Africa

Water inequity lessons from Ethiopia's Tana Watershed 

While global action lags, communities like those in the Tana watershed, Ethiopia are working tirelessly to address their water challenges locally.

While global action lags, communities like those in the Tana watershed, Ethiopia are working tirelessly to address their water challenges locally. Image: Pexels/Safari Consoler

Eliza L. Swedenborg
Manager, Strategy and Performance, Water Program, World Resources Institute
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Africa

  • Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, is experiencing increasing water scarcity due to climate change and local practices.
  • Local farmers are struggling with erratic rainfall patterns and a drying reservoir, impacting their livelihoods.
  • The concept of water as a "global commons" highlights the disconnect between the source of problems and those who suffer the most.

Lake Tana is immense. From a shoreline too distant to see, waves move across the lake, bringing warm, humid air to the city of Bahir Dar in northwest Ethiopia. Further inland, farming communities irrigate their crops — wheat, corn, potatoes, onions — drawing from a reservoir fast-filling with silt. Up in the highlands, the earth is scarred with deep cracks, and household wells run dry.

Even here in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, a place historically known for its water abundance, there is increasing water scarcity. Throughout this landscape, the Tana watershed, farming families wonder when the rains will come this year. They are experiencing the impacts of a changing climate firsthand: a water cycle out of sync with centuries of farming tradition.

Yezina Alemneh is one of many farmers grappling with water scarcity in Ethiopia’s Tana watershed.
Yezina Alemneh is one of many farmers grappling with water scarcity in Ethiopia’s Tana watershed. Image: Nubia Media & Communications

W/ro Yezina Alemneh* cares for her young son and the family cattle in a part of the Tana where wells and springs are drying up. She joins other women and children to walk far distances and wait in long lines to collect water, sometimes costing hours of her day.

“Now I have finished my studies, so I can wait in line to get water,” she said. “But the students ... they can’t reach school on time.”

As is the case elsewhere, the causes of water insecurity in the Tana watershed are complex, driven in part by local conditions like a growing population, an expanding economy, inadequate water governance and insufficient investment in infrastructure like wells and sewage systems. But there are also bigger sources far outside the control of Tana’s farming communities.

Their story lays bare one of the fundamental inequities in water management: While water problems are felt most acutely at the local level, their drivers are increasingly global.

Discover

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water is part of the global commons, but it isn’t treated that way

Water is usually seen as a local common good, and water challenges a local issue — so much so that “water is local” is an axiom commonly heard in the water expert community. This dominant perception influences how water is managed. The burden of local water security falls largely on the shoulders of local institutions like national ministries, city water utilities, or community-based organizations.

Unquestionably, local factors and local management are critical — water management should be a reflection of the local context, such as the geology, climate, economy and cultural values of a place. But there’s also a new paradigm emerging — one that positions water not just as a resource to be managed locally, but as a fundamental piece of the “global commons.”

At the UN 2023 Water Conference — the first-such international conference in nearly 50 years — UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi described the water cycle as a global common good that transcends culture and borders. The idea is still far from consensus — as anything deemed part of the global commons might elicit questions about sovereignty and accountability — but it still emerged from the proceedings as a central theme.

But how is water part of the global commons? The word “water” typically conjures local scenes — the tap supplying your drinking water, or rains washing pollutants into nearby lakes or streams. The ways in which water is a challenge of the global commons are harder to see.

Ethiopia’s Tis Abay, or Blue Nile Falls. Even here in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, a place historically known for its water abundance, community members are struggling with erratic rainfall and water shortages.
Ethiopia’s Tis Abay, or Blue Nile Falls. Even here in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, a place historically known for its water abundance, community members are struggling with erratic rainfall and water shortages. Image: Nubia Media & Communications

Global forces are increasingly driving local water problems

Climate change is a challenge of the global commons, with dire consequences for water security across the globe. Many of the world’s most vulnerable people contributed least to its existence. Greenhouse gas emissions, polluting and warming our shared atmosphere are changing the water cycle itself.

