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Voices from the source: struggles with local water security in Ethiopia

Research report

Written by Josephine Tucker, Roger Calow

Research report

This assessment explores local water security in two very different sites in rural Ethiopia – a pastoral district in the eastern Somali region (Shinile), and a somewhat remote agricultural district in the south (Konso). The following questions were addressed using a combination of field research and analysis of available secondary data and literature:

  • What are the physical, social, economic and political drivers of water insecurity in different locations in Ethiopia?
  • How have different communities responded to situations of water stress? 
  • What should be the public policy and institutional priorities to improve resilience to water stress at a local level, and reduce the negative impacts on communities?   
The study initially focused on access to water supply (for domestic and productive uses). However, the impact of high rainfall variability on both agricultural and livestock production emerged as the most important dimension of water insecurity for most communities.

People respond to this pressure, where they can, by diversifying livelihoods or migrating to more promising areas. Both of these responses may be temporary or permanent, and may be either a planned accumulation strategy or a survival response.

Livelihoods are thus highly dynamic over time in both of the districts studied. Some new activities are non water-dependent – such as wage labour – while in other cases people are exploiting previously untapped water availability to increase irrigation.

Survival-type diversification may involve further degradation of the natural environment, for example firewood sales and charcoal production contribute to deforestation. In the first sections of this report, these pressures on livelihoods and household-level responses are discussed in detail.

This is followed by an examination of government responses at local and national level, and discussion of possible ways forward.

It emerges that local government is highly constrained in terms of its ability to respond to the complex water security situation in an integrated, livelihoods-based fashion. National policy makes some interesting and ambitious proposals, and is increasingly paying attention to ensuring the sustainability of water schemes and exploring possibilities to better support households’ own water investments by enabling and regulating self-supply.

Outstanding gaps include linkage of water service provision with resource management for buffering of groundwater supply, and greater clarity on the various water- and livelihood-related thresholds of water security which would inform more locally-responsive planning and drought response.
Mengistu Dessalegn, Likimyelesh Nigussie, Wondwosen Michago, Josephine Tucker, Alan Nicol and Roger Calow