Faced with climate change and growth, Ethiopia's capital shores up its water supply

Thursday October 10 2019

A water basin is seen near Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September on 26, 2019. PHOTO | REUTERS


Every day, Tewdros Belay turns on the tap in his home in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital and expects nothing to happen. The rare times when water does trickle from the spout, it is reason to celebrate.

“Sometimes we do not get water for so many weeks - if we get water, we welcome it by dancing,” said Tewdros, 32, with a sad smile.

Like many of his neighbours in the Kirkos district of Addis Ababa, and like thousands of others living in the city, Tewdros has struggled to secure a regular supply of clean water in his home for at least 10 years.

Ethiopia is the source of up to 80 per cent of the River Nile’s water. But getting enough potable water to everyone in the country who needs it is a challenge, water experts and officials say.

The capital has long suffered with water shortages, the result of an aging and limited water supply system, lack of water storage and a rapidly growing population.

Environmental experts warn that climate change will only make matters worse in the future.


Hoping to ease the shortage, the Addis Ababa government has embarked on a series of development projects aimed at pumping storing, cleaning and delivering more groundwater.

The latest, the Legedadi Phase II Water Project, launched in April, aims to supply the city with an additional 86,000 cubic meters of clean water per day.

That would help boost the area of the city receiving regular water supply from 60 per cent to 66 per cent, according to Nigusse Desalegn, spokesman for the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA).

The government also plans to install additional groundwater infrastructure that would supply the city with another 130,000 cubic meters of clean water a day, Nigusse said.

“We believe (these projects) will play a significant role in solving the growing water scarcity problem,” he said.

Growing demand

Currently, the dams, reservoirs and wells that constitute the Addis Ababa water supply system provide less than two-thirds of the 930,000 cubic meters of potable water residents need every day, according to the AAWSA.

Nigusse pointed to Ethiopia’s steady economic growth, and its rising population, as factors in Addis Ababa’s clean water shortage.

The city’s water demands have almost doubled in the past five years, he said, and that demand is rising every day as the capital expands both out and up, with a boom in the construction of apartment blocks and offices, Nigusse said.

Bisrat Kifle, a researcher and associate professor at Ethiopian Civil Service University, said the problem will get worse as extreme weather events such as flooding and drought become more common.

Research by Bisrat and his colleagues published in 2017 estimated that by 2039 Addis Ababa’s current population of more than 3.5 million will reach 7 million.

As that happens, water scarcity could heighten “as a result of complex interaction of urbanization and climate change”, it noted.

The capital already experiences bouts of heavy rainfall and “we project rainfall will increase and the effect will be siltation (of reservoirs) due to flooding,” Bisrat said.

When soil washes into reservoirs, it leaves less room for storing water. As a result, he said, Addis Ababa and some of its suburbs could be facing an additional clean water shortfall of up to 380 million cubic meters per year.

The health consequences of lack of water can be dire, health experts say.

Among Ethiopia’s population of more than 100 million, about 42 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, according to the Barcelona-based We Are Water Foundation.

Each year, 8,500 children under the age of five die due to diseases caused by contaminated water, according to the foundation.


The state-funded Legedadi Stage II Water Project, estimated to cost up to 4 billion birr ($137 million), according to government figures, is due to be completed by 2021.

It will include 15 new reservoirs to store pumped groundwater and 176 kilometers (109 miles) of pipelines to deliver it, according to AAWSA data.

For now, a share of Addis Ababa residents say they have to resort to buying water for everything from drinking to cooking to washing.

Tewdros in Kirkos said people routinely queued for up to 10 hours to get water from roadside vendors and water tank trucks.

“We carry jerry cans and travel far away and buy 10 litres of water for 2 birr ($0.068) which will even be used just for hygiene,” he said, adding that he hoped the government would come through with a solution.

Nigusse told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government’s efforts to get potable water to everyone in the city are hampered in part by a system of leaky pipes and by the city’s sometimes erratic energy supply.

A study by the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology published in 2012 showed that more than a third of the water running through the capital’s pipes leaked out before getting to residents.

Unseasonable dry spells, linked to climate change, also are having an impact on the water supply, Nigusse added.

Almost all of the electricity distributed through the country’s power grid comes from hydropower, according to the World Bank.

When the country gets less rainfall than expected and dam levels drop, so does the power supply - which, in turn, makes it difficult for the government to get enough clean water to everyone, including those in the capital.

“There are recurrent power shortages, so it is difficult to pump water from the ground” into the reservoirs, Nigusse said.

For Bisrat, the answer lies not in building more reservoirs, but in making more efficient water use and water conservation a priority for households and businesses.

He recommended the government introduce a seasonal tariff - charging people more for water during drought - and impose financial penalties when consumption exceeds a reasonable amount.

“We have to know how to use our resources as a metropolitan city and think about climate change and water scarcity in every decision,” Bisrat said.

—Thomson Reuters Foundation