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ETHIOPIA’S NATURAL RESOURCES BASE, ITS LAND, WATER, FORESTS AND TREES ARE THE FOUNDATION OF ANY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, FOOD SECURITY AND OTHER BASIC NECESSITIES OF ITS PEOPLE. SMALLHOLDER AGRICULTURE IS THE DOMINANT SECTOR THAT PROVIDES OVER 85 PERCENT OF THE TOTAL EMPLOYMENT AND FOREIGN EXCHANGE EARNINGS AND APPROXIMATELY 55 PERCENT OF THE GDP. THE COUNTRY’S POPULATION IS ESTIMATED AT AROUND 64 MILLION AND WELL OVER 85 PERCENT LIVE IN RURAL AREAS (CSA, 1998). THE AVERAGE POPULATION GROWTH RATE PEAKED TO SLIGHTLY OVER 3 PERCENT IN THE 1990S AND IS EXPECTED TO REACH 83 MILLION BY 2101. The rate of population growth is expected to decline close to 2 percent by 2030 when the country’s population is estimated to reach anywhere between 120 million to 130 million depending on the rate of urbanization (CSA, 1999). This has implication on the sustainability of the natural resources base and the efforts to attain national food security given that nearly half of the current population is classified as undernourished with a daily consumption per head of 1 765 kcal, well below the required energy supply level of 2 600 per day (FAO, 2001).

Ethiopia has diverse agroclimatic zones. The traditional and major agroclimatic zones of Ethiopia are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Traditional Agroclimatic Zones and their physical characteristics


Altitude (metres)

Rainfall (mm/year)

Length of Growing Period (days)

Average Annual temperature (oC)

(cold and moist)

3200 plus

900 - 2200

211 - 365


(cool and humid)

2300 - 3200

900 - 1200

121 - 210

17.5/16.0 - 11.5

Weyna Dega
(cool sub-humid)

1500 - 2300/2400

800 - 1200

91 - 120

20.0 - 17.5/16.0

(warm semi-arid)

500 - 1500/1800

200 - 800

46 - 90

27.5 - 20

(hot arid)

under 500

under 200

0 - 45


Recently, however, 18 major agro-ecological zones (AEZs) and 49 sub-agro-ecological zones have been identified and grouped under six major categories (MoA, 2000 and EPA, 1998). The major categories consist of:

  1. Arid Zone less productive and pastoral and occupies 53.5 million ha (31.5 percent of the country);
  2. Semi-arid - less harsh and occupies 4 million ha (3.5 percent of the country);
  3. Sub-moist occupies 22.2 million ha (19.7 percent of the country) highly threatened by erosion.
  4. Moist covers 28 million ha (25 percent of the country) of the most important agricultural land of the country, and cereals are the dominant crops.
  5. Sub-humid and Humid cover 17.5 million ha (15.5 percent of the country) and 4.4 million ha (4 percent of the country) respectively; provide the most stable and ideal conditions for annual and perennial crops; home of the remaining forest and wildlife and biological diversity;
  6. Per-humid covers about 1 million ha (close to 1 percent of the country) and suited for perennial crops and forests.

These agro-ecological classifications have important implications for strategies in development of appropriate technologies for agricultural and rural development, natural resources management (NRM) and migration, which will be expounded later.

Approximately 66 percent of the total land area of 112 million hectares is potentially suitable for agriculture. Only 14 percent is currently under cultivation and the largest use of the land (over 50 percent) is for livestock grazing. Securing food and a livelihood is inextricably linked to the exploitation of land and natural resources in rural Ethiopia and soil degradation is a widespread problem. Soil erosion is the most visible form of land degradation affecting nearly half of the agricultural land and resulting in soil loss of 1.5 to 2 billion tonnes annually, equivalent to 35 tonnes per hectares and monetary value of US$1 to 2 billion per year (Ethiopian Soil Science Society, 1998; Ethiopian Highland Reclamation Study (EHRS) 1985, Hurni, 1992; NFIA, 1998, UNEP/GRID). Similarly, a recent study has highlighted the catastrophic impact of soil erosion, estimated at US$1 billion per year, on the country’s economy, requiring urgent steps to arrest it (Sonneveld, 2002). Many studies attribute water erosion, particularly on cropland, as a major cause for such a high level of soil erosion in Ethiopia (Hurni, 1988; Shiferaw and Holden, 1999; Sonneveld, 2003) while others have pointed out that the significant role of livestock (overgrazing) in fueling the soil degradation process is a cause, since it is integrated into a smallholder farming system (Dejene, 1990; Stroosnijder, 1996). Soil loss in Ethiopia ranges from very low level in grassland and lowland to a very high level of 100 200 tonnes per hectare per year in the highlands (Hurni, 1993, Herwig and Stillhardt, 1999; NFIA 1998).

