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Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture


At the federal level, the public institutions involved in water resources development include:

  • The Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy (MoWIE) replacing the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), responsible for the overall planning, development, management, utilization and protection of the country’s water resources, as well for the supervision all medium and large irrigation schemes. The following six directorates in particular are dedicated to water:
    • Irrigation and Drainage
    • Water Use Permit and Administration
    • Hydrology and Water Quality
    • Groundwater
    • Basin Administration
    • Water Supply and Sanitation
  • The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), in charge of water management (irrigation extension), including water harvesting for smallholder irrigated and rainfed agriculture.
  • The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF), formerly the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), responsible for the preparation of environmental protection policy, laws and directives. It is also in charge of evaluating the impact of social and economic development projects, particularly irrigation and hydropower projects, on the environment and is further responsible for follow-up work.
  • The Water Resources Development Fund (WRDF)

At sub-national level, three River Basin Organisations have been established since 2008, comprising a Basin High Council and River Basin Authorities to ensure integrated water resources management at basin level:

  • Awash Basin Authority (AwBA), replacing the former only basin-level institution the Awash Basin Water Resources Management Agency (ABWRMA). Most of the medium- and large-scale irrigation projects and salinity and flooding problems are concentrated in this basin;
  • Abbay River Basin Authority (ARBA);
  • Rift Valley Lakes Basin Authority (RVLBA).

Finally, the regions are the major operational unit for projects through their:

  • Bureau of Water, Mines and Energy (BoWME) and/or Bureau of Water Resources Development (BoWRD), which are responsible for small-scale irrigation and rural water supply as well as small-scale hydropower development.
  • State’s Irrigation Development Authorities, which undertake operational activities in line with their mandates (study, design and construction of small-scale irrigation schemes).

Water management

Basin Master Plans are expected to rule and detail water allocation, but since most of them are outdated, they do not reflect the actual water needs. In addition, formal water rights are not yet in place, so customary water rights dominate, such as for example the rights associated to communal land tenure in pastoralist areas. However, but these traditional institutions are not always adapted to increasing water scarcity and mobility (EU, 2011).

Almost all traditional irrigation schemes have a corresponding traditional water management organization, but they do not receive any formal support. These traditional water committees, locally known as ‘water fathers’, administer the water distribution and coordinate the maintenance activities of the schemes. Some Water Users Associations (WUA) have been established. However, WUAs have no legal status and are to be converted into irrigation cooperatives. There are nonetheless differences, in particular in membership and focus, between the two types of association. Membership is compulsory in WUA, but voluntary in cooperative. Marketing is also the main focus of irrigation cooperatives, while WUAs mostly concentrate on water distribution and management (MoA, 2011).

The water management of small-scale irrigation schemes is the responsibility of the farmers themselves, mainly through informal/traditional community groups. Apart from the provision of extension and training services to the WUAs from the MoA, no institution is directly involved in water management in smallholder-irrigated agriculture. Once the construction of irrigation schemes is completed, they are handed over to the beneficiaries but maintenance remains within the responsibility of the regional governments. The absence of any appropriate local-level organs to cater for small-scale irrigation has resulted in a lack of guidance in irrigation operation and maintenance at a community level. With an increase in irrigated areas and more users, irrigation water management and rules for water allocation are becoming more complex and problematic.


Funding for water development activities is mainly provided by the federal or regional government. The WRDF provide small credits to WUAs. Private investment is increasing but remains low. The States’ irrigation authorities have financial autonomy only over their approved and allocated budget. So far, neither cost recovery nor irrigation charges have been considered in irrigation development. However, in some cases beneficiaries have been contributing to the development of some small-scale irrigation schemes by providing free labour for up to 10 percent of the investment. Most beneficiaries have not even contributed to the operation and management of the existing schemes let alone to construction costs. In some small-scale irrigation schemes, though, beneficiary communities collect irrigation charges for covering minor maintenance costs, each beneficiary paying the same amount irrespective of farm size or quantity of water withdrawn.

Irrigation development costs between US$5 000 and US$20 000 per hectare (MoA, 2011).

Policies and legislation

The 1995 Ethiopian Constitution states in its article 44 that all natural resources (including water) are the common property of the Ethiopian people and the state (MoA, 2011). The Ethiopian Water Resources Management Policy (WRMP) Proclamation 2000 (No 197) sets out the basis for contemporary integrated water management in the country. Its guiding principles are: i) recognition of water as a scarce and vital socio-economic resource to be managed and planned strategically; ii) recognition of water as an economic good; iii) stakeholders to be involved in water resources management. It allocates water to all regional states regardless of the source and location of the resource, and provisions for water rights. In 2001, the Ethiopian Water Strategy translated the policy into action. More recently, additional legislation completed the 2000 WRMP Proclamation:

  • Water Resources Management Regulation 2005 (No 115) makes provision for maintaining environmental flows, protecting or restoring ecosystem services and addressing the water needs of marginalized groups but its enforcement is not rigorous (ODI, 2015).
  • River Basin Councils and Authorities Proclamation 2007 (No 534) authorizes RBHCs and RBAs for each major river basins.

One chapter of the 2000 Water Resources Management Policy is dedicated to irrigation, the Irrigation Policy, to develop the huge irrigated agriculture potential for the production of the food crops and raw materials needed for agro-industries in a sustainable way. It emphasizes decentralization and user-based management of irrigation systems, development of priority schemes, support and enhancement of traditional irrigation schemes, establishment of water allocation, as well as integration of appropriate drainage facilities.

The Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) was launched in 2002 for a 15-year period (2002 to 2016). It includes the financing of water resources management and development; the creation of an enabling environment; transboundary rivers management; stakeholder participation and gender mainstreaming; disaster-prevention and public safety, and environmental health standards. The WSDP requested Master Plans for the seven river basins to form a comprehensive “national river basin master plan”. Most of these plans were completed by 2014 but used 1990s data and thus needed updates, which started only in the three basins with functioning RBAs (Awash, Abbay and Rift Valley).

Finally, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) replaced the Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP) in 2010 as Ethiopia’s overarching five-year poverty reduction plan (MoA, 2011).


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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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