Water vapor in the atmosphere increases with each degree of global warming, amplifying the warming caused by greenhouse gases and intensifying storms, floods and droughts. The intensity of extreme flooding and droughts has already increased sharply over the last 20 years. Droughts that used to occur once every 10 years are now 1.7 times more likely than they were before humans heavily influenced the climate. Water is increasingly being recognized as a climate change priority, but climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are far off-track.

Greenhouse gas emissions are not the only force in the global commons impacting local water security. Nor are they the only force changing the climate.

Since the first UN Water Conference nearly 50 years ago, the world population has nearly doubled, the global GDP grew five-fold, and the world’s growing appetite for resources and space has carved itself into the landscape. We are witnessing widespread loss of forests, wetlands and other natural ecosystems, and with them wildlife and biodiversity. Cities and agricultural lands are sprawling outward. Experts are increasingly raising the alarm about how changing landscapes and ecosystem loss impact the climate from local to global scales — including precipitation patterns, such as the impact of deforestation on rainfall both locally and downwind. In the Amazon, one study estimated that rainfall in the region could decline by 8% by 2050 if current deforestation rates continue. This degradation of what writer Rob Lewis calls the “living climate” is increasingly intertwined with emissions-driven climate change, but is too often left out of the climate narrative.

And then there’s another dimension of water in the global commons: the water used to produce foods and goods (also known as “virtual water”) that moves around the world via international trade. In theory, trade could be a boon to local water security, allowing water-stressed countries to import water-intensive goods. But about 39% of the time, virtual water travels along unfair routes: from regions where people already live with less water and less income to regions where people live with more. In fact, 50% of the virtual water imported by high-income countries comes from places of high water scarcity. Trade of virtual water is projected to triple by the end of the century.

This distortion of the water cycle is also intertwined with the climate and ecological crises, depleting and polluting the water flows upon which ecosystems and people depend, creating a feedback loop of increasing fragility and vulnerability. Water crises experienced locally can also spill outward in the form of supply chain disruptions, displacement, migration and conflict, underscoring and undermining water as an essential foundation to the global sustainable development agenda and interdependent global challenges.

In each of these examples of global systems linked to local water security — global climate change, the degradation of the living climate, and the too-often exploitative trade of water-intensive goods — there is a common thread: The origins of global water challenges lie not only outside the jurisdiction, but outside the water sector itself — in our food and energy systems, in urban development and rural land management, in systems of trade and finance. Impacts on water are often an externality, a paradigm of extractive economic systems out of sync with vital planetary systems.

Farmers look after their flock of sheep. Many people in northwestern Ethiopia raise cattle, sheep and goats as part of their livelihoods
Farmers look after their flock of sheep. Many people in northwestern Ethiopia raise cattle, sheep and goats as part of their livelihoods Image: Nubia Media & Communications

Each of these extranational forces is far outside the control of the residents of the Tana watershed, but they are heavily affected by them regardless. They are impacted when deforestation 3,000 kilometers away in the Congo River Basin decreases the community’s rains. They are impacted when the government asks smallholder farmers connected to a major reservoir to cultivate wheat, a particularly water-intensive crop — not because it will improve incomes compared to the tomatoes or onions they were farming (it won’t), but because it will help with the country’s trade deficit. And they are impacted when global efforts to mitigate climate change remain markedly off-track.

Overcoming tragedy in the global commons

W/ro Birkie Tsega is the head of the agriculture office for Farta district, which covers the eastern headwaters of the Tana watershed and is home to nearly 200,000 people. Having grown up in this area, she has witnessed the impact climate change has had on farmers and the changing patterns of rainfall — rains when the fields should be dry; none when it’s historically expected.

Birkie Tsega is the head of the agriculture office in the eastern part of the Tana watershed. She often hears from farmers struggling with changing precipitation patterns.
Birkie Tsega is the head of the agriculture office in the eastern part of the Tana watershed. She often hears from farmers struggling with changing precipitation patterns. Image: Nubia Media & Communications

“At present, the farmer is wary of the rain,” said Birkie. “It is not constant. The farmers are out of sync with their regular schedule. According to our climate, potatoes are planted around May. Now, the potato that was planted didn’t even grow. Potato seed that was bought at an expensive price was completely lost.”

