29 May 2018

Ethiopia: Climate Change, Excessive Water Extraction Behind Vanishing Ethiopian Lakes

Ethiopia is one of the African countries endowed with abundant fresh water resources and commonly dubbed as the Water Tower of Africa. The country is currently building Africa's biggest hydroelectric dam, which is expected to generate 6200 MW while completed in few years' time.

Despite the huge resource of renewable surface and ground waters that amounts to 123 and 2.6 billion cubic meters respectively per annum, Ethiopia is confronting huge challenges of diminishing and disappearances of its water bodies, especially lakes and rivers, due to Climate Change and over utilization.

The problems apparently causing similar effects on other African water bodies, like the Lake Chad, seem to shape all the situations confronting Ethiopian lakes and rivers, especially those in the Rift valley River Basin.

Zewudu Molla, a farmer who grows vegetables for market using water from Lake Ziway (Rift Valley Basin), which is located 160 km south of the Capital Addis Abeba, says that tapping the lake's water by his water pump is nowadays becoming difficult for his plot as the lake is diminishing and his farm and the water surrounding it is divided apart. Hundreds of other small-holder vegetable growing farmers near the water of Lake Ziway face similar problems; and many blame them to be the cause of the decreasing water volume of the lake.

Ethiopia has already lost one of its great lakes, the Haramaya Lake, located some 510 km east of Addis Abeba. This situation has already created a national remorse. The lake, which once was the size of more than 10 miles around and 30 feet deep, has gone once and for all. Consequently, the historic city of Harar, which is considered as the fourth holy city of Islam with population of over 100,000 and is found a few kilometers from the Haramaya Lake site is now struggling to find another source of potable water. Its fishermen have also moved to another nearby lake that probably would face the same fate.

According to official sources, Haramaya's lake bed is now dry, racked and without a drop of water because of erosion, population increase, wasteful farming practices, and little or no attention by the government and an increase in climate change.

Professor Zinabu Gebre-Mariam of Hawassa University in southern Ethiopia says that most cities and towns are flourishing along several Rift Valley lakes. "The Chamo, Abaya, Hawassa, Ziway, Koka as well as other lakes are being highly contaminated by various pollutants generated by the urban settlements."

The country has twelve major river basins and most of its lakes and rivers are found in the Great Rift Valley where the country shares cross boundary water resources with Kenya and other lower riparian countries. Large water demand for domestic supply, industrial and irrigation uses has brought an increasing pressure on the waters.Various pertinent studies and scholars indicate that climate change take the lion's share for the diminishing of lakes and rivers in Ethiopia.

Officials from Ethiopia's Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MEFCC) also concur that the diminishing water bodies and their water balance has already become a huge concern for present day of Ethiopia, a fact indicated in various studies conducted on this issue.

Consequently, the results indicate that significant changes are happening in hydrological components and subsequent change in lakes' water balance due to high evaporation rates especially in the Rift Valley basins where the temperature is significantly higher than Ethiopian highlands.

The Sustainable Development of the Protected Area System in Ethiopia (SDPASE) also confirms that evaporation take the lion's share to the decreasing water balance. For example, the evaporation rate of Lake Abjata, another threatened and highly diminishing Rift Valley lake, is 372 million cubic meter per annum while the ground water out flow is only one million cubic meter.

Lake Abjata used to cover 194 km2 in 1973. Currently it is down to around 90 km2. Source: SDPASE

Though Ethiopia is not yet industrialized, the huge global Greenhouse gases emission would definitely affect its economy. As a result, climate change will have a profound impact on the availability and variability of fresh water as the frequency of climate extremes such as heat waves, drought, and change in rainfall pattern increases in response to global warming.

The misuse and over-exploitation of forests (fuelwood is the largest source of energy in Ethiopia) as well as lakes and rivers have also brought untold sufferings on the people and the wildlife who depend on them in most parts of Ethiopia where the water bodies are found.

"Pelicans and other birds are highly emigrating from the diminishing lake Abjata. We used to see thousands of pelicans and other birds around the lake; now it is difficult to see them in hundreds. " Fekadu Abay , a security officer at the Abjata-Shalla National Park, said. A study by Sustainable Development of the Protected Area System in Ethiopia (SDPASE) show that the waters of Lake Abjata had covered 194 km2 in 1973; currently it has decreased to around 90 km2.

Lake Ziway, in the upper valley of the basin , is the main water source for Lake Abijata through the Bulbulla River. As its volume is decreasing it is significantly affecting the amount of water flowing into Lake Abijata. The water extraction for irrigation and industrial activities such as flower farms from Lake Ziway and its sources, the Meki and Katar rivers, is also posing a grave threat on the existence of Lake Abjata.

To this end, Bethlehem Abebe, a tourism and environment expert says: "If Lake Ziway continues its current rate of decline, studies predict that Lake Abijata will completely dry up within the next 20-50 years." The scenarios developed for the years 2001-2099 showed that both, temperature and precipitation are likely to increase from the 1981-2000 level. These changes are likely to have significant impacts on the inflow volume into the lake.

These instances happening mainly in the Rift Valley basin of the Ethiopia lakes are just indicators of the huge changes in the country's water bodies and rehabilitation works by all governmental and non-governmental actors need to be intensified before the worst comes.

Conservation and Governance

As efficient and sustainable use of water is critical for the Ethiopian economy, which is mainly agrarian, experts advise for conservation and effective governance of water resources. Conservation of natural resources, especially forests and all other biodiversity, as well as the need to prevent people from misuse and over-exploitation. Of course, local people and farmers need other alternatives to earn their living.

A project dubbed "Building adaptive water resource management in Ethiopia" is one of the efforts of the Ethiopian government seeking to build resilience to climate change in Ethiopia by strengthening water resources management. Such projects would continue to try in identifying the current bottlenecks in water resources management at federal and basin level, and plan actions to help the government and River Basin Authorities deal with climate change. However, the challenge remains top on the Ethiopian water sector agenda. AS

Map Source: UN-OCHA

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