Present and future water resources development in Ethiopia related to research and capacity building

Gulilat Birhane1
Planning and Projects Department, Ministry of Water Resources, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Ethiopia with a total area of 1.13 million km2 has a total population of 63.5 million in 2001 out of which about 54 million are rural while 9.5 million are urban. The rate of population growth is in the order of 3% per annum.

The economy of the country is highly dependent on agriculture, which is in turn dependent on the availability of seasonal rainfall. Although the country’s renewable surface and ground freshwater amounts to 123 and 2.6 billion cubic metres per annum, respectively, its distribution in terms of area and season does not give adequate opportunity for sustainable growth to the economy. The intensity of recurrent droughts affects the livelihoods of agricultural communities and the whole economy. Even in a year of good rain, the occurrence of floods affects the livelihoods of riparian residents with little capacity to neither protect themselves from the seasonal flood nor mitigate the impact.

Excess water is also responsible for the soil erosion in the highlands. Recent studies show that the sediment yields in different rivers range between 180 and 900 t/year per km2 (Rodeco 2002). It is estimated that the transboundary rivers alone carry about 1.3 billion tonnes of sediment each year to neighbouring countries (MoWR 1993). Poor watershed management and farming practices have contributed to these rates.

Sustainability of the management of water supply schemes is also a challenge for the sector. Poor co-ordination among stakeholders is aggravating the situation and constraining the economic returns on investment. Lack of research and development in the sector has hampered the contribution of the sector to the socio-economic development of the country.

Basin studies were first undertaken in the country in the 1950s, and the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) conducted the Abay River basin study in 1964. Subsequently, basin level studies have been carried out in the northern basin (Tekeze, Mereb-Gash and Guang) and the Wabi Shebele River basin. Basin development studies have been carried out recently in a more comprehensive and integrated manner in five of the twelve major basins in the country, and studies in two more basins are underway. To date, the implementation of these studies has been limited.

Seven years ago, realising the prevailing problem, the Ministry of Water Resources began work on water sector reform. This started with developing integrated water resources management policies and was subsequently followed by the creation of strategies and development programmes, which included extensive stakeholder consultations. This process included drawing on experiences from other developing and developed countries.

This paper presents an overview of the resource base of the country, existing practices and, based on the planning efforts discussed above, future directions of development with regard to research and capacity building.

Resource base and issues on the ground

Out of the total water resources, about 75% drains to neighbouring countries (MoWR 2001a). The country is divided into 11 climatic zones ranging from equatorial desert to hot and cool steppes, and from tropical savannah and rain forests to warm temperate and cool highlands. The mean annual rainfall varies between about 100 mm in the north-east to 2800 mm in the south-west (Lemma 1996). However, rainfall is generally erratic and irregular. The fluctuation of the rainfall is closely related to the occurrence of the El Nińo Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that occurs on a 2–7 year cycle.

Table 1 presents the surface water resources available against the landmass of the major basins of the country. Two of the basins, Ogaden and Ayesha, which make up 7% of the country’s landmass and serve as home to a number of pastoralists and their livestock, have no water. On the contrary, there are also basins with high ratios of water. The question is how do these people live in these water-deficient areas? What sort of remedial measures can be taken to reduce the risk in their traditional life styles? The integrated master plan studies have identified potential solutions in the investment plans where financing allows.

On top of the general water scarcity in these areas, frequent droughts further affect the socio-economic features of the country. In the history of the country, more than 42 great droughts and famines had been recorded (NMSA 1996). In the 1972–74 drought and famine events alone, more than 140 thousand people were displaced. The incidence of the 1984–85 draught was not much different from the former in terms of migration to neighbouring woredas (Admasu 1996) even though the drought was not as severe. In any given year, on average, more than four million people face food shortages and need relief assistance. The incidence of poverty is also high with 45, 37 and 42% at the rural, urban and national levels respectively (MoFED 2002). Nevertheless, no major action has been taken to overcome the problem in a sustainable way, and environmental degradation is now aggravating the problem.

In previous water resource development projects, the issue of environmental impact was not well addressed. A few studies were conducted. However, major mitigation measures were not carried out and beneficiaries were not trained to implement the programmes. In a country like Ethiopia, the worry should have to be on two important facts: the social and the economic opportunity. Unfortunately, these issues are not well articulated.

The potential irrigable land in Ethiopia is about 3.6 million hectares out of which only 5% has been developed. The water sector development programme concluded that the production of feed, fibre and sugar could not meet local demands with rainfed agriculture and the current rate of irrigation development. To close the food gap, it is estimated that a further one million hectares of irrigated land has to be developed in the next 15 years, which, even if it was possible, is considered not to be sustainable (MoWR 2001b).