Ato Habtamu Tamir, the director for water resources management at the Abbay Basin Administration Office, oversees water resources management efforts in the Tana watershed and the wider Abbay (Blue Nile) Basin.

“Climate change is caused by developed countries, not by us,” Ato Habtamu said. “They should take responsibility. People are suffering for things they didn’t do or contribute to.”

A farmer tends to her crop.
A farmer tends to her crop. Image: Nubia Media & Communications

But while global action lags, communities like those in the Tana watershed are working tirelessly to address their water challenges locally.

In a part of the Tana watershed known as Minzir 01, community members are trying to replenish groundwater and streams by reversing land degradation, restoring the common lands through tree-planting and other soil and water conservation efforts. They planted more than 100,000 trees in the last two years alone.

Yezina is one of the committee members coordinating the community’s effort. “The main purpose is to recover the damaged lands by holding it with the tree roots,” she explained. “The land is being eroded and we are losing the groundwater we are currently using. The water shortage is becoming unbearable.”

“We dig today for a better tomorrow,” Yezina added.

Have you read?

Digging today for a better tomorrow

The path forward for keeping water safe in the global commons is less clear. Unlike the international Paris Agreement for climate change or the Kunming-Montreal agreement to protect biodiversity, there is no singular international treaty for water as a global common good. Nor would a singular multilateral solution be sufficient.

Understanding the challenge of the global water commons is daunting in its complexity, and imagining ways forward seems even more so. But perhaps underneath this complexity is a simple story: We need alternative paths to well-being and prosperity that do not undermine the very freshwater systems upon which we depend.

The question is not just how to reduce harm to freshwater systems and reduce water risks to people, but how to get into right relationship with water and with each other. This calls for cultivating a new sense of shared responsibility for our water commons — outside the watershed, and even far outside the water silo, from food and energy systems, to city design and nature protection, to trade and financial systems, to the very measurement and management of economic health. Where we are out of sync, how might we put unsustainable and inequitable relationships in reverse, shifting from extractive to regenerative, and exploitative to just?

The next UN Water Conference could be a key moment to kindle this shift. As the UN 2023 Water Conference was a moment of emergence for the idea of water as a global common good, the next UN Water Conference planned for 2026 needs to strengthen consensus around the idea and help translate it into new and better multilateral solutions.

Those solutions should focus on catalyzing more regenerative and just relationships to and through water, across borders and across silos. They could include things like: “Just Water Partnerships,” debt-for-nature swaps, or other initiatives that help developing countries channel finance in ways that serve national development goals as well as the global common good; innovations in multilateral trade that create economic opportunity and reduce supply disruptions without exploiting water and other natural capital reserves; and elevating water and the “living climate” in the climate action agenda, such as through national climate policies (NDCs) and finance.

Water insecurity is far from the only crisis weighing heavily on the minds of leaders around the world. But looking at the world through the lens of water adds something unique and vital to this moment of interdependent global challenges.

Community members in the Minzir 01 area are working to restore degraded landscapes through soil and water conservation strategies like terracing and check dams, shown here.
Community members in the Minzir 01 area are working to restore degraded landscapes through soil and water conservation strategies like terracing and check dams, shown here. Image: Nubia Media & Communications

Meanwhile, in the Tana watershed, local efforts to improve water security for the community’s well-being and livelihoods press on. Birkie and her team continue helping farmers cope with unpredictable rains. Habtamu’s office works to implement water policies for a more sustainable and resilient basin. And Yezina joins community members in efforts to restore the land, hoping to bring back the springs and streams.

The water challenge is immense. It is one that local communities cannot and should not have to solve on their own. Will we pick up our shovels and, in the words of Yezina, “Dig for a better tomorrow”?

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Related topics:
AfricaAccess to Water and SanitationClimate Change
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