Ethiopia's Water Dilemma

Uwe Hoering
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Water in abundance. Over the Simian Hills in the highlands of Tigray it is raining heavily. In no time, there are large pools of water standing in the fields behind the low stone walls marking the plots. Dried-up erosion gullies turn into brownish torrents, and the Tekezze River down in the Valley swells from a small, harmless and lazy stream into a wild monster of rapids, whirlpools and cataracts.

Water shortage. Every year in June, Tadesse Desta hopes for the timely start of the rainy season to start sowing tef. Only a few weeks later he has to worry that the grain will dry up and there will be another failed harvest. For at least six months of the year he and his family are dependent on food aid, like one in four people in Tigray.

Earlier this year, agricultural advisers from the provincial government turned up and asked Tadesse Desta and his neigbors, to "harvest the rains.“ For digging the pit in which the downpours would be stored, he got a few days' rations of maize. To coat the pit with a blue plastic sheet, he had to borrow money. The advisors told him that the small ponds, about eight by eight meters with a holding capacity of hardly more than 60 cubic meters, would help him to save his crops, if the rains should be not sufficient. Or his wife could use the water for a small garden. Since the government made "rainwater harvesting“ into an official program, setting targets for local officials to meet, the slopes in the highlands are now punctuated with thousands of these "household tanks.“

Unfortunately, these "household ponds“ are of little use except as breeding grounds for mosquitoes. They are too small to really save the harvest in case of emergency. Tadesse Desta doesn't know how he will ever pay back the loan for the blue plastic sheet.
The flaws in this program does not mean that all rainwater harvesting programs will fail at helping Ethiopia's rural poor improve their lives. Nor does it lend support the arguments now being put forth by the Ethiopian government and the World Bank that large-scale dams will solve the nation's woes. But it does reveal that even well-intended programs aimed at reducing rural poverty can miss the mark substantially if they are poorly conceived.

The Underdammed Argument
"Ethiopia is poor because it doesn't use its enormous water potential,“ claims the World Bank. True, in the rugged mountainous regions, precipation is normally quite high. It is also true that most of the waters there rush down the steep slopes unused, dragging along vegetation, soil, stones, roads and bridges, digging ever more and ever deeper gullies, and causing heavy floods down in the lowlands.

Coming with the tags "economic growth“ and "poverty reduction,“ solutions are being offered to the Ethiopian government by the World Bank: Dams would control the floods and utilize the abundant waters for energy and agriculture. Therefore, whoever builds them should be considered "holy men“, says John Briscoe, until recently the Bank's senior water adviser. For new hydraulic infrastructure, the Bank and other multilateral finance institutions are willing to lend billions of dollars to Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world.

The Bank's new Country Water Resources Assistance Strategy for Ethiopia says that to develop water storage capacity "must be seen as a development priority across the entire country“ in order to improve water availability year-round. With just 43 cubic metres of storage capacity per capita, Ethiopia is far behind South Africa, whose 750 cubic metres of storage capacity per capita is being put forth as a rough measure of water-security standard by the World Bank. The cost of attaining the "South Africa standard" is estimated at US$35 billion – five times the current gross national product of Ethiopia. Because of the "far reaching potential benefits of multi-purpose dam development, and the unique qualifications of the Bank to support these investments,“ the Country Strategy argues, a first priority for future Bank assistance in water resource management should be support for large dam development and river-basin water transfers in the Nile River Basin.

The idea itself is not so new. As early as the nineteenth century, Ethiopia's Emperor Menelik II had plans to divert the Blue Nile from its deep gorge into the arid, sparsely populated lowlands in the western part of the country. Since then, time and again governments in Addis Ababa have devised elaborate plans for dams and irrigation projects. But again and again, Sudan and especially Egypt have managed to torpedo the implementation of these projects with diplomacy and military threats. They were afraid that any diversion of water in the upper regions of the Nile would negatively impact their own farmers downstream and their expansionist plans for huge new plantations and settlements in desert areas.

Nile Basin Initiative is Born

The pressure worked on the World Bank too. As part of an effort to get consent from Khartoum and Cairo for funding new dams on the tributaries of the Nile in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania, the Bank spearheaded the Nile Basin Initiative about 10 years ago, functioning as the donor coordinator while the Ethiopian government serves as the facilitator. Progress to bring the riparian states together for an integrated river basin management plan benefitting all member states has been slow. But recently, the Council of Ministers has accepted four hydropower and four irrigation development projects proposed by Ethiopia.

The biggest and most ambitious ongoing project is not part of this initiative. It is fundamentally altering a remote area at the tail end of a Africa's deepest canyon (2,000 meters deep in places) cut by the Tekeze River. In this remote and stunningly beautiful canyon, construction is underway on a huge dam. At 185 meters high, Tekeze Dam looms 10 meters higher that the gigantic Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River. Tunnels several kilometers long are being driven through the rocks, and will divert the water of the Tekeze into a huge reservoir, generating 225 MW of power, thus increasing Ethiopia's installed capacity by nearly one third.

