Poor water management threatens Ethiopia's decade of growth – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Good water management can drive growth and poverty reduction, and help deal with climate shocks. Poor water management can do the opposite

It is time to focus on Ethiopia. Drought, floods and food shortages threaten to undermine a decade of economic growth and development progress. At the same time, a slower-burning, man-made crisis is emerging in some areas, as increasing water scarcity and pollution lead to arguments about ‘who gets what water’. Good water management can drive growth and poverty reduction, and help deal with climate shocks. Poor water management can do the opposite.

El Niño is an extreme example of a common problem

It has been a difficult year in Ethiopia. The 2015-2016 drought created a humanitarian crisis. More than 10 million people (around 10% of the population) required food aid after two consecutive failed harvests. The devastation was followed by rainy season flash floods, killing 100 people and displacing 300,000 more. There are fears the coming La Niña could make things worse.
Most Ethiopians are subsistence pastoralists and farmers, relying on small livestock herds and fragmented land plots. Drought degrades grazing areas and weakens livestock. Floods spread disease which decimate vulnerable herds, and destroy roads for humanitarian assistance. When harvests fail, households deplete scarce reserves and adopt emergency coping strategies such as selling assets and migrating to seek food aid.
Unfortunately, floods and drought are not unusual in Ethiopia. Rainfall is highly variable, falling heavily in short stretches of time, across different regions. Rivers and aquifers are unevenly distributed. As such, in many areas, water scarcity is the new norm. This severely affects livelihoods and economic development.

Poor water management is a constraint to growth

The World Bank and others have analysed how variable rainfall negatively affects Ethiopia’s growth, advocating for increased storage to ‘smooth’ the effects. However, this research too often neglects issues on the ground, of water allocation and use.
Hydrological variability in terms of rainfall and river runoff can be managed through physical infrastructure (such as dams) but also needs institutions (regulation and management) and information to allocate water when and where it is needed. Without these crucial interventions, valuable water is captured by the most powerful.

An Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report released last year identified major gaps in the institutional framework of Ethiopia’s water sector. Our most recent research analysed the impacts of poor water management on key economic sectors.

Everyone is affected

Even before the most recent drought, small scale, subsistence farmers were worried about accessing water.

“The irrigation water does not reach my plot. I need rain to grow maize, but it is unreliable. I have asked the government for irrigation for the last five years but there is no solution yet” 



Farmer working on the Fentale Land Consolidation Site, Awash Basin, Ethiopia

Large farms, vital for the economy, are also at risk. Agriculture is a thirsty sector, and Ethiopian agriculture is feeling the pinch. Despite dam releases, irrigation engineers at sugar and horticultural estates across the Awash River Basin complained that water scarcity affects production. Downstream farms felt most impacts. Parts of the sugar estate had been abandoned, and yields were down. Interviewees felt rules for allocation could mitigate the worst impacts.
Other economic sectors are affected. Energy is essential to feed Ethiopia’s growing industry and manufacturing. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam currently under construction is meant to provide transformative energy to the region. However, hydropower engineers at Koka Dam, just downstream of the booming capital Addis Ababa, warned that water shortages affected power production.

The poor are paying the costs for water insecurity

Urban utilities must divert and treat water from the same sources as agriculture. We found urban utilities faced increasing costs, due to water shortages and pollution. This puts supplies at risk, widening the gap between revenues and the costs of operation and maintenance.

Public water utilities use progressive tariffs, which should mean the rich pay more. However, rapid urbanisation means most poorer people do not have household connections, relying on public standpoints and water vendors which are significantly more expensive. In Matahara, unserved populations pay from 1.5 to 8 times more for water.

In rural areas, many people continue to rely on water sources which are distant from home and unhygienic. This has a disproportionately negative impact on women and children.

A thirsty future?

Competition over water creates tensions and resentment between economic sectors, upstream and downstream users, households and business. Without radical reform to the way in which water is managed and allocated, competition will increase, exacerbating water scarcity and pushing costs up, especially for the poor. Ethiopia faces a long road to recovery from recent crises. Reforms to the way in which water is allocated and managed will help the country get back on track.

Helen Parker is a strategic analyst at WaterAid. She previously worked as a research officer at ODI and is lead author of the report “A thirsty future: Water strategies for Ethiopia’s new development era“.

Beatrice Mosello, senior research officer at ODI, contributed to writing of this piece and is a contributing author of the report.

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