Small-scale water harvesting structure in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's Dam Boom

Ethiopia is a land of hydrological contrasts. Its uneven, often unpredictable distribution of water greatly impacts its efforts to address poverty. With its huge hydropower potential, Ethiopia is thinking big: the government contends that large dams are critical for ending its poverty. But most development analysts believe the rural poor need smaller-scale water projects more suited to meeting their immediate needs.

Ethiopia's 12 major watersheds support a booming population, most of whom are small-scale farmers and pastoralists. These watersheds face ongoing degradation and erosion, making the livelihoods of rural communities who depend on them more vulnerable. Ethiopia’s economy is increasingly vulnerable to drought and climate change. A long-running drought has put millions of people at risk of starvation and disrupted hydropower production. 

Large dams are a poor match for local people's problems. Water for irrigation from large reservoirs is mostly earmarked for large-scale agricultural producers – and increasingly, for foreign agricultural developments taking advantage of a government-sponsored land leasing program. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s small farmers cannot store seasonal rainfall needed for raising food. The large centralized hydropower dams the government is building lack the extensive distribution lines needed to reach the country’s rural population, where only 2% have access to electricity.

Dam development in Ethiopia is a heavily politicized issue and there is virtually no space for civil society to criticize the government’s dam plans. Government repression and restrictive laws make it very difficult for citizens or NGOs to speak out. Ethiopia’s existing large dams have overlooked the displacement and other effects on local communities. Dam planning is not transparent and excludes  affected communities from meaningful participation.

Ethiopia has huge potential for clean renewables, which have the added benefit of being smaller and decentralized, and thus better suited to meeting the needs of the rural majority (and better suited to adapting to the hydrological risks of a changing climate). The nation is well-endowed with geothermal, solar and wind power potential. Afforestation efforts and investments in alternatives to wood-fuel could greatly reduce watershed erosion. Helping rural farmers store seasonal rainfall would also decrease their vulnerability to drought.

International Rivers is monitoring dam planning in Ethiopia, working to keep international donors from investing in the worst projects on the drawing boards, and sharing knowledge about better alternatives and the legacy of Ethiopia's past dams with local and international civil society.

More information: 

View photos of climate change impacts in Ethiopia by Oxfam

Click here to see Where the Water Ends (a video on climate change impacts on tribal people in East Africa.)