isaias who has boasted in an address to the Eritrean people that he can’t rest but must prosecute the Tigray war until the TPLF is fully wiped out (Wight, November 25, 2022). Therefore, given Isaias’ dream, it seems to be a pipe dream for the Ethiopian federal government to accomplish the Pretoria and Nairobi deals. In case the Pretoria truce is not fully implemented, there is a possibility that Tigray, on the one hand, and the Ethiopian Federal Defense Force and its compatriots, on the other hand, will likely relapse back into the war (see, for example, Mason, December 2007).

Bearing in mind the seed of conflict in the Pretoria truce, the thrust of this study is to briefly review the schooling system in the pre-war Tigray and tentatively propose the kind of sustainable school buildings that the transitional government of Tigray’s Bureau of Education could re-establish during the post-war period. The central question of the study is:

Given that the school buildings in Tigray were demolished or badly damaged during the war period, what kind of sustainable school buildings could be used to teach the unschooled children of Tigray?

Pre-war Schooling System in Tigray

After the Ethiopian federal government, Amhara, and Eritrea started antagonizing the Tigrayan forces, Tigray’s educational achievement was set back decades (Sew, 14 August 2022). During the pre-war period, the administrative region of Tigray had a pre-primary net enrollment rate of 74.1% from September 2019 to March 2020 (Zoe Talent Solutions, April 21, 2023).

Following the impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic and during the Ethio-Eritrean war against Tigray, the schooling system in Tigray dramatically regressed, and pre-existing problems were exacerbated. Due to the outrageous shelling, bombardment, and the ongoing blockade, which was used as a weapon of war to make citizens in the surrounding area go hungry, Tesfay quotes Guesh, the head of the Tigray Bureau of Education, saying “…90% of all 2,221 Elementary and 271 high schools in Tigray were destroyed, looted, or damaged”. Overall, about 2.4 million students in grades K-12 in Tigray were out of school (April 16, 2023). Given the magnitude of the war atrocities, the World Health Organization (WHO) describes the situation in Tigray as “the worst humanitarian crisis” ever recorded in history (Zoe Talent Solutions, April 21, 2023, Sew, August 14, 2022).

Thus, during the two war periods (November 2020 to June 2020 and August 2022 to November 2022), student learning in Tigray was completely paralyzed. This, coupled with the psychological trauma of the war, caused “learning loss” among students (Sew, August 14, 2022). Specifically, during the first phase of the war period (November 2020 to June 2021), the Ethiopian Federal Armed Forces, the invading Amhara and the fano militias, and the Eritrean forces ruthlessly focused on destroying Tigray’s infrastructure. More specifically, trained to be as harsh as Napoleon’s dogs, the Eritrean Defense Army bombed, looted, and occupied schools. Sometimes the school sites were used to commit other crimes including weaponized rape (Anonymous, April 18, 2023).

In a nutshell, the Ethiopian government imposed a siege for two years to purposely devastate the entire Tigray educational system. Though the updated tally of atrocities would certainly exceed the reported figures, between November 2020 and September 2021 more than 88.3% of classrooms, 96.5% of student desks, 97% of blackboards, 85.1% of computers, 84.5% of science laboratory equipment, 48% of toilets, and 92.5% of plasma televisions in Tigray were either destroyed or shipped to Eritrea (Mistir Sew, August 14, 2022, and Anonymous, April 18, 2023).

Schooling in Postwar Tigray


As discussed before, after two years of war the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) signed a deal on November 2, 2022, to permanently cease hostilities. Yet, the Eritrean forces still occupy parts of Tigray. Also, the Amhara forces and the fano militias have not withdrawn from the constitutionally recognized territories of Tigray to their pre-November 3, 2020, boundaries.

Despite the possibility that the war has not ended because conditions in the Pretoria truce are not fully implemented, the Tigray education bureau is attempting to resume schooling before the existing schools are reconstructed. As a result, in the schools that have resumed classes, the conditions are extremely tough for teachers and students. The school buildings are bullet-pocked and devastated. The school grounds contain graveyards and trenches where perpetrators stored explosive war materials. Moreover, some school compounds are being used as shelters for hundreds of people who were displaced from the western and southern parts of Tigray.

During the first phase (November 3, 2020, to June 2020) and the second phase (August 2021 to November 2021) of the war period, “the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the federal government’s siege pushed many teachers in Tigray to join the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), as many of them decided that going to the battlefield is the only way to reverse the current situation in Tigray” (Mistir Sew, August 14, 2022). Thus, during the first phase and the second phase, the declining number of teachers in Tigray reached a crisis point. Currently, to reestablish Tigray’s schooling systems, the Bureau of Education has managed to give the surviving teachers three months in arrears of their salary and has asked them to resume their teaching positions.

Amidst life-threatening hardship, the recalled teachers have started their teaching under harsh conditions. Since most school infrastructure has been demolished, most classes are either held under trees in the open air or are conducted in damaged and shelled schools that are contaminated with unexploded mines which pose a serious threat to the children’s safety. In addition, the school curriculum is outdated. Therefore, teachers are facing many problems while trying to impart quality education to their students.

Currently, to attend the newly assigned primary schools, students walk an average of 7.3 kilometers. However, the sad part is, being from bereft families, some students attend classes with empty stomachs. Having been traumatized by war, some learners experience flashbacks while attending classes. In addition to showing disrespect for their teachers, some students are restless, cry, and fight each other. Instead of focusing on their studies, some students remain preoccupied with drawing guns (Atsbeha, March 7, 2023, Sew, August 14, 2022, and Zoe Talent Solution, April 21, 2023).

