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Mr. Etafa Emama Ligdi
Acting Secretary
Ethiopian Committee on Irrigation & Drainage (ETCID)
Ministry of Water and Energy
P.O. Box : 5744/5673
Addis Ababa

Tel : +251 0116 611111 (Ext. 390), +251 0116 515578
Mob : +251 911 121725
Fax : +251-1-610710
Email : etafa_emama@yahoo.com, etcid5744@yahoo.com


Mr. Teshome Atnafie Guyo
Ethiopian Committee on Irrigation & Drainage (ETCID)
Ministry of Water and Energy
P.O. Box 5744/5673
Addis Ababa

Email : teshome987@yahoo.com


Ms. Adey Nigatu Mersha
PhD Fellow
Water Science and Engineering Department
Land and Water Development Group
UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education

Mob : +31684053623
Email : a.mersha@unesco-ihe.org

Joint Editor - IYPeF

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Ethiopia, with a total area of 1.1 million km2, lies in the northeastern part of the Horn of Africa. The country is landlocked, sharing frontiers with Eritrea to the north and northeast, Djibouti to the east, Somalia to the east and southeast, Kenya to the south, and Sudan to the west. Ethiopia’s topographical diversity encompasses high and rugged mountains, flat-topped plateaus, and deep gorges with rivers and rolling plains with altitudes ranging from 110 m below sea level at the Denakil Depression in the northeast to over 4 600 m above sea level in the Simien Mountains in the north. There are diverse soil types in the country. Combisols are predominant over much of the highlands, while vertisols occur in large areas of the southeastern highlands and in the southwestern parts of the country. Regosols occupy much of the Somali plateau and the northeastern part of the country.

Ethiopia has a tropical monsoon climate with wide topographic-induced variation. Three climatic zones can be distinguished: a cool zone consisting of the central parts of the western and eastern section of the high plateaus, a temperate zone between 1 500 m and 2 400 m above sea level, and the hot lowlands below 1 500 m. Mean annual temperature varies from less than 7-12ºC in the cool zone to over 25 ºC in the hot lowlands. Mean annual potential evapotranspiration varies between 1 700-2 600 mm in arid and semi-arid areas and 1 600-2 100 mm in dry sub-humid areas. Average annual rainfall for the country is 848 mm, varying from about 2 000 mm over some pocket areas in southwest Ethiopia to less than 100 mm over the Afar Lowlands in the northeast. Rainfall in Ethiopia is highly erratic, and most rain falls intensively, often as convective storms, with very high rainfall intensity and extreme spatial and temporal variability. The result is that there is a very high risk of annual droughts and intra-seasonal dry spells. Considering the water balance and the length of the growing period, Ethiopia can be divided into three major agroclimatic zones:

  • Areas without a significant growing period, with little or no rainfall (eastern, northeastern, southeastern, southern and northern lowlands);
  • Areas with a single growing period and one rainy season from February/March to October/November, covering the western half of the country, with the duration of the wet period decreasing from south to north;
  • Areas with a double growing period and two rainy seasons (Belg and Meher) which are of two types: bimodal type 1 and bimodal type 2. The region of type 1 in the east of the country has a small rainfall peak in April and a major one in August. The region of type 2, covering most of the lowlands of the south and southeast, has two distinct wet periods, February-April and June-September, interrupted by two clear-cut dry periods. The peak rainfall months are April and September.

The country’s total population is 72.4 million (2004), of which about 84 percent is rural (Table 1). The annual population growth rate is about 2.3 percent. Population density is 66 inhabitants per km2, but varies from 7 inhabitants per km2 in Afar in the northeast to 114 inhabitants per km2 in Southern Region in the southwest of the country. The urban population is growing rapidly as a result of both natural increase and high rural-urban migration. This is putting more and more strain on urban services and employment. The unemployment rate is 2.9 percent and under-employment is common, particularly in rural areas. In 2000, 44 percent of the population lived below the national poverty line. Only about 22 percent of the population had access to improved drinking water sources in 2002, going from 81 percent in the urban areas down to only 11 percent in the rural areas (Table 1). Sanitation coverage is only 6 percent, going from 19 percent of the urban population to 4 percent of the rural population. The infant mortality rate was 114 per 1 000 life births in 2002 and the under-5 mortality rate was 171 per 1 000 children.

Economy, agriculture and food security

The country’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP (current US$) was US$6.6 billion in 2003 with an annual growth rate of 2.7 percent. In the same year, agriculture accounted for almost 42 percent of GDP and about 85 percent of exports. Coffee is the largest export commodity for Ethiopia, drawing in 60-70 percent of foreign exchange earnings. The value of imports is usually considerably higher than the value of exports. In 2001, food imports and exports were about 26 283 MT (US$193.7) and 1 584 MT (US$138.7 million) respectively.