The Ethiopian highlands are the centre of the economic activity of the country with over 85 percent of the country’s population and 75 percent of livestock and they are the source of many of the country’s major rivers (including the Blue Nile). These highlands occupy approximately 45 percent of the total land area of which 50 percent is significantly eroded, 25 percent seriously eroded and ca. 5 percent has lost the ability to produce food. Only 20 percent of the highlands are estimated to have a minor problem of erosion (EHRS, 1985). The loss of soil depth is estimated around 4 mm per year, outstripping the rate of soil formation estimated at no more than 0.25 mm per year in Africa. The effective soil depth in Ethiopia is estimated anywhere between 20 to 59 cm (depending on the area), and if such a loss of soil depth continues unabated, Ethiopia could lose nearly all of its top soil in about 100 to 150 years (FAO, 1998 and Sonneveld, 2002). This long-term affect of soil loss (unless effectively controlled) on the ecological balance and survival of a society is often not captured by cost estimates of soil erosion based only on production value for certain years.

Ethiopian soils are fertile, but are undergoing severe mining of nutrients due to intensive pressure on arable land in past decades. A recent study, on the two important plant growth-limiting nutrients - Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) - shows that acid soils dominate most of the southern and southwestern parts of the country and generally have low P content. Cambisols are more fertile than acid and Vertisols and are fairly distributed in the highlands and used in cereal production. Vertisols are the dark clay soil found in the highlands and some parts of the lowland, and suffer from water logging and poor drainage and have very low N content (National Soil Survey, 1994). The erosion-prone central and northern highlands of (Shewa, Wollo, Tigraye and Gonder) have low N content and relatively high phosphorus content. Low Nitrogen content in these areas is largely due to low organic content while in the Vertisols area it is mainly due to water logging. Soils in the south and southwestern part (Sidamo, Ilubabor and Keffa) have high N content and low P content (National Soil Survey, 1994; NFIA, 1998). Data on the impact of nutrient on different crops, soils and ecological zones are not developed except in large commercial farms such as Wonje Sugar Estate, and such studies are needed in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s remaining forest reserves are estimated at fewer than 3 percent (National Conservation Strategy, 1990; Environmental Protection Authority, 1997). Forest land is widely used for cultivation, grazing, fuelwood and construction except those designated by the Government as National Forestry Priority Areas (58 of them). Woodlands estimated at 5 million ha and bushlands totalling 20 million ha are found in the moist western part of Ethiopia and in the pastoral and the agropastoral zones of the lowlands. Large parts of these woodlands are increasingly threatened by shifting cultivation, growth of livestock, expansion of agriculture, and an increasing demand for fuelwood and construction by the urban sector (Ethiopian Forestry Action Plan, 1994). There is an estimated 200 000 ha of plantation of which 135 000 ha of industrial and peri-urban plantation is established and operated by the Government; 20 000 ha of community woodlots and 50 000 ha of catchments and protection plantation. Approximately 150 000 to 200 000 hectares of forest are lost each year mainly for the expansion of rainfed agriculture and also for fuelwood and through overgrazing (Ethiopian Forestry Action Plan, 1994; Environmental Protection Authority, 1997). If these trends continue by 2010 there will be little natural forest left except for minor stands in the remote parts of the country (Ethiopian Forestry Action Plan, 1994).

