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Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. It is dominated by a highland complex of mountains and plateaux (above 1 500 m), which is split from northeast to southwest by the East African Rift Valley, some 40-60 km wide and occupied by a string of lakes. The maximum elevation is 4 600 m above sea level.

Basic statistics and population

Area of the country 1994 110 001 000 ha
Cultivable land 1994 13 200 000 ha
Cultivated land 1994 6 000 000 ha
Total population 1994 53 435 000 inhab.
Population density 1994 49 inhab./km
Rural population 1994 90 %
Water supply coverage    
Urban population 1993 90 %
Rural population 1993 12 %

The total land area is about 1.1 million km The cultivable land is about 13.2 million ha, or 12% of the total land area. The cultivated land is about 6 million ha, or 45% of the cultivable area, and 5% of the total land area. Small-scale farmers occupy 96% of the cropped area, while the remaining 4% are cropped by State farms and Producers' Cooperatives.

The total population is around 53 million inhabitants (1994), of which 90% is rural. The population growth rate is about 3.1 % per year. The population density is 49/km, but varies from less than 10/km in Oromiya, to almost 250/km in Kembata, in the centre of the country. Nearly 90% of the Ethiopian population live in the highlands.

In 1993, the Ethiopian agricultural sector accounted for over 40% of GDP and more than 80% of the exports. It employs 80% of the population.

Climate and water resources

Annual rainfall varies from less than 100 mm along the border with Somalia and Djibouti to 2 400 mm in the southwest highlands, with a national average of 744 mm/year. In the southern and eastern highlands, there is a pronounced bi-modal rainfall distribution, with the first and generally smaller rains (berg) peaking in April, and the second in September. The main dry season extends from October to February, being longer and drier in the north. Rainfall variability is important, particularly in the lower rainfall areas of the northeast highlands. Recurrence of drought is a common phenomenon in Ethiopia.


Water balance

Water resources:      
Average precipitation   744 mm/yr
    818.8 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - total   110.0 km/yr
Internal renewable water resources - per caput 1994 2 059 m/yr
Global renewable water resources   110.0 km/yr
Dependency ratio   0 %
Total dam capacity   - km
De-salinated water   - 10 6 m/yr
Water withdrawal:      
- Agricultural   - 10 6 m/yr
- Domestic   - 10 6 m/yr
- Industrial   - 10 6 m/yr
Total     10 6 m/yr
per caput   - m/yr
as a % of internal renewable water resources   - %
Other withdrawal   - 10 6 m/yr
Produced   - 10 6 m/yr
Treated   - 10 6 m/yr
Re-used treated wastewater   - 10 6 m/yr

Irrigation and drainage

Irrigation potential 1994 3 637 000 ha
1. Full or partial control Irrigation: equipped area 1994 189 556 ha
- surface irrigation   - ha
- sprinkler irrigation   - ha
- micro-irrigation   - ha
% of area irrigated from groundwater     %
% of area irrigated from surface water     %
% of equipped area actually irrigated   - %
2. Spate irrigation area   - ha
3. Equipped wetland and inland valley bottoms   - ha
4. Other cultivated wetland and inland valley bottoms   - ha
5. Flood recession cropping area   - ha
Total water managed area (1 +2+3+4+5) 1994 189 556 ha
- as a % of cultivated area 1994 3.2 %
- increase over last 10 years   - %
- power irrigated area as % of water managed area   - %
Full or partial control schemes: Criteria      
Large schemes > 3 000 ha 1994 81 138 ha
Medium schemes 1994 44 837 ha
Small schemes < 200 ha 1994 63 581 ha
Total number of households in irrigation      
Irrigated crops:      
Total irrigated grain production   - t
as a % of total grain production   - %
Harvested crops under irrigation   - ha
-   - ha
Drainage - Environment:      
Drained area   - ha
as a % of cultivated area   - %
Flood-protected area   - ha
Area salinized by irrigation   - ha

The main drainage basins are:

Most of the rivers in Ethiopia are seasonal, and about 70% of the total runoff takes place during the months of June, July and August. Dry season flow originates from springs, which provide baseflows for small-scale irrigation. The total annual water resources are estimated at 110 km of which 76.6 km drain into the Nile Basin. The usable groundwater resource is estimated to be 2.6 km for both Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, this estimate is based on scanty hydrogeological information. A small fraction of the groundwater resource is developed for rural water supply. Traditional wells are widely used by nomads.

