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Ethiopia’s future tied to water – a vital yet threatened resource

In July ethiopians planted 350  million trees in a single day.this was part of the country’s national green legacy initiative to counter envi- ronmental degradation and climate change. the initiative ultimately aims to grow 4 billion trees across the country.

Ethiopia has long struggled with land degradation problems in part caused by unsustainable agricultural practices – like vegetation clear- ance and overgrazing, among oth- ers.these pressures are increasing as the population grows.

Where water becomes scarcer due to climate change, land deg- radation could worsen. but what does the science tell us about the effects of climate change on water resources, and so on people and the economy, in ethiopia?

Since 2015, the reAcH pro- gramme – a global research pro- gramme  to  improve water  secu- rity for the poor and in which we are  involved –  has  attempted to answer this question. We  focused on ethiopia’s Awash river basin, one of the country’s most eco- nomically and socially important basins.

the   basin   represents  about 10%  of  the  country’s  land  area, and 17% of its total population. It is home to the capital city, Addis Ababa,  and  also  plays a  critical role for ethiopia’s economy.

In  ethiopia, most  studies on the  effects of  climate  change  on water resources focus on the Nile basin. Future projections also often lack consistency because of the differences in the models that are  used. our research  aimed to develop better estimates of the effects of climate change on water availability in the Awash basin.We did this by using climate models that best represented the region’s characteristics.

We  found that, in the future, the  basin   will  be  hotter,  drier and more water stressed. this could  have  severe  consequences on human and economic devel- opment, highlighting the need for climate resilient policies to mini- mise impacts.

Water is crucial for people and the economy

In ethiopia, rainfall and water avail- ability are highly variable. the  lack of water often impacts communities,

industry and  agriculture. Almost all food crops, and most industrial crops in ethiopia, are produced by rain-fed agriculture. Industrial crops alone contribute to 85% of export earnings.

In   addition,   water   is   vital to electricity generation. Hydropower accounts  for  about 90% of ethiopia’s electricity.

this high reliance on water means that  ethiopia is very vul- nerable to water-related climate shocks – like water scarcity, drought and floods. A modest 5% decrease  in  rainfall  could  cause a 10% decrease in agricultural productivity and reduce the GDP derived from the basin by 5%.

the basin is already vulner- able. It often experiences floods and   droughts.   besides,   access to water is very geographically uneven, with rainfall and surface water being scarce downstream and relatively abundant in the highlands. to what extent  would adding climate change to the mix worsen the situation?

hotter and drier future

Using models that best characterise the basin, we projected future chang- es in temperature and precipitation. We then compared those to the his- torical average. our climate projec- tions suggest water stress will gener- ally intensify in the future – although there are  some spatial differences. Water availability will continue to decrease progressively until at least the end of the century.

these findings are particular- ly critical for the key irrigation period of  April  to  June.  During these months we find decreasing

precipitation and increasing tem- perature will lead to lower water availability.

these months are the peak irrigation  period for  both  small- scale farmers and large-scale irri- gators.  Additionally,  water

allocation   between  hydro- power  and  irrigators  could

be a source of conflict in the face of decreased water availability.

Finally,  this  will make  water access more challenging for human needs such as drinking, sanitation  and  hygiene. this  will be particularly true for poor and vulnerable communities, and those downstream.

Climate resilient policies Developing  climate resilient policies for allocating water, and planning for a  reduced water availability, is ever more pressing. but  incorpo- rating  climate information within management decisions is a complex task.this requires access to scientific information and a good understand- ing of the current and future hydro- climatic situation.

to  support better water man- agement  and  allocation  policies, our research points to the need to: Improve  the  accessibility  of climate  information  and  develop the capacity of staff in government and related institutions to be able to understand and use it for water


Sustainably develop additional water sources, such as groundwa- ter, which could act as a buffer and supplement surface water supply; consider   the   needs   of   the poorest in the basin who are the most vulnerable to climate change. of   course,   decisions   about

how much water to  allocate  and to  whom  in  a  drier  future  will be politically challenging. they require effective management strategies, political will and invest- ments and better stakeholder dia- logue forums. Scientists  will also need to  work  more  closely  with policy makers.

Ethiopia’s green legacy is a promising contribution towards tackling global climate change: trees can  play an  important  role

in  removing atmospheric  carbon dioxide. but can trees contribute to local climate adaptation and mitigate land degradation?

this  is  a  complex  question and our view is that, for a country that will likely be hotter, drier, and more water stressed, climate resil- ient policies need to be grounded in robust science.

Alice Chautard, REaCh Communications and knowledge Exchange Manager, University of Oxford, contributed to the writing of this article.