In a nutshell, during the two-year war, the school-aged children in Tigray endured horrific conditions. The catastrophic by-product of ongoing conflicts in Tigray has contributed to unschooled children. As persuasively stated by the United Nations, “Those who survived will be affected for life with deep physical and emotional scars” (July 11, 2022). Given that some of the vital conditions in the Pretoria truce are left unimplemented, a relapse back into war is anyone’s guess. However, concerned about the learners, Tigray’s Bureau of Education is in the process of soliciting assistance to design a multi-pronged educational program for K-12 that can be used to rehabilitate the war-affected children of Tigray. Therefore, this sustainable educational proposal is meant to solicit fruitful discussions among concerned individuals who have the desire to resolve the conditions of unschooled children in war-torn Tigray.

Sustainably Designed Educational Buildings for the Unschooled Children in Tigray

As mentioned above, during the two years of the war period, school buildings in Tigray were reduced to rubble. On November 2, 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa, a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Nonetheless, some major issues in the Pretoria truce (such as the withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara militias from Tigray, etc.) have not yet been resolved.


Given this, this writer assumes it would be risky, time-consuming, and expensive to rehabilitate the heavily damaged schools in Tigray and resume the schooling program immediately. If needed, the old school buildings could be renovated later when long-term security is assured in Tigray. For now, focusing on building new schools using cost-effective local resources and readily available materials would offer a sustainable solution. As argued by Jonathan Duwyn from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), “Locally adapted sustainable design, construction, practices, and materials coupled with renewable, and innovation represents a great opportunity for both mitigation and resilience in Africa’s rapidly growing building stock” (UN Environmental Programme, November 9, 2022).

To accomplish sustainable school building in Tigray, a change of mindset and the desire to use local resources are pertinent. In other words, to use local materials and renewable energy sources like solar power, Tigray’s educational program bureau needs a shift in perspective (See, for example, W. McDonough and M. Braungart, 2002). Differently stated, Tigray’s educational program bureau could minimize waste building new school buildings by using fewer resources that are reusable (Meulen, 2011).

To create a safe learning environment to get war-impacted children back into school, UNICEF has been designing user-friendly, affordable, and readily available local resources for building sustainable schools. Furthermore, UNICEF has tried to empower local communities to build schools for their children (November 8, 2022).

Similarly, “Let’s use building my school organization” (March 21, 2018) uses four processes to design sustainable schools in several developing countries. The four steps include: 1) investigating the needs of the community; 2) identifying the available materials on site and exploring possible techniques of construction suitable for the climate conditions; 3) sharing the construction process with the local community so that they can build and replicate the building materials; and 4) building the school and classrooms together and delivering a fresh environment for teaching and learning.

The above steps, known as “let us build my school organization,” include thick walls made of available materials and clay which have beneficial thermal qualities that keep the classrooms fresh and cool. To overcome overheating, the windows are made large enough to aid in ventilation, letting fresh air easily flow in and out of the classrooms. Furthermore, the roofs are built of simple timber trusses and incorporate light and shade, leaving a significant gap for natural ventilation (March 21, 2018).

As an example, by the end of 2009, the Malawi Schools Administration designed sustainable, pragmatic, low-cost, lean, and easy-built prototype school buildings for Malawian children. The architect, Arup, and his partners designed the Malawian schools to be built with local construction techniques. As a result, the school foundations were built with hard stones, and the walls were made of soil-stabilized blocks and timber materials. Moreover, the school buildings were made to harness natural daylight and ventilation to create a comfortable learning environment so that, on warm days, the classrooms are about three degrees cooler than the old school buildings’ classrooms which utilized electricity for cooling (McCabe, September 26, 2015).


Lessons to be Learned

From the above examples, the lesson that can be learned by the Tigray Educational Bureau is that, instead of renovating existing school buildings that were destroyed or turned into shelters for the displaced people, alternative sustainable building components, depending on the locality context, could turn the wheel and ultimately provide for quality education by using local materials at a lower cost. In other words, leaving the details to acclaimed building architects, local builders, and health specialists to modify our suggestions, we suggest that the foundation of the school buildings in Tigray need to rest on a locally quarried rock or unbreakable stones. The walls, which have screened windows to keep mosquitoes at bay while allowing air flow to remain continuous, need to be composed of soil-stabilized bricks. The high roofs need to be built with local timber (for example, eucalyptus trees) and covered with shaded thin surface stones to mitigate the risk of flooding and to adapt to climate changes. If the roofs are covered with light fertile soil, they could also be allocated to grow vegetables. In addition to the sustainability of buildings, green roofs help to store rainwater and delay peak flow, reducing the risk of floods (Pratama, et al, 2023). Furthermore, in addition to adding beauty to school buildings, shade plants planted outside the school compound could be used for outside teaching.

School closures for more than three years (including the COVID period) have caused worrisome consequences for children’s learning and well-being. Therefore, providing safe and continuous education by using sustainable school environments can help students to cope with the current crisis and regain the lessons they lost over the last three years. To help the students who are currently attending classes with empty stomachs, efforts should be made to get adequate funds from philanthropic agencies so that the schools can provide supplementary balanced breakfasts.

Finally, simply building sustainable schools is not enough to address the root cause of the existing educational crisis in Tigray. Though beyond the scope of this proposal, Tigray’s Educational Bureau needs to retrain and attempt to deliver respite programs to teachers. The regular teachers must be paid their salaries. Inviting retired teachers back to work and offering educational lessons through radio programs could be additional valuable resources for teachers. Finally, through mobile bus services, psychosocial therapy could be used to deliver relief to those students and teachers still suffering from their traumatic war experiences.

NB: Any institutions or individuals wishing to collaborate on the effort to build sustainable schools in Tigray are welcome to contact me using the email asadesta44@gmail.com.


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