Table 1. Ethiopian surface water resources by major river basins.

No. River basin Catchments area 
Annual run off 
(× 109 m3)
Specific discharge
Share out of total
1 Abay 199,812112,00 52.6 7.8 43.05/17.56
2 Awash 112,700 4.6 1.4 3.76/9.9
3 Baro-Akobo 74,100 23.6 9.7 19.31/6.51
4 Genale-Dawa 171,050 5.88 1.2 4.81/15.03
5 Mereb 5900 0.26 3.2 0.21/0.52
6 Omo-Ghibe 78,200 17.96 6.7 14.7/6.87
7 Rift Valley 52,740 5.64 3.4 4.62/4.63
8 Tekeze 90,000 7.63 3.2 6.24/7.9
9 Wabi-Shebele 200,214 3.16

0.5 2.59/17.59
10 Danakil 74,000 0.86 0

11 Ogaden 77,100 0 0 0/6.77
12 Aysha 2200 0 0 0/0.19
Total   1,138,016 122.19    
Ground water resource potential is approximately 2.6 billion cubic metres.
Source: Different master plan studies.

The total hydropower potential of the country is estimated to be around 650 million TWH, of which about 160 million TWH is economically exploitable. Presently the generation capacity is less than 450 MW, and is expected to rise to 670 MW when Fincha II and Gilgel Ghibie hydropower projects join the Interconnected system (ICS).

Water quality is a critical issue in a number of areas, including the groundwater in the Rift Valley basin, which is high in florides. In other areas, iron deposits are problematic. The lack of information on water quality makes it difficult to determine appropriate strategies in a particular locality.

Despite its importance to water management, there is limited water quality monitoring in Ethiopia. Upstream activities in a number of basins are polluting the water bodies with little consideration for stakeholders downstream. Without improved management, the situation will further deteriorate and could lead to conflict.

Water allocation will also be another area of concern. So far, there is no major record of conflicts. Nevertheless, there are some cases, such as the issue of abstraction and pollution by upstream residents, which beneficiaries have started to complain about. This is actually an international phenomenon that relates with population growth and resource scarcity (Abernethy 2000).

For Ethiopia, which has an economy highly dependent on agriculture and high population growth, it is prudent to effectively manage its water resources, build capacity and link development efforts with practical research findings. Development efforts made so far were not supported by empirical research findings; rather they have relied on theoretical ideas or imported experience, which do not fit the prevailing conditions on the ground.

The Ethiopian Water Resources Management Policy (EWRMP) that was developed in 1999 attempted to address all the issues highlighted above (MoWR 1999). The policy is detailed on various issues, including research. However, since the document is holistic in nature, there are certain issues still to be examined at a local level. Some of the relevant parts of the policy will be presented later when the development approach is discussed. The sector strategy also addressed the issue of research as one of the important inputs to the success of the water sector programme implementation.

Conventional ways are not working

Returns to date have been disappointing. Economic growth is jeopardised by agricultural market fluctuations, such as the fall of the coffee market and recurrent droughts. Part of the solution lies in diversification of the production systems that fully utilise the available water resources. The utilisation may range from rainwater harvesting to construction of big dams, and from bucket pouring to large-scale irrigation systems. The economic justification would have to be proved through research and studies. In a country with abundant unskilled labour, low-tech labour intensive investment scenarios seem rational. Nevertheless, it has also its own cost inefficiency, low return on investment and even lack of sustainability. The traditional development of the sector is highly characterised by most, if not all, of the following:

  1. Lack of sustainable and reliable water resources management strategy
  2. Lack of efficient utilisation of water resources
  3. Non-objective-oriented programmes and projects
  4. Uncertainties and ambiguities in planning
  5. Prevalence of intensive centralism of management that does not focus on rural development
  6. Lack of institutional sustainability
  7. Lack of operation and maintenance activities of water schemes
  8. Ad hoc development practices lacking coherent objectives and continuity
  9. Highly subsidised and considered as any other social good
  10. Lack of stakeholder participation and belongingness to the development of the sector
  11. Relatively low attraction of the private sector
  12. Low investment on research and development and
  13. Transboundary nature of the rivers and the conflict that comes along.

The country has considerable experience in drought alleviation, but, so far, it has been unable to avert the situation. As part of the broad water sector reform programme, the Ministry of Water Resources has sought to incorporate drought alleviation in water sector management and investment, thereby addressing drought in a more systematic way, rather than react to drought when it occurs.

Basin studies were first undertaken in Ethiopia some 45 years back. However, the study was not comprehensive and little of it was implemented. Because of the lapsed time, these studies are of limited value. Without immediate implementation and updating, such efforts are a waste of meagre resources. Given this, the Ministry of Water Resources is striving to implement some of the projects identified under the present basin studies. The establishment of basin authorities is also in process to support and monitor the implementation of the studies. There are also efforts to establish a department in the Ministry that facilitates and co-ordinates research efforts in the sector.

