H2Oh no! Ethiopia’s water crisis

Ruby writes*

Climate change is a growing threat to countries in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia). More frequent droughts threaten food security, biodiversity and, inevitably, the water system. Every year, less rain is falling, acting as a push factor for migration, and, according to Murali Pai [pdf], many people own guns and will use them in order to settle