Research partnership between Switzerland and Ethiopia brings knowledge to the field

By 2030, over 40 percent of the world’s population will live in areas suffering from severe water stress. Water – its quality and availability – presents one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Closely related to this are changes in land use and the degradation of ecosystems. The results of a long-term Swiss–Ethiopian research partnership in the Upper Blue Nile basin show how water and land can be used sustainably even in a context of rapid population growth.

A community effort to build slope terraces in the Upper Blue Nile basin. Photo: Gete Zeleke

Gaby Allheilig

The dry statistics tell a lot. Ethiopia’s economy grew steeply between 2004 and 2017 – averaging more than 10 percent annually. That makes it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Yet this agriculture-dependent nation also remains one of world’s poorest countries. And its annual population growth rate of 2.5 to 3 percent – or 2 to 3 million people – means that Ethiopia will likely rank among the top ten most populous countries in the world by 2050.

Ethiopia’s boom comes at a cost: socially, economically, and ecologically. One of the biggest challenges is water, which is often scarce or falls suddenly in torrential downpours. These downpours cause serious soil erosion that is made worse by unsustainable land management – especially overuse of soils.

Source: WLRC

Erosion: a downward spiral

The Upper Blue Nile basin is especially affected. In Ethiopia’s highlands, at elevations of 1,500 to 3,000 meters, serious soil erosion occurs in the form of sheet, rills, and gully erosion and fertile soils are lost.

This has a variety of consequences. On the one hand, the resulting river sediment loads are so great that they endanger hydroelectric plants and dams along the lower reaches of the Blue Nile. On the other, agricultural yields decline. This, in turn, triggers further expansion of agricultural areas into forests, grasslands, and critical wetlands, causing serious harm to these ecosystems. It’s a vicious circle that could lead to numerous conflicts – including with neighbouring countries.

A common sight: gully erosion in the Upper Blue Nile Basin. Photo: Gete Zeleke
The river’s heavy sediment load is clearly visible: Upper Blue Nile falls. Photo: Gete Zeleke

Innovations – step by step

“Solving these problems requires innovations that are locally adapted and sustainable – particularly in food production and water use”, emphasizes Isabelle Providoli, project coordinator at CDE.

Together with their Ethiopian partners, CDE researchers have been pursuing such solutions since 1981 – and have found them step by step: Following construction of a meteorological and hydro-sedimentological monitoring system in the Upper Blue Nile basin, measurement data have been generated and updated continuously – and combined with geodata and socio-economic data. The resulting “package” has been made available as an online platform to interested parties since 2013, in addition to customized information products for different stakeholders.

Empowering stakeholders from different sectors

The project invested in setting up and facilitating participatory processes and in engaging stakeholders from different sectors and segments of the population. Empowerment, awareness raising, and capacity building among local people were important throughout the process and inspired many fresh ideas.

New practices of land and water management based on traditional knowledge have been introduced, and six so-called learning watersheds have been established. The interventions had the twin objective of diversifying livelihood options while ensuring healthy ecosystems.

“Learning watersheds”: the core building block

For Gete Zeleke, director of the Water and Land Resource Centre (WLRC), founded in 2011 as an affiliate centre at Addis Ababa University, these knowledge and training hubs for sustainable land and water management are core to the success of the approach: “We use the learning watersheds to test best practices for natural resources conservation, agricultural production, and livelihood improvement. We regularly exchange experiences with and among skilled farmers so as to optimize, co-produce and disseminate the methods, especially those used in agriculture. In so doing, we involve all key stakeholders and make them active participants: land users, local community organizations, extension agents, researchers, and policymakers.” This enables the land and water management knowledge to flow into negotiations, planning processes, implementation, and conflict resolution.

Before and after: degraded lands have been restored through gully treatment and area closure. Photos: Gete Zeleke

The learning watersheds vividly illustrate how erosion of soils can be contained and even reversed with appropriate measures. In the heart of Debre Yakob Learning Watershed, for example, deep erosion gullies and degraded hillsides were successfully rehabilitated over the course of three years.

New opportunities for diversified agriculture

The measures have positively impacted the soils, environment, and availability of water. This development has created new opportunities for the local population, most of whom practice traditional subsistence agriculture. “When the watershed is properly managed, the farmers can not only increase their yields, but also diversify what they grow”, explains Isabelle Providoli.

(Inter)national efforts have helped rehabilitate 7.7 million hectares of land

The knowledge about how to improve conditions in the Ethiopian highlands continues to circulate and grow. It’s been taken up in lessons and trainings for hundreds of students, researchers, and practitioners.

It has also attracted the interest of international donors such as the UN World Food Programme, the World Bank, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Norwegian Government, and the German GIZ, who have invested extensively in the management of Ethiopian watersheds. As a result, soil and water conservation measures now cover approximately 7.7 million hectares in the Ethiopian highlands. That represents 23 percent of the land area that needs to be restored.

Urbanization poses new challenges to land use: Addis Ababa. Photo: Gete Zeleke

Water and land management remains a complex challenge

Yet even if the entire area were restored, the story would not be over. “One thing we’ve learned about water and land management over the years: it’s never finished”, says Gete Zeleke. “We keep facing new, increasingly complex and interdependent challenges for which we must find sustainable solutions.” Expansion of cities into surrounding agricultural areas is one example. “This requires continuous development of new research approaches.”

Transformative research for shaping sustainable socio-ecological landscapes

More than 30 years of research partnerships with Ethiopia and Kenya

For over 30 years, CDE has maintained research partnerships in East Africa and the Horn of Africa committed to sustainable development. One of the key projects, completed this year, focused on establishing sustainable management of local water and land resources. It also emphasized improvement of land management systems, preservation of ecosystem services, and effective transformation of conflicts over water and land in national and transboundary river basins. In both Ethiopia and Kenya, locally adapted solutions have been jointly developed, tested, and disseminated together with local, national, and international partners. These approaches build a model for sustainable development that is summarized in the publication “Shaping Sustainable Socio-Ecological Landscapes in Africa: The Role of Transformative Research, Knowledge, and Partnerships”.

New EthioGIS Mapserver

Easy access to geospatial maps and information on Ethiopia

WLRC and CDE, with support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), developed a web-based open-source platform for the dissemination of geospatial data maps and information on Ethiopia, called “EthioGIS Mapserver Ethiopia”. The platform is designed to provide improved decision-support tools and data to development actors, government authorities, NGOs, international organizations, and civil society, as well as a basis for various research endeavours. The platform can support mapping and spatial understanding in the context of project management, natural resource governance, humanitarian aid work, research, and academic education. The application contains three main web-based services that enable: (1) access to preprocessed maps; (2) mapping of selected information layers based on user preference using simple web applications; and (3) download of open geospatial data.