About 81 percent of the economically active population works in agriculture. The cultivated area covered about 10.7 million ha in 2002, of which 10 million ha arable land and 0.7 million ha permanent crops. In 1999, 83 percent of rural households cultivated less than 2 ha per household and 52 percent less than 1 ha. The following five main agricultural production systems can be distinguished in the country:

  • The highland mixed farming system is characterized by a very low level of specialization of production based on environmental and land suitability and is practised by about 80 percent of the country’s population on about 45 percent of the total land mass in areas at more than 1 500 m above sea level. Livestock production is an integral part of the system, but is increasingly being restricted to stall feeding of animals due to scarcity of land. Animal traction (oxen) is used for land preparation to produce mainly cereals, pulses and oil crops. The highland mixed farming system includes the grain plough complex and the horticulture hoe complex. The grain plough complex is practised in the barley and wheat producing areas of the eastern mountains and the predominantly teff growing regions of the central and northern highlands. Declining landholding sizes because of population growth and deteriorating soil fertility are among the biggest challenges facing this production system. The horticulture hoe complex is based on the use of hoes and animal drawn ploughs for the production of crops that include domesticated enset, coffee, khat and other horticultural crops and maize. Most regions of the south and southwest with prolonged humid periods practice this system.
  • The lowland mixed agricultural production system is practised in low-lying plains, valleys and mountain foothills, which include the northern parts of the Awash and the rift valley with elevations of less than 1 500 m. These areas mainly produce drought-tolerant varieties of maize, sorghum, wheat and teff, along with some oil crops and lowland pulses. Oxen are used for providing traction power and communal grazing lands and crop residues are used for livestock rearing. Off-farm activities such as sale of firewood and charcoal are widely practised.
  • The pastoral complex supports the livelihood of only 10 percent of the total population living in the Afar and Somali regions and the Borena zone. Livestock is the major livelihood basis of these populations that are highly mobile in search of water and grazing. Camels are the most important animals serving as both food and means of transport. Some lowland varieties of maize, sorghum and other cereals are also cultivated on flood plains or as rainfed crops.
  • Shifting cultivation is practised in the southern and western part of the country. Fields are usually left idle after short periods of cultivation to revegetate (usually 1-2 years). Clearing of the vegetation cover is done by setting fire to it during the dry seasons before the planting of sorghum, millet, sesame, cotton and ginger. These areas have low population densities and in some of them, livestock production is constrained by tsetse fly infestation.
  • Commercial agriculture is a farming system that has only emerged very recently. However, access to land and infrastructure-related problems as well as investment insecurity are major hindrances to the growth of this system of production.

Food insecurity, as a result of persistent drought among other reasons, has been the order of the day for a very long period in Ethiopia. Even during good years, the survival of some 4-6 million people depends on international food assistance. HIV/AIDS poses the foremost threat to poverty reduction and is a major source of vulnerability. In 2001, 6.6 percent of adults were estimated to be infected, with 3.7 percent in rural areas, 13.7 percent in urban areas and 15.6 percent in the capital Addis Ababa. The highest prevalence of HIV is seen in the group of 15-49 year-olds. This age group is the most economically productive segment of the population, thus indicating the negative impact of the epidemic on labour productivity.

Water resources

Ethiopia is endowed with a substantial amount of water resources. The surface water resource potential is impressive, but little developed. The country possesses twelve major river basins, which form four major drainage systems:

  • The Nile basin (including Abbay or Blue Nile, Baro-Akobo, Setit-Tekeze/Atbara and Mereb) covers 33 percent of the country and drains the northern and central parts westwards;
  • The Rift Valley (including Awash, Denakil, Omo-Gibe and Central Lakes) covers 28 percent of the country;
  • The Shebelli-Juba basin (including Wabi-Shebelle and Genale-Dawa) covers 33 percent of the country and drains the southeastern mountains towards Somalia and the Indian Ocean;
  • The North-East Coast (including the Ogaden and Gulf of Aden basins) covers 6 percent of the country.

Integrated development master plan studies and related river basin surveys undertaken at the end of the 1990s indicate that the aggregate annual runoff from nine Ethiopian river basins is about 122 km3 (Table 2). The Abbay, Baro-Akobo and Omo-Gibe basins account for about 76 percent of the total runoff from an area that is only 32 percent of the total area of the country (Table 3). Most of the rivers in Ethiopia are seasonal and about 70 percent of the total runoff is obtained during the period June-August. Dry season flow originates from springs which provide baseflows for small-scale irrigation. The groundwater potential of the country is not known with any certainty, but so far only a small fraction of the groundwater has been developed and this mainly for local water supply purposes. Traditional wells are widely used by nomads. Neither desalinization nor treatment of wastewater is practised in Ethiopia.

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