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Ethiopia’s famines to decline with enhanced water management

The Blue Nile Falls are a waterfall on the Blue Nile river in Ethiopia. Known as “water and smoke,” they are situated about 30 kilometers downstream
The Blue Nile Falls are a waterfall on the Blue Nile river in Ethiopia. Known as “water and smoke,” they are situated about 30 kilometers downstream from Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.



As the ravages of famine plague the eastern and southern regions of Ethiopia, the country’s vulnerability to wildly fluctuating rainfall levels cries out for the implementation of long-term water management solutions in this nation on the eastern tip of Africa – called the horn of Africa.

Famines in 1973 and 1984 claimed the lives of about 1.3 million in Africa’s second most populous nation of 77 million. The current blight is not expected to result in large-scale loss of life, due to the efforts of the Ethiopian government and international donors.

However, it represents a massive setback for Ethiopia’s poor, with 6.4 million people newly dependent on food assistance in addition to the 7.3 million Ethiopians that normally rely on food relief programs.

The current drought, which is also affecting the state of Tigray, is caused by the failure of the “short season rains” between March and May 2008.
It is cyclical for Ethiopia, states a 2006 study by the World Bank: “Droughts and floods are endemic, with significant events every 3 to 5 years. Droughts destroy watersheds, farmlands and pastures, contributing to land degradation and causing crops to fail and livestock to perish.”

According to the World Bank paper, titled Ethiopia: Managing Water Resources to Maximize Sustainable Growth, rain-dependent agriculture employs 85 per cent of the population and accounts for 40-45 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and most of its exports. Ethiopia also generates 90 per cent of its electricity from hydropower, which results in power shortages when reservoirs run low during severe droughts.

Ethiopia is the only African nation to not have been colonized. It is among the world’s poorest nations with about 40 per cent of the population living in poverty, according to the World Bank’s 2008 country assistance strategy for Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a young federation. It is still feeling its way around the contours of federalism after voters accepted its federal constitution in 1995. Prior to that it had been ruled by a brutal socialist military dictatorship, which had toppled Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It faces numerous development challenges and water management is near the top of the list.

In addition, recent strong economic growth–which increased demand for food–combined with high international food and fuel prices, have the country reeling. In September 2008, food prices in Ethiopia had risen by a staggering 81 per cent over the previous 12 months.

But it is not all bad news for Ethiopia. Over the last five years, annual economic growth was as high as 13 per cent and did not fall below eight per cent. However, the Bank study highlights the country’s precarious water supply and suggests its “variability costs the economy more than one-third of its growth potential.” In other words, reducing this volatility must be an economic priority.

Sudanese villagers travel by boat on the river Nile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The Blue Nile, whose source is in Ethiopia, joins with the White Nile near Khartoum. The World Bank and international donors are to lend and contribute US$3 billion to assist 10 countries bordering the Nile develop water projects along the world’s longest river.

REUTERS/Antony Njuguna
Sudanese villagers travel by boat on the river Nile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The Blue Nile, whose source is in Ethiopia, joins with the White Nile near Khartoum. The World Bank and international donors are to lend and contribute US$3 billion to assist 10 countries bordering the Nile develop water projects along the world’s longest river.

Capturing the water

Ethiopia has water. Its renewable surface water resources from 12 river basins and lakes provide an estimated 122 billion cubic metres of fresh water. The problem is that the resource is highly variable both in time and space, and the country lacks the financial resources to build the necessary dams and reservoirs to draw upon during times of shortage.

The Bank’s prescription for Ethiopia to achieve water security is multi-pronged: to spend on infrastructure, on key elements such as dams and irrigation; to develop human capacity to manage its water resources; and to set up effective institutions to make it all work. Other elements include having a smaller number of people dependent upon agriculture.

The Bank’s assistance has risen over recent years to the current level of about $800 million annually in loans and grants, a large portion of which is intended to address water-related issues such as irrigation, drainage, and curbing land degradation. Government and other donors are also financing water-related infrastructure, but the available resources are dwarfed by the scale of the needs.

In recent years Ethiopia has put a legal framework in place to manage its water resources, but it is unclear if there is sufficient space for the regional state governments to be fully involved in the co-management. Ethiopia has nine regional states.

Ethiopia’s Constitution states that the country’s water resources are publicly owned. Like many federations, the federal government has the overall mandate to determine the administration and management of the utilization of waters that are inter-regional and trans-boundary in nature while regional states have jurisdiction over the water resources within their respective borders, in accordance with federal laws.

The government has adopted the river basin as a planning unit to develop and manage the country’s water resources, a step which is in line with the Ethiopian Water Resources Management Policy.

Most of the major powers and responsibilities of the Federal Ministry of Water Resources are to be gradually allocated to River Basin Organizations (RBOs) as they are established.

