The rain has picked up in Ethiopia in recent weeks, but experts say it’s not enough. Three consecutive seasons of below-average rainfall have left Ethiopia’s regions vulnerable to crop failures, livestock losses and food and water insecurity — and experts are calling for the government and humanitarian partners to prepare to scale up assistance.

This recent drought is not an anomaly. Despite being known as the “Water Tower of Africa,” home to the headwaters of the Blue Nile and numerous freshwater lakes, Ethiopia’s water resources prove a significant challenge for the growing country’s prosperity. The country is naturally exposed to highly variable rainfall, a challenge that is compounded by growing water demands, climate change and watershed degradation.

Young woman carrying water home in Ethiopia. Access to safe water is essential to human health. Photo by waterdotorg
Young woman carrying water home in Ethiopia. Access to safe water is essential to human health. Photo by waterdotorg

Access to safe and reliable water is essential to human health and well-being, as well as economic growth. Ensuring sustainable water use for development is a challenge that requires careful consideration and planning across sectors. Whether the goal is to increase access to water and sanitation or bolster rural livelihoods and economic performance through agriculture and industry, failing to consider water — both current and future supplies — can put development gains and infrastructure investments at risk.

The data required to make water-wise development decisions is often inadequate or inaccessible — due to obstacles such as limited data collection, database issues or lack of resources. This is the challenge we had in mind when WRI developed a baseline water risk assessment model for mapping, monitoring and scenario-planning of water risks in Ethiopia, analyzing water use by sector in relation to available water resources.

Results from the model indicate severe water scarcity in many parts of Ethiopia, highlighting the need to develop strategies to balance water resources and growing water demand to ensure sustainable development.

Here are three strategies for water-wise development in Ethiopia:

1. Create Balance Between Water Withdrawals and Available Supply.

Ethiopian water resources are unevenly distributed. Basins in the western part of the country account for approximately 70% of its water resources. Conversely, substantial volume of the water demand, particularly for irrigation, exists in the eastern portion, indicating a heavy imbalance that leads to severe water stress — which poses serious threats to human lives, livelihoods and economic stability.   

Baseline water stress of Ethiopia at sub basin level, 2012

For example, while industrial water withdrawal accounts for less than 2% of Ethiopia’s total water withdrawal, 74% of the industrial water withdrawal is concentrated in subbasins experiencing high and extremely high water stress. Results indicate that the Awash Basin, which is the most water stressed basin in Ethiopia, accounts for approximately 55% of the total industrial water withdrawal.

Water withdrawal across sectors

Nearly 25% (27 million) of Ethiopia’s population lives in areas of high water stress, threatening the country’s Sustainable Development Goal to achieve water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by 2030. Six of the 10 regional capitals are located in either high or extremely high water stress areas. And rapid urbanization rates in Ethiopian cities such as Addis Ababa and surrounding communities further jeopardize urban water resilience.

A high concentration of competing water demands — particularly in areas with relatively low water resources — creates an imbalance that impedes sustainable socioeconomic growth and improved livelihoods. Correcting this imbalance will involve strategies that help store and conserve water and improve water use efficiency and productivity. These responses would reduce stress — or competition — for limited water supplies, while meeting demands from water users.

Water use efficiency improvements, for example, can be made in every sector and subsector of industry, domestic water use and agriculture. Improving low water use efficiency — for example, water lost before use — is particularly important in irrigation, which accounts for 84% of total water demand in Ethiopia.

2. Build Water Resilience Strategies.

Ethiopia has made progress in improving resilience, but vulnerability to extreme weather events is a continuing challenge. Significant parts of Ethiopia experience high seasonal and inter-annual variability, which are expected to intensify because of climate change.

Seasonal variability in Water Resource Between Months in Ethiopia
Inter-annual Variability Water in Ethiopia

Monthly water stress, where total water demand accounts for more than 80% of the available water resources, is also significant in several subbasins.

Given the links between climate change, frequent droughts, impact on livelihoods and the high cost of emergency assistance, proactive water resilience strategies are critical. These are strategies that seek to ensure the long-term availability and performance of water supply systems and enhance people’s capacity to endure, overcome and recover from water-related shocks (such as drought and floods).

The impacts of climate change and socioeconomic insecurity are most pronounced in the water sector. Exploring hard measures — such as improving water storage and transportation infrastructure — as well as soft measures — like water trading, crisis response mechanisms, crop insurance and social safety nets — can strengthen resilience and help combat water-related shocks and stresses.

3. Plan for Transformation Across Sectors.

Since 2000, Ethiopia has consistently improved crop production, with a fourfold increase in cereals that reached approximately 26 million metric tons of cereals in 2017.

However, much of the increase in production in the past decade has been due to increases in area cultivated. With little uncultivated land left in the Ethiopian highlands — and the government eyeing further expansion in irrigation to improve food security and complement its strategy of agriculture-led industrialization — attaining balance between water availability and demand is critical to achieve development and the SDG goals.

Three failed rainy seasons left Ethiopia with the worst drought for 50 years in 2016. For pastoralists, without water there is no pasture for their animals, putting their livelihoods and food security at risk. Photo by EU/ECHO
Three failed rainy seasons left Ethiopia with the worst drought for 50 years in 2016. For pastoralists, without water there is no pasture for their animals, putting their livelihoods and food security at risk. Photo by EU/ECHO

But improving water use efficiency and employing resilience strategies alone may be insufficient to reduce threats to development objectives. Therefore, development planners should identify long-term strategic shifts in economic activities, where necessary.

Fundamental economic and sectoral transformations may ultimately be necessary to respond to water stress and the impacts of climate change. In the agricultural sector, for example, transformative adaptations can include shifting the geographical location of crops to more suitable areas, improving agricultural input to sustainably increase yield. This includes using advanced technology for optimization or shifting from high water consumptive crops such as sugarcane and cotton to less water intensive crops and varieties.

Ethiopia’s sustainable socioeconomic growth will depend on resilient and transformative approaches to effectively balance growing water demands and available water resources. Strategic and water-wise development can help reduce crisis and conflict, improve livelihoods, tackle environmental challenges, and place Ethiopia on the path to further economic gains in the coming decades — even amid climate uncertainty.