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Geography, climate and population


Ethiopia, with a total area of 1.1 million km˛, lies in the northeastern part of the Horn of Africa. The country is landlocked, sharing frontiers with Eritrea to the north and northeast, Djibouti to the east, Somalia to the east and southeast, Kenya to the south, and South Sudan and Sudan to the west. Ethiopia’s topographical diversity encompasses high mountains and flat-topped plateaux, surrounded by lowlands, and dissected by deep gorges with rivers and rolling plains with altitudes ranging from 110 m below sea level at the Denakil Depression in the northeast to over 4 600 m above sea level in the Simien Mountains in the north. The Great East African Rift Valley divides the country.

It is estimated that 16 million ha is cultivated and 20 million ha are permanent pastures (Table 1). Water bodies cover around 744 400 ha (IUCN, 2010), forest and woodland about 4 million ha and 29 million ha respectively, while over 26 million ha are protected (EPA and UNEP, 2008).


Ethiopia has a tropical monsoon climate with wide topographic-induced variation. Three climatic zones can be distinguished: a cool zone consisting of the central parts of the western and eastern section of the high plateaus, a temperate zone between 1 500 m and 2 400 m above sea level, and the hot lowlands below 1 500 m. Mean annual temperature varies from less than 7-12ēC in the cool zone to over 25ēC in the hot lowlands. Mean annual potential evapotranspiration varies between 1 700-2 600 mm in arid and semi-arid areas and 1 600-2 100 mm in dry sub-humid areas. Average annual rainfall for the country is 848 mm due to its proximity to the equator and high altitude, varying from about 2 000 mm in some pocket areas in southwest Ethiopia to less than 100 mm in the Afar Lowlands in the northeast. Rainfall in Ethiopia is highly erratic, resulting in a very high risk of intra-seasonal dry spells and annual droughts, of which the 1973-74, 1983-84, 1987-88, 1990-91, 1993-94 and 2015-16 are the major ones in the last decades. The drought in 2015-16 is even considered to be the worst drought for over 30 years.

Considering the water balance and the length of the growing period, Ethiopia can be divided into three major agroclimatic zones:

  • Areas without a significant growing period, with little or no rainfall (eastern, northeastern, southeastern, southern and northern lowlands);
  • Areas with a single growing period and one rainy season from February/March to October/November, covering the western half of the country, with the duration of the wet period decreasing from south to north;
  • Areas with a double growing period and two rainy seasons (Meher and Belg) which are of two types: i) in the east of the country: there are a small rainfall peak in April and a major one in August; ii) most of the lowlands of the south and southeast have two distinct wet periods, February-April and June-September, interrupted by two clear-cut dry periods. The peak rainfall months are April and September.


The total population of the country is estimated at 99 million (2015), of which 81 percent is rural (Table 1). The annual population growth rate is 2.6 percent over the period 2005-2015 and the average population density is 90 inhabitants/km˛, but varies from 7 inhabitants per km˛ in Afar in the northeast to 114 inhabitants per km˛ in Southern Region in the southwest of the country. The urban population is growing rapidly as a result of both population increase and high rural-urban migration.

In 2014, the Human Development Index ranks Ethiopia 174 among 188 countries and the Gender Inequality Index ranks it 129 among 152 countries for which data are available. Life expectancy in Ethiopia is 64 years and the under-five mortality is 62 per 1000 births in 2014, both progressing from 51 years and over 150 per 1000 at the end of the 1990s. Around 80 percent of the children in 2010 are enrolled in primary education, thus almost doubling the 2000 rate, and with a reduced gap between boys (82 percent) and girls (78 percent) compared to that period (50 percent of boys against 39 percent of girls). Adult literacy is 39 percent for the 2005-2012 period (UNDP, 2016), with a gap between female literacy (29 percent) and male literacy (49 percent). Poverty is still widely spread as it concerns almost a third of the population (30 percent) and is more concentrated in rural areas. In 2015, 93 percent of the urban and 49 percent of the rural population were using improved drinking water sources, that is 57 percent of the total population This represents a major improvement since 2002 when only 33 percent of the population had access to an improved drinking water source (JMP, 2015). Sanitation coverage also increased from 10 percent in 2001 to 28 percent in 2015 and almost no difference in coverage between rural and urban areas.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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