There are numerous lakes in Ethiopia: the 11 major lakes have a total area of about 7 000 km

The water withdrawal of former Ethiopia (i.e., including Eritrea) in 1987 was about 2.2 km (Figure 1).


Traditional irrigation is very old in Ethiopia. The traditional small-scale schemes are, in general, simple river diversions. The diversion structures are rudimentary and subject to frequent damage by flood.

'Modern' irrigation was started at the beginning of the 1960s by private investors in the middle Awash valley where big sugar estates, fruit and cotton farms are found. With the 1975 rural land proclamation, the large irrigated farms were placed under the responsibility of the Ministry of State Farms. Almost all small-scale irrigation schemes built after 1975 were made into Producers' Cooperatives. Now the status of the cooperatives is being redefined, and this will have consequences for irrigation development and management.

The Total water managed area is about 190 000 ha and concentrated in the Awash valley, which accounts for 48% of the Total water managed area and 92% of the large schemes built before 1990.

FIGURE 1: Water withdrawal in former Ethiopia, i.e., including Eritrea (total: 2.2 km in 1987)

There are three types of irrigation schemes (Figure 2):

It is difficult to assess the area actually irrigated in Ethiopia. Some schemes have been damaged and are currently not operational. Some other schemes, built and managed by the Producers' Cooperatives but not used by the farmers, who mostly did not want to join these cooperatives, are deteriorating.

The irrigation potential of Ethiopia is estimated to be between 1.8 and 3.7 million ha. The potential for medium- and large-scale irrigation projects was identified as 3 300 000 ha. Separate studies have indicated a potential for small-scale irrigation of between 165 000 and 400 000 ha, although it is probable that there was a degree of double-counting. A recent study gives irrigation potential on a river basin basis, with a total of 3 637 000 ha.

In 1988, the costs of developing large-scale irrigation schemes were between $US 18 000 and $US 25 000/ha, without accounting for water storage. Development costs of medium-and small-scale schemes were between $US 10 000 and 15 000/ha and between $US 2 300 and 3 400/ha, respectively. These high costs are one of the reasons for low economic returns from irrigation in Ethiopia, especially for large schemes, and can explain why the irrigated area is less than 8% of the area potentially irrigable.

FIGURE 2: Types of full or partial control irrigation schemes (1994)


Several institutions are involved in water sector assessment and development.

At national level, responsibility for small-scale irrigation remains in MOA, with the creation of an Irrigation Agronomy Team, under the supervision of the Agricultural Development and Crop Production Department.

At regional level, small-scale irrigation, including planning, design and construction, now rests with the Natural Resources Bureaux - the regional offices of MNRDEP, under its Irrigation Development Study Team (IDST).

The regions have considerable autonomy in determining, for example, the approach to extension, the role of the cooperatives, and the form of land leasing.

In 1994, there still was no water law in Ethiopia. A development plan for the irrigation subsector was under preparation in 1994.


Seventy percent of Ethiopians live in the mountainous areas, where 60% of the land has slopes greater than 16%. Annual soil losses can reach 300 t/ha. Soil and water conservation, and water harvesting at the catchment-area level, are very important. A policy of supporting peasant activities in soil conservation is necessary.

Government policy in irrigation consists of channelling direct investment and support to farmers, while promoting commercial investment in agriculture. Smallholder irrigation in most of Ethiopia will form an integral part of a basically rainfed farming system. MOA, responsible for support to farmers, is in an ideal position to identify needs for irrigation and to mobilize beneficiary participation. That explains why the responsibility of irrigation is shared between MOA for small-scale irrigation and MNRDEP for large- and medium-scale irrigation.

With the latest political and economical reforms, the importance of private agriculture as the foundation of economy is recognized and a greater share of budgetary and human resources will be devoted to the rehabilitation and expansion of the sector. As Peasant Associations and Producers' Cooperatives have failed, the farmers are now forming Water Users' Associations with the technical support of the government or of non-governmental organizations.


Aytenffisu, M. 1981. Groundwater in Ethiopia.

FAO. 1990. Irrigation policy and strategy in Ethiopia. Report of FAO Technical Cooperation Project TCP/ETH/8963.

FAO. 1994a. Studies for integrated irrigation systems - Ethiopia - Project findings and recommendations. Terminal Report of UNDP/FAO project ETH/88/001.

FAO. 1994b. Ethiopia: Small-scale irrigation consolidation project, Preparation report. FAO/DDC Report 59/94 ADB-ETH 48.

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