Development approach

Change is always a challenge. In entering into change, it is always difficult to get real partners and forecast external influence. Internally the sector had institutional problems in developing a coherent vision. But because of the 1995 re-organisation of federal institutions, the sector had an opportunity to be organised under a unified organ—the Ministry of Water Resources—and establish the foundation for reform.

The reform starts from setting clear goals, objectives and principles, which are presented in Boxes 1–3. The vision of the sector has been spelt out in a way that enables it to alleviate the prevailing problems (FDRE 2000). Detailed regulations are under preparation. The policy has three broad parts, which are the general policy, cross-cutting issues and sectoral issues. All the parts have further sub-divisions. The issue of research and development and capacity building is addressed under the cross-cutting issues (MoWR 1999).

Box 1: Goal of water resources management policy

The overall goal of the water resources policy (WRP) is to enhance and promote all national efforts towards the efficient, equitable and optimum utilisation of the available water resources for significant socio-economic development on a sustainable basis.


Box 2: Objectives of the water resources management policy

  1. Development of the water resources of the country for economic and social benefits of the people on an equitable and sustainable basis.
  2. Allocation and apportionment of water based on comprehensive and integrated plans and optimum allocation principles that incorporate efficiency of use, equity of access, and sustainability of the resource.
  3. Managing and combating drought through, inter alia, efficient allocation, redistribution, transfer, storage and efficient use of water resources.
  4. Combating and regulating floods through sustainable mitigation, prevention, rehabilitation and other practical measures.
  5. Conserving, protecting and enhancing water resources and the overall aquatic environment on a sustainable basis.

Box 3: Fundamental principles of water resource management policy

  1. Water is a natural endowment commonly owned by all the peoples of Ethiopia.
  2. As far as conditions permit, every Ethiopian shall have access to sufficient water of acceptable quality, to satisfy basic human needs.
  3. In order to significantly contribute to development, water shall be recognised both as an economic and a social good.
  4. Integrated framework of water resources development as a rural-centred, decentralised management and the participatory approach shall underpin.
  5. Management of water resources shall ensure social equity, economic efficiency, system reliability and sustainability norms.
  6. Promotion of the participation of all stakeholders, particularly women and user communities in the relevant aspects of water resources management.

Considering water as a social and economic good, the principle of cost recovery, acceptance of the basin as a unit of planning, decentralised management, equitable and reasonable water allocation, capacity building, and research and development are the most important concepts incorporated in the policy.

After the endorsement of the policy and before the development programme was launched, the sector strategy was prepared. Since it is defined and agreed as a means of translating the policy into action it sets a road map on how to make meaningful contribution towards:

Environment, watershed management, water resources protection and conservation

This is one area that was not given much emphasis in past efforts to develop, utilise and manage water resources and yet it has been found to be very important and the experiences of other countries justify the same.2

2. The author observed the Yellow River Commission of China during a short-term visit in 2000. There are also a number of experiences throughout the globe.

The inclusion of environmental protection in all development efforts is a recent phenomenon that emerged from the Rio De Janeiro World Summit. Immediately after that, Ethiopia established a specialised governmental institution that prepared policies and strategies. The Ministry of Water Resources has also addressed the issue of environment in its policy and strategy. In both documents, environment was included as an integral part of projects and programmes. This means that environment has to be included in the process of preparation and implementation of all projects. The issue is to determine the impact of the intervention on the environment, its cost effectiveness, sustainability, the standards to be met etc. Research is vital in comprehending these issues.

Watershed management is also another area of focus. What has been done so far locally is not encouraging. The practice of water and soil conservation has been in place for more than five hundred years in Konso,3 but this effort was not developed and duplicated elsewhere in the country, especially in areas that have similar problems with Konso. Recently, encouraging efforts have been made in Amhara and Tigray regional states to adopt bund construction for water and soil conservation through food-for-work programmes. With certain modifications it would definitely be acceptable in other parts of the country. There are also certain research-oriented efforts carried out by the Ministry in two projects. The first project financed by the European Union (EU) is called the ‘Assessment and monitoring of erosion and sedimentation problems in Ethiopia’, and its objective is to control erosion. The outcome is encouraging and can be duplicated elsewhere. The second one is an on-going study under the umbrella of the Environmental Support Project. The focus of this project is on environmental assessment and sustainable resource utilisation in North Wello Zone. The purpose of the project is to facilitate decision-making on improved natural resources management.

3. Konso is a special district in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional Government. The traditional way of bund construction and soil conservation of the Konso people has been recorded as one of the national heritages of the country.

