IWMI in East Africa

Abdulkarim Seid

IWMI’s regional office for Eastern Africa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, works closely with government and nongovernment partners to develop solutions for water challenges and priorities. Our work is aligned with the agendas of regional and continent-wide organizations, including the African Union Commission, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the East African Community. IWMI’s strategy is centered around three strategic programs – Water, Food and Ecosystems; Water, Climate Change and Resilience; and Water, Growth and Inclusion – each supported by high-quality science and digital innovation. All our activities contribute to supporting the efforts of countries to meet their targets towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.<span class="su-quote-cite">Abdulkarim Seid, Country Representative - Ethiopia, Regional Representative – East Africa, IWMI, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia</span>

  • Wetting front detectors
    Wetting front detectors
  • Woman packaging roses at AQ Roses PLC farm near Ziway, Ethiopia.
    Woman packaging roses at AQ Roses PLC farm near Ziway, Ethiopia.
  • Chili farmer using a wetting front detector
    Chili farmer using a wetting front detector
  • Feeding time
    Feeding time
  • watering rose plants
    watering rose plants
  • Woman bundles cabbage leaves to sell at market
    Woman bundles cabbage leaves to sell at market
  • Urban farmer Fekadu Sebani inspects his cucumbers in Addis Ababa
    Urban farmer Fekadu Sebani inspects his cucumbers in Addis Ababa
  • Urban farmer carrying greens from field in Addis Ababa
    Urban farmer carrying greens from field in Addis Ababa
  • Transporting urban produce to market
    Transporting urban produce to market
  • Isotope hydrologist Seifu Kebede at the National Isotope Hydrology Lab
    Isotope hydrologist Seifu Kebede at the National Isotope Hydrology Lab
BackgroundWater, Food and EcosystemsWater, Climate Change and ResilienceWater, Growth and Inclusion

Water is crucial for food security, human well-being and health, and biodiversity. With population increases and economic growth, water is also essential for energy generation, manufacturing and urban development. Economically, Eastern Africa is the fastest growing region on the continent. Most of the growth is in cities, driven by rural migration, especially of young people. Economic expansion leads the continent at close to 7% per year. However, the benefits of economic development are not equally distributed, with women, young people and marginalized groups receiving a disproportionately low share. They are also more vulnerable to climate shocks, due to social exclusion and lack of support, particularly in the agriculture sector, as well as being dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Rapid economic growth has also led to unsustainable use of land and water resources, and uncontrolled and widespread industrial pollution.

Eastern Africa experiences regular lengthy periods of drought. The region is plagued by floods: five of the seven most flood‐prone countries on the continent are in Eastern Africa. The frequency and duration of droughts and floods will only increase with climate change. Rapid urbanization and a strong push to create employment in the manufacturing and industrial sectors have created competition over the relative distribution of water for domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes. There are also issues around whether distribution should favor water for smallholders or large-scale farmers, often export-oriented agriculture. Policies on these matters are often vague. The mandate for managing water is spread across different ministries, and the organizations tasked with water management are understaffed and underfunded.

The share of cultivated area equipped for irrigation in Africa varies considerably by country, but is generally very low (less than 3%). This is due, in part, to the mountainous topography in many countries, and also because farmers lack access to finance for investing in irrigation, and an economic and institutional environment that hinders the scaling of promising irrigation technologies and approaches.

IWMI is working towards bringing irrigation technology to smallholder farmers in Eastern Africa. In Ethiopia and Tanzania, IWMI scientists are testing water-lifting tools and practices in farmers’ fields, while addressing constraints to adoption and scaling, such as gender issues, and access to credit and the technology supply chain. Another project works with communities in Ethiopia to build small-scale irrigation systems, which are owned and managed by farmers, underpinned by sustainable irrigation water management, and agricultural support services and institutions. Yet another project evaluates irrigation performance in the Nile River Basin to support joint action by countries to enhance the efficiency and productivity of irrigated agriculture. We promote sustainable irrigation development while providing advice on policy options and incentives for low-cost, inclusive solutions. We also carry out capacity development to support the pathway from research to impact.

Land degradation is a serious problem in Eastern African countries. This disrupts agricultural production and puts significant pressure on water resources, as farmers try to counter decreasing land productivity with the increased use of irrigation water, fertilizers and pesticides.

IWMI develops strategies for better land and water use. In Ethiopia, we are designing measures to combat land degradation and enhance local benefits, particularly for marginalized groups. These measures include the use of ‘exclosures’ – degraded areas where woodcutting, grazing and agricultural activities are prohibited to promote natural regeneration. IWMI trains landless youth and women to manage these exclosures and conduct income-generating activities, such as beekeeping or livestock fattening. In the Omo-Turkana Basin, we are gathering data on the status of, and drivers of change in, the basin’s ecosystems, and suggest practical solutions to ensure the continued delivery of ecosystem services to communities whose livelihoods are threatened by the degradation of these fragile ecosystems.

All IWMI’s activities in Eastern Africa aim to increase the resilience of agricultural systems and livelihoods. Our research on sustainable agricultural water management, for example, identifies the most efficient and economically viable approaches. These approaches are inclusive, which means they are accessible to different social groups, and enhance the resilience of farming households. Through modelling, we generate information on water availability and spatiotemporal distribution under different climate scenarios. This can be used by decision-makers, for example, in river basin authorities, to support water allocation planning and better prepare for a changing climate.
Weak institutions, poor governance, and a lack of accurate and current data are major obstacles to water security in Eastern Africa today. IWMI supports the organizations tasked with managing water at all levels. For example, we assist river basin authorities with data acquisition, management and use to ensure a more integrated approach to basin management and water allocation planning. We help governments to establish water payment systems covering thousands of smallholder farmers as well as approaches to establishing the value of ecosystem services. IWMI’s work on governance emphasizes the need to understand power dynamics within and between societal groups and institutions, and to ensure equitable outcomes for the most marginalized people.

Water has an emotional and spiritual dimension in many countries. Through stakeholder dialogues, IWMI is exploring the uses of water and the economic, social and cultural values of these uses to develop strategies that manage competing interests. Including the perspectives of groups that do not frequently interact, such as representatives of watersheds and basins, communities, the private sector and governments, is key to disentangling perceptions, views and ideas.

Tensions between urban and rural areas over water resources are becoming more intense and complex as urbanization outpaces the region’s capacity to provide essential services. In Ethiopia, we are working to understand the synergistic relationship between water demands in urban and rural areas, and to develop approaches to increasing water security, including the productive reuse of wastewater in both settings.

Unprecedented migration is reshaping social, economic and political landscapes in the sending and receiving countries. To date, communities facing labor outflows have received relatively less attention. IWMI is focusing on these ‘sending communities’ to understand the economic, institutional, cultural and agroecological factors that mediate the outflow of labor from rural areas, and explain how demographic changes are reshaping rural transformation in these areas.

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