Matthew Kucharski
Contributing Writer

The scarcity of water in Ethiopia is a dire situation in need of relief. As reported by various news outlets, nearly 75 percent of Ethiopia’s 83 million people do not have access to clean drinking water making water contamination the leading cause of illness in the country. The lack of clean water resources in Ethiopia cause widespread issues including poor hygiene, cholera outbreak, dehydration, and high child mortality. Environmental economists Solomon Tarfasa and Roy Brouwer report, “water supply services in Ethiopia are among the lowest in Africa, with an average consumption of only 15 liters per capita per day in urban areas, which is far below the World Health Organization standard of 45 liters per person per day.” The limited water resources of Ethiopia gives its citizens no choice but to utilize any water it can access, regardless of its sanitary condition.

The consequences of scarce clean water in Ethiopia extend beyond the illnesses and deaths that result. This issue also hinders the development of the country as many women and children are deprived of educational opportunities because they are preoccupied with gathering water from distant locations. As water consumption is essential to human survival, these people must use their time and energy to travel to the water resources. Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times describes the hindrance the distant water supplies have on the women of Ethiopia, “…in southwestern Ethiopia, I met women who spend eight hours a day or more each day traveling back and forth to the river with 50-pound yellow plastic jerry cans on their backs. The need to help mom while she fetches water is a primary reason that many girls don’t go to school.”

The current conditions of limited clean water resources in Ethiopia stem from a combination of geographical, political and economic factors. According to Alemayehu Mengistu of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the majority of Ethiopia receives unpredictable rainfall patterns. Erratic and unreliable rainfall contributes to recurrent droughts, including the severe droughts of 1974, 1983, 1985 and 2002. Mengistu also argues that Ethiopia’s agricultural based economy has also been greatly affected by variable rain patterns, saying, “growth in the economy as a whole was clearly dependent upon the performance of the agricultural sector, which accounts for 40 percent or more of the GDP. The drought of 1983 followed by the more severe drought of 1985 caused a massive decline in agricultural output and a dip in the economy as a whole.”

In addition to geographical factors that may be out of the control of Ethiopians, the Eritrean-Ethiopian War from May 1998 to June 2000 has also contributed to Ethiopia’s limited clean water supply. As both Eritrea and Ethiopia have low Human Development Index (HDI) rankings, its massive spending on this war further delayed the ability of the government to aid its own people. Ethiopia’s war with their neighboring country did not help in the development of the Ethiopian economy as the country’s limited funds were utilized to combat Eritrea. Ethiopia’s massive spending on this war was revealed by the “BBC” in May 2000, which reported, “in December 1998 alone Ethiopia spent at least $150 million on eight Sukhoi 27 fighters… both sides are estimated to have been spending about $1 million a day since the conflict broke out in May 1998.” Ethiopia’s massive spending on this war has taken away from the government’s resources that could have been used to improve the economy and the water supply.

Although Ethiopian citizens are not responsible for the country’s variable rainfall and the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, these issues have exacerbated the water crisis in Ethiopia. Ethiopia does not receive much water from natural rainfall, and it must take action to efficiently manage its water resources. Ethiopia should also refrain from engaging in wars and instead use these funds to contribute towards the development of the country. Ethiopia cannot control is geographical positioning but with limited rainfall and political conflict, the country is not benefitting itself in the pursuit of a reliable clean water supply for its citizens.

In 2002, the Ethiopian government introduced the Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP) with the main objectives of poverty reduction, economic growth, and water/sanitation improvement. The SDPRP plan to improve water supply was very broad, with focuses including the construction of two basins for water, hydropower generation, and small, medium and large scale irrigation schemes. In the 2004 SDPRP Annual Progress Report by the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, the challenges of improving water have been realized, “sustaining the functioning of several water supply schemes remain to be a real challenge.”[1] The main reasons noted for these challenges included the shortage of manpower, the non-availability of materials and equipment as well as outdated systems.

The SDPRP also had a goal to improve access to clean water in rural areas from 24 percent in 2000 to 39.4 percent in 2005. However, as reported by The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2008, the percentage of Ethiopia’s rural population that had access to clean water was still only 26 percent. The SDPRP clearly did not succeed in achieving its water goals by 2005.

Following the completion of the SDPRP, in 2005 the Ethiopian Government established the Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP). The objective of the PASDEP was to eradicate poverty and promote development. The PASDEP also contained a new plan to expand the access of clean water for its citizens through the construction of deep wells, shallow wells, hand-dug wells, ponds, surface water sources and spring development[2]. The PASDEP had very ambitious goals including a target of 80 percent of the rural population having access to clean water by 2010 [2]. Unfortunately, the water goals described by this program were not successful. Nena Terrell of The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) described the situation of limited clean water for Ethiopians as of February 7, 2013. “A vast majority of Ethiopia’s population lacks adequate access to safe water…At most, 25 percent of people have access to safe water,” she said.

Although the Ethiopian government did not address reasons that the PASDEP was unable to meet its goals for water access, it may have come up short due to the lack of focus on a single procedure that would produce real results. With limited resources, Ethiopia is inefficient when it spreads its resources to multiple projects. Both the SDPRP and the PASDEP described the Ethiopian government’s ambitions for development, but these plans have shown very little success in improving clean water resources.

In order to improve the access to clean water resources in Ethiopia, the government must widely implement the technique of rainwater harvesting. The definition of rainwater harvesting and the systems used in this process is described by Fengrui Li his scholarly article “Rainwater Harvesting Agriculture” as a “collection and storage of the rainy season precipitation that would have seeped into soil or run off into stream channels…In some countries, development of rainwater harvesting systems is being promoted by the authorities as an alternative to the high-cost large dams and water development projects.”