The policy has addressed the issue of basins development by giving due emphasis and showing a direction for its inclusion as an integral part of the overall water resources management. In the policy the ‘Basin’ is the planning unit, and projects initiated since have watersheds as an integral part of the focus. The items discussed in this section have been addressed in the policy and the strategy. However, there is much to be refined and checked against the socio-economic framework. Research and investigation is required for further elaboration and verification.

Stakeholders’ issues

Experience shows that programmes with high community participation rates greatly improved their sustainability. The policy and strategy of the sector has provisions for stakeholder participation and even the process of the document preparation itself was consultative and open to partners. Now, the outstanding issues with respect to stakeholder participation might be the extent and mechanism of choosing the appropriate ways of participation.

If we take the case of beneficiaries alone, especially in a country like Ethiopia where there is diversified cultural and social conditions, adaptation of a unilateral mode of stakeholder participation may not be appropriate. The lifestyle and religious thought of the sedentary highlanders cannot be the same as that of the lowland pastoralists. Even the life style of the eastern pastoralists is not the same as that of the southern and western pastoralists. To get appropriate participation it is necessary to have the appropriate social researchers and capacity building.

Transboundary waters

Water is a source of life regardless of its location, culture or ownership. That is why it remains a source of conflict and suspicion for some countries (Wondimneh 1979). Of course, there are cases where countries have been able to manage their shared water and mutually use it (Mokuoane 2000). Since 75% of the rivers that originate in the highlands of Ethiopia cross the border and feed neighbouring countries, co-operation is not only important but a must. That is why the Ethiopian Government in its water resources policy had made its commitment clear towards the principle of equitable and reasonable use of water resources.

International efforts and the policy direction have brought together the partners in the Nile basin under the umbrella of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). It is clear that this is a start of a long journey, which could collapse at any time unless otherwise supported by all the necessary instruments, including empirical research results on the benefits that could be achieved from the co-operation and the mechanisms to strengthen it.

Capacity building and dialogue among all stakeholders have to continue to facilitate research and co-operation. With respect to Ethiopia, which contributes about 86% of the Nile waters and the sources of other trans-boundary rivers, the lack of capacity both at regional and national levels is evident.

Finance and economics

One of the most challenging areas of the policy is finance and economics. As a tradition, water is considered simply as a natural resource and even most of the people may not be aware of its economic value. On the contrary, the investment requirement of water is high while the time requirement to get returns is long.

Even some of the outcomes from providing water are not also easily understood, which complicate water pricing. Unless there is some justification (social or political), any investments made must be paid back, which is also the direction of the water policy. The policy and strategy provisions address the issue of cost recovery and water pricing. Urban water supply and irrigation projects are required to cover investment, operation and maintenance costs. Rural water supply projects are only required to cover the cost of operation and maintenance. Water pricing is done in order not to harm the beneficiaries and yet discourage misuse of the resource. To this end, tariff setting is site specific.

The two primary challenges are: affordability and the willingness to pay. Since about 45% of the people have a daily income of less than US$ 1, it is very difficult to get returns from a huge investment. Even those who have better incomes might not be willing to pay back the cost of water, unless special training is extended.

To overcome the challenges, care has to be taken in the choice of technology and efficiency has to come into the whole process from inception to operation. His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange, in his ‘No Water-No Future’ initial contribution to the panel of the UN Secretary General in preparation for the Johannesburg Summit, has come up with a recommended target and actions towards financing water projects (see Box below).

Recommended target

Have at least 20% of all water infrastructure investments funded by alternative forms of financing by 2015.

Recommended actions

Build capacity in local government to assess alternative forms of financing for infrastructure, including capacity to identify, develop and negotiate sound projects that are feasible and environmentally sustainable as alternative solutions to large-scale investments.

Research and development

As mentioned above, in the past research related to water was not well incorporated into development efforts. Currently the Ministry has a policy direction aimed at integrating the research as part of development efforts. In line with this, the Ministry considers the following points as key areas for research (MoWR/ESTC 2002):

The specific research activities may include but are not limited to:


The issue of water is the issue of life. Societies that are able to use their water resources in an efficient and sustainable manner have succeeded in being food self-sufficient, reducing the incidence of water-borne diseases and minimising adverse effects of the resource. Unfortunately, this has not happened in Ethiopia. If we take population growth and environmental degradation into account, the way ahead will be even more complicated.

To avert the problem, intervention in the sector has to be intensified and implemented in a manner that is efficient in terms of resources and capital. To achieve this efficiency requires, among other things, that research activities be an integral part of development efforts.

The policies and strategies for the water sector clearly support research. However, harmonised activities have yet to be framed and initiated. Now is the time to look into all possible options for research and capacity building in the water sector.


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