Biomass fuel provides close to 95 percent of the total energy supply of the country, 77 percent being derived from woody biomass, 9 percent crop residue and 8 percent from dung (MoA, 2000). Only 4 percent of the population is connected to an electric grid mostly concentrated in urban areas. In the year 2000, the demand for fuelwood to meet basic household needs exceeded the projected supply by four times: the estimated demand was at 58 million cubic metres while supply was 11 million cubic metres (MoNRDEP, 1994). As a result, crop residue and dung are increasingly being used to meet rural household energy needs. The diversion of these important traditional forms of replacing nutrients in the soil is estimated to reduce agricultural productivity by 10 percent to 20 percent below its potential (Suthcliffe, 1993; Wood, 1990). Deforestation also increases surface run-off and reduces infiltration and water storage in the soils for human use for a more extended period. It often leads to flooding which is damaging to irrigation schemes. Deforestation is also associated with the loss of flora and fauna and loss of biological diversity. Thus, arresting deforestation and enhancing the source of rural energy (particularly for cooking and lighting) is vital to addressing food security, rural poverty and natural resources management (NRM) and will be explored further later.

Ethiopia has a vast water resource potential and the Ethiopian highlands are the source of many of the international rivers (such as the Blue Nile and Wabe Shebile) draining into the neighbouring countries. Yet only 1 percent of the estimated annual surface water of 110 billion cubic metres is used for irrigation and hydropower. It also has groundwater resources estimated at 2.6 billion cubic metres and many springs and small streams that can be used for water harvesting during the rainy seasons. The country’s irrigation potential is estimated at 3-4 million hectares (excluding water harvesting and underground water) but only 160 000 hectares are currently under irrigation (EPA, 1997). Details on opportunities and constraints to irrigation development can be found in the Working Paper on Water Sector and Irrigation. The focus in this paper, however, is on rainwater harvesting by rural households for domestic, agriculture, livestock, and environmental management reasons (i.e. flooding, water recharge).

The recent rural development strategies of the Government of Ethiopia (GOE) attach importance to the role of rainwater harvesting in attaining food security and broad-based rural development in Ethiopia. In line with the GOE’s view, rainwater harvesting in this paper does not include any kind of stream or river diversion schemes or small-scale irrigation. Rainwater harvesting is defined in the same way as by Anderson, which is the control/utilization of rainwater close to the point it reaches the earth for productive purposes (Anderson, 2002). Rainwater harvesting techniques and approaches discussed in this paper are closely linked to improved natural resources management (soil, water, and forest management) at the community level and are aimed at reducing the vulnerability to climatic variability that is so prevalent in smallholder agriculture in Ethiopia. Several NGOs, World Bank, WFP and donors are supporting rainwater-harvesting activities in various regions in Ethiopia and the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) is now actively trying to promote rainwater harvesting at the national and local level. Some of the experiences that have relevant policy implication in enhancing food security under the broader umbrella of natural resources management are highlighted in this paper.

With 35 million tropical livestock units (TLU) (equivalent of close to 80 million herd), Ethiopia has one of the largest livestock populations in Africa. This consists of ca. 30 million cattle and over 42 million heads of sheep and goats, 7 million equines and over 53 million chickens. Cattle provide traction power for 95 percent of grain production and also provide milk, meat, manure, cash income and serve as a hedge in times of drought and risks. The livestock sub-sector accounts for 15 percent of the total GDP and 33 percent of agricultural output (without including draft power and manure) (MoA, 1997; CSE, 1997). Livestock is also an integral part of the farming system and has major economic and social functions in the rural sector. The livestock sector, however, faces very low productivity. The major constraints are the serious shortage of feed and widespread diseases (MoA; 1997; Mengistu, 2001).

The increasing livestock density and the associated overgrazing on both arable and grazing lands have serious impact on the land and vegetative cover. Over 80 percent of the livestock are in the highly degraded and vulnerable Ethiopian highlands resulting with stocking rate of 160 TLU per square kilometre significantly higher than the recommended TLU level for both humid and semi-arid areas resulting in widespread overgrazing and land degradation (FAO/World Bank, 1996). Policy issues and strategies to reduce livestock impact on natural resources degradation and enhance its role in broadening the livelihood base of the rural people will be investigated further.

Ethiopia has an important place in its richness and diversity of its flora and fauna and endemic plants (Twelde Berhane, 1991). It is an important centre for crop genetic diversity since it is the sole or the most significant source of genetic diversity for some crops such as arabica coffee, teff, ensete, noug, and Ethiopian rape. It is also the main centre for sorghum, finger millet, field pea, chick pea, perennial cotton and sesame (EPA, 1994). The disappearance of a genetic pool and the diversity of known plants and species have been accelerating in the past decades and an effort to protect this erosion diversity at farm and community level is needed (Ejigu, 1999).

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