An assessment of integrated watershed management in Ethiopia.

Published online
01 Feb 2017
Content type

Gebrehaweria Gebregziabher & Dereje Assefa Abera & Girmay Gebresamuel & Giordano, M. & Langan, S.

Publication language
Ethiopia & Africa South of Sahara


In Ethiopia, watershed management programs commenced in a formal way in the 1970s. From that time up to the late 1990s, implementation was typically a government-led, top-down, incentive-based (food-for-work) approach that prioritized engineering measures. During this phase, the programs focused primarily on reducing soil erosion. In the early 2000s, community-based integrated watershed development was introduced to promote watershed management as a means to achieve broader integrated natural resource management and livelihood improvement objectives within prevailing agro-ecological and socioeconomic environments. Through an analysis of six watershed programs in three regions (Oromia, Amhara and Tigray), we review this latter phase of watershed management in Ethiopia to understand the extent to which the related interventions have supported improved productivity, and environmental and smallholder livelihood outcomes. Across the six watersheds, the results suggest that watershed management has had a positive impact on natural resource conservation, crop-livestock production and productivity, socioeconomic conditions and livelihoods. The data indicate that watershed management has improved farm incomes and food security by an average of 50% and 56%, respectively. Also, in some watersheds, the risk of crop failure due to moisture stress and climate shocks has reduced by up to 30%. However, the nature and scale of the impact varies significantly across the six watersheds. For example, vegetation restoration and land cover has improved by an average of 40% in the three poorly performing (less successful) watersheds, and by about 85% in the three other well-performing (successful) watersheds. Moreover, the factors that contribute to the success of watershed management are multidimensional, including biophysical, institutional and socioeconomic elements, and watersheds with permeable lithology (e.g., sandstone or alluvial deposits) and a concave shape show good upstream-downstream hydrological linkages, while the opposite is true in areas dominated by limestone lithology. Other factors that were found to significantly influence the 'success' of watershed management include the presence of supporting institutional structures and the extent of community participation. Several challenges were also identified that threaten the success of watershed management. These include the lack of technical advice and information to support the selection of interventions suitable for the local context; uncoordinated interventions, institutions and actors within a watershed; and, importantly, the uneven distribution of the water management costs and benefits. To address these challenges and support the scaling up of best practices, this study recommends (i) linking physical and biological conservation activities with income-generating and livelihood improvement activities; (ii) tailoring technologies and implementation approaches to prevailing agro-climatic, biophysical and socioeconomic conditions; (iii) co-managing surface and subsurface water resources to improve water productivity; (iv) strengthening institutional mechanisms to foster partnership among stakeholders, and ensure the fair and equitable sharing of costs and benefits; (v) supporting community participation with adequate technical and financial support; (vi) improving access to markets; and (vii) developing guidelines for the collection of baseline data, and monitoring and evaluation of water management interventions.

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