Because Addis Ababa became impatient with the slow pace of negotiations at the Nile Basin Initiative, four years ago the government decided to go it alone on this project. There were no consultations with neighboring Sudan, nor with its longtime foe Eritrea, which would like to use the border river itself. In far-away Beijing, which is systematically building up its engagement in Africa (see page 3), Addis Ababa found a sympathetic financier for the $224 million project. The state-owned China Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation not only undercut all other competitors, but also offered valuable experience with mega-projects because of its involvement in the Three Gorges Dam. "Tekeze Dam is for Ethiopia what Three Gorges is for China“, claimed Sun Yue, Director of the international department of the CWHRC, at the contract signing ceremony. And it looks as if this is only the beginning. In July it was announced that China's Gezhouba Water and Power Co. is likely to win the contract to build a 100 MW hydropower dam on Ethiopia's Neshi River.

Although the World Bank has concerns about this bilateral move, economically, it thinks along the same lines: Tekeze's power could help Ethiopia's economic growth, the water storage would reduce the threats of floods and create opportunities for an intensification of food production. David Grey, the World Bank's Senior Water Advisor for Africa, contends that large-scale dams like Tekezze would be to the advantage of Ethipia's poor. ""There is no precedent for a country developing without harnessing its rivers and utilizing its water resources," says Grey.

But there is a fundamental flaw to this argument. This dam's power will go mainly to the cities or will be sold to neighbors with more developed industrial economies, and the water will irrigate fields downstream in the lowlands. But the poor –like Tadesse Desta, who year after year are in need of food aid – live in the densely populated highlands far above the dams. The expansion of irrigation will only benefit richer farmers and foreign-owned plantations, because they have the influence and the money to make use of the new opportunities, developed with public money. Such developments also don't mean that there will be more food, because the production of low-priced food crops for local markets is is not considered economically viable against the cost of new large dams. Instead, water and newly reclaimed lands will be used for the production of flowers, fruits or spices for export, or for cotton and sugar cane – water for cash and for profit, not for food.

Neither Too Big Nor Too Small
The dam near the village of Adis Nifas, not far away from the provincial capital Mekelle, is meeting quite different needs from Tekeze. The medium-sized structure (around 15 meters high and 300 meters long) has been built by the people themselves with the support of the Relief Society for Tigray (REST), a parastatal development agency. REST provided machinery and money, the villagers their labor. The reservoir is close to the fields, and most of the material used is local stones and sand, apart from some cement for the overflow canal and some valves and pipes to regulate the flow. Six months after the end of the rainy season, there is still a shallow pool of water left in the lake.

In the valley below the dam, each family received a quarter of a hectare of irrigated land, fruit tree seedlings, and elephant grass to plant on the earthen walls dividing the fields to reduce soil and water erosion. A water-users association has been formed to manage the distribution of water from the dam and maintenance of the small canals. Improved cultivation methods were introduced, which bring higher yields while also saving scarce water resources. Some families try their hands at cotton, sesame and vegetables. But most of them planted chilies, which are in high demand. Hardly any Ethiopian food goes without Berbere, the hellishly hot red paste.

Farther below the irrigated fields, the groundwater level is rising. From open wells, 4-5 meters deep, farmers can lift water with a treadle pump onto their small fields. The longer the additional water is available beyond the rainy season, the better the crops and the higher the yields. Increased incomes would allow for further improvement in cropping methods, for improved seeds and for fertilizer, but also for school fees, a new iron sheet for the hut, or a radio. "Tigray is not a hopeless case,“ says REST's Mulugeta Berhanu.

The priority for water development in Ethiopia should be many thousands, even tens of thousands, of small and medium sized dams like the one in Adi Nifas, says Helmut Spohn, who has been assigned by the German funding agency Bread for the World to assist small farmers in Ethiopia. The dams should be accompanied by afforestation, gully plugging and terracing of the hills to avoid further erosion of the remaining soils. That would allow the rains to seep into the ground and recharge groundwater and aquifers which still are the best and cheapest water storage, releasing it slowly over time, giving new life to perennial streams. It would also stop soil, sand and stones from being washed into the rivers with every rain.

Without such a program, the new megadams and their reservoirs will be silted up after a few years. The result would be less additional power than calculated, less irrigation, less economic growth and less foreign exchange for the government in Addis Ababa. By that time, the consultants and construction companies would long have been gone, with their booty. But the government would still be sitting on its debt with the Chinese government or with the World Bank – rather like Tadesse Desta, who still owes the local money lender for the blue plastic sheet on his own ill-conceived water-harvesting project.
Uwe Hoering works as a freelance journalist on development issues, with a current focus on water and agriculture. His most recent trip to Ethiopia was in 2005.