A young Ethiopian fishes on the banks of the Blue Nile. In most federations, the main challenge in water management is for the various orders of government to agree on sharing responsibilities. But for the Nile, Ethiopia must deal with eight other countries, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda in an organization called the Nile Basin Initiative

States take a role

Ethiopia’s federal system recognizes the importance of decentralized management by regional states in the political, economic and social affairs of the country. Moreover, the federal government cannot effectively discharge some of its responsibilities unless it adopts a decentralized and participatory approach to their management.

This calls for the regional states to have an adequate role and participate in decision-making regarding the management of water resources within their respective regions.

Ethiopian water expert Imeru Tamrat explains that the regional states do in fact participate in decision-making on water resources management. They prepare and implement their own water resources investment plans and projects.

In fact, they also issue permits to water users even though it is the federal government, and now the Basin authorities, that are legally mandated to issue permits.

But Tamrat says “one of the problems with the intergovernmental machinery in water resource management is the weak link between the federal government and regional states with regard to water resource management.”

“For instance, the water sector in the regional states is only obliged to report its activities to the regional government and not to the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) at the Federal level,” says Tamrat

The MoWR therefore does not have much leverage on the regional states though it does have financial leverage as most funds for investment in the water sector - particularly medium and large scale irrigation schemes and hydro power - comes from the federal coffers.

There is also a very weak interaction horizontally among the regional states themselves in water resource management, says Tamrat.

Regional states sharing river basins in Ethiopia do not have any mechanism such as the Canadian inter-governmental basin agreements to consult and co-ordinate their activities with respect to water resources management.

Tamrat believes that those RBOs yet to be established are designed to effectively create such co-ordination and that the respective river basins in Ethiopia are managed in an integrated manner in the future.

It will therefore be necessary to clearly define the degree to which decentralization of federal powers over water management is to be devolved to the states and to water resources management bodies such as the river basin authorities to ensure effective management of the country’s water resources.

The powers the federal government will delegate to the states are expected to be defined in laws developed by the executive arm of the federal government responsible for water resources.

So, as the government is planning and setting up its water-management institutions, it has a long-term structural deficiency to deal with.
The availability of water is not well aligned with where people live.
For instance, about 32 million people live near 90 per cent of the country’s water resources contained in four river basins including the Blue Nile. At the same time, almost 50 million people depend on only about 10 per cent of the country’s water resources.

Rainfall in Ethiopia is highly variable in terms of where it falls and when. The highest mean annual rainfall, more than 2,700 mm, falls in the southwestern highlands of the country and gradually decreases in the north to less than 200 mm, northeast to less than 100 mm and southeast to less than 200 mm.

Moreover, most of the major river basins of Ethiopia cut across more than one regional state or are trans-boundary in nature. Ethiopia is upstream of all its trans-boundary rivers with more than 75% of the water resources flowing into neighbouring countries. This in itself is a major constraint on water resource development since Ethiopia is bound by treaties to negotiate with the downstream countries regarding the sharing and management of the waters of such trans-boundary rivers. (See Forcefully flows the Nile.)

Drinking water scarce

Only a minority of Ethiopians – 42 per cent – have access to potable water services and some 11 per cent have access to improved sanitation. Urban areas have the highest coverage, where about 83 per cent of the population has access to improved water supply and 55 per cent to improved sanitation facilities. The estimated irrigation potential in Ethiopia is 3.7 million hectares. However, less than 5 per cent (approximately 200,000 hectares) are currently under irrigation.

The Blue Nile Basin was selected as a priority for the establishment of a River Basin Authority. It has the greatest runoff (52 billion cubic metres) and is shared by three regional states. There are also several water resources development projects currently under construction and planned within the basin.

These factors lead to competition and pressures over water resources in the basin both in quantitative and qualitative terms. They show the need for integrated planning for water resource development with the states sharing the basin actively involved in all aspects of decision-making. In short, river basin management in Ethiopia will require more attention to intergovernmental relations than hitherto.

Moreover, the Blue Nile River is the major contributor to the entire Nile Basin flowing westward toward Sudan and Egypt downstream. In 1999, the Nile Basin countries established a co-operative framework under the
auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative.

But despite Ethiopia’s improving economic performance of late, it has nowhere near the wealth to provide quick fix solutions to attain long-term water security. For it to achieve South Africa’s level of water security, for instance, the World Bank estimated Ethiopia would need to spend four times its GDP of $35 billion plus a lot more on institutions and capacity building.
“This … only serves to demonstrate that strategies focused purely on water management and infrastructure responses are not affordable,” Tamrat concludes. Forum of Federations logo

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This article is drawn in part on a paper by Mr. Imeru Tamrat, an Ethiopian lawyer and legal expert in the field of water management in Ethiopia. The paper was presented at the International Conference on Water Management in Federal Countries held in Zaragoza, Spain, on July 7-9, 2008. Rod Macdonell is senior editor of Federations magazine. In 1999 and 2000 he trained Ethiopian journalists in Investigative Journalism.