Water Shortages Limit Ethiopian Development, but Investment and Leadership could Mitigate Losses

16 October 2019 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


To combat the problem of increasingly scarce water supplies, Addis Ababa is undertaking a number of development projects aimed at supplying the city with more groundwater. The most recent of these projects, the Legedadi Phase II Project, aims to supply the city with an additional 86,000 cubic metres of clean water a day. The project will include 15 new reservoirs to store groundwater and 176 kilometres of pipeline. Plans are also in place to install more groundwater infrastructure, which will supply the city with another 130,000 cubic metres of water. The current water supply system in Addis Ababa is not sufficient to meet the needs of the city’s inhabitants. It provides less than two-thirds of the potable water the residents need, a situation that is predicted to worsen as the population of Addis Ababa is growing quickly.



The last two decades have seen rapid economic development in Ethiopia, which has allowed the country to achieve poverty reduction rates that are well ahead of the regional average. Water has been essential to this growth and economic prosperity has been strongly tied to water availability; the years of strong growth have occurred during periods of reliable rainfall. In contrast, periods of poor rainfall have been associated with both lower levels of economic growth and higher levels of food insecurity. Water is essential for growth across most economic sectors. Agriculture, which has driven much of Ethiopia’s poverty reduction, is the country’s main water-extracting sector and accounts for around 85 per cent of water withdrawals.

Much of Ethiopia’s energy production also relies on water. Around 90 per cent of the country’s energy is produced by 14 hydropower plants already, with plans in place to further expand hydropower production. While this is impressive, it leaves the energy sector vulnerable to water shortages. A number of surveys have cited water and energy shortages as major constraints to the growth of domestic industry. Manufacturing and other sectors of industry are major drivers of growth and creating and sustaining these sectors requires large supplies of electricity.

Although water is vital to Ethiopian food security and economic growth, the country is prone to water shortages, in part because of its reliance on rainfall. The Awash Basin – where Addis Ababa is located – is highly vulnerable to drought. This vulnerability is expected to worsen over the coming decades as estimates indicate that climate change will decrease precipitation and increase temperatures in the region. Rapid urbanisation is also expected to continue and the expectation is that the population of Addis Ababa will double by 2040, putting further stress on water resources in the city.

Increasing groundwater extraction in Addis Ababa may provide a small amount of relief to a water-stressed city, but it must be managed sustainably and is by no means a solution to Ethiopia’s water problems. In the past, very little investment was provided to mitigate the effects of water insecurity, but that situation is slowly changing. By investing funds in more water capture and storage projects and other infrastructure, Ethiopia will be better able to manage its vital water resources.

Strong leadership is also required, to identify priorities in the water sector, codify water management rules and to enforce those rules to protect a resource that is vital to the entire economy.

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