With rainwater harvesting, rainfall can be collected in tanks and cisterns for future use. Rainwater will be redirected from rooftops and elevated places into these tanks. The technique of rainwater harvesting has had success in other dry regions of the world including India. Deep Narayan Pandey describes the success of this technique in the Barmer district of the Thar Desert, India in his scholarly article “A Bountiful Harvest of Rainwater,”

Revival of local practices of rainwater harvesting could provide a substantial amount of water. For example, a hectare of land in Barmer, one of India’s driest places, with 100 millimeters of rainfall annually, could yield one million liters of water per year from harvesting rainwater. Even with simple technology…at least half a million liters a year can be harvested from rain falling over one hectare of land, as is being done in the Thar Desert.

As the practice of rainwater harvesting has proven to bring success in the dry Thar Desert, this practice should be explored and implemented in Ethiopia.

Even in areas with erratic rainfall, rainwater harvesting can provide a sustainable water resource as each drop is utilized to its maximum advantage. This technique also provides impressive storage capacities to overcome long dry periods. Ari Shapiro of BBC affiliate, “PRI’s The World,” explains in his article, “In Mexico City, Harvesting from the Sky,” that stored water from rainwater harvesting has been able to supply households in Mexico City for up to six months following a rainy season.

The policy intervention of implementing widespread rainwater harvesting techniques would address the geographical and political issues by developing an approach that sustains water regardless of these deterrents. In regards to the geographical issues concerning variable and unpredictable rain patterns in Ethiopia, rainwater harvesting will help overcome these concerns as this technique will utilize rainwater to its fullest advantage. The director of the World Agroforestry Centre, Dennis Garrity, discussed the potential effectiveness of rainwater harvesting in Africa with Richard Black of “The BBC,”

Kenya, with a population of about 40 million people, could collect enough rain to supply six or seven times that figure; Ethiopia, often regarded as a dry country, could collect enough for half a billion people… much of Africa’s rain comes in bursts, and is rapidly swept away or is never collected. The time has come to realize the great potential for greatly enhancing drinking water supplies…by harvesting more of the rain when and where it falls.

Although the rainfall of Ethiopia is unpredictable, the utilization of rainwater harvesting will be able to preserve and take advantage of each drop of rain.

The implementation of rainwater harvesting techniques will lessen the citizen’s reliance on the government to provide clean water. Once the systems are in place, Ethiopian citizens will have access to clean water on their own, irrespective of whether the government decides to utilize essential funds on wars. The citizens will be able to maintain the harvesting system on their own without government intervention.

A potential challenge regarding rainwater harvesting is about the cleanliness of gathered water. The majority of the water that is gathered in tanks through the harvesting system first contacts a surface exposed to the elements, creating a concern regarding the cleanliness of this water as these surfaces could have been contaminated. During dry seasons, it is a strong possibility that dust and dirt will accumulate on exposed surfaces. This concern will be overcome as the Ethiopian citizens become trained with the proper harvesting technique. When the systems are installed the citizens should be instructed that once the rainfall begins, they should not place the gutters connecting from the surfaces right away. Instead, they should wait until some rain has the chance to clean off the surface before directing the water to the tanks. Most rainwater has natural purification and is fit for consumption, as is described by the international non-profit organization WaterAid, “falling rain can provide some of the cleanest naturally occurring water that is available anywhere.” If the Ethiopian citizens are taught the proper procedures on when to guide the water from rooftops into the cisterns, they could provide themselves with a clean water source that is safe for consumption.

Another potential challenge that looms is the ability for Ethiopians to possess the proper knowledge on how to run these rainwater harvesting systems. From the outsiders’ perspective, it could be concerning that if these systems are complicated, many people will not be able to learn how to run them over a long period of time. However, this challenge can be easily overcome as after this system is put in place, it is not difficult to maintain. The cisterns are stationary and the gutters that connect the elevated surfaces to the cisterns should be put in place after some rainfall has cleaned the surfaces. The cisterns should be properly sealed following the rainfall in order to maintain its cleanliness. These steps are not complicated and the citizens will be able to teach these basic steps to next generations so they will be able to maintain the system.

Being that the majority of Ethiopian citizens do not have access to a reliable and clean water resource, it is essential that action is taken to improve the water conditions of the country. The objectives that are displayed in the Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP) and Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) have proven to be insufficient and a new plan must be implemented in order to increase the access to clean water in Ethiopia. Governmental programs have thus far failed to produced notable improvements in water resources, and the implementation of rainwater harvesting could prove to have positive lasting effects.

Implementing widespread rainwater harvesting techniques would allow Ethiopian citizens to be self-reliant for clean water access after the systems are installed. So far rainwater harvesting techniques have proven to have success in other dry areas of the world including India and Mexico City—it can also improve conditions in Ethiopia. Ethiopians should embrace this system and push for its implementation in Ethiopia. These techniques will ensure that Ethiopian citizens are able to provide themselves with a clean water source that is reliable and will last throughout the dry seasons. Having this water source could improve the overall health of the population and aid in the overall development of the country.

Photo By UNICEF Ethiopia

1. “SDPRP: Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program.”Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED, and Development Planning and Research Department (DPRD). N.p., 2005-2010. Web. 3 Mar. 2013.

2. Stotz, Daniel. “Breaching the Peace: Struggles Around Multilingualism in Switzerland.” Language Policy 5, no. 3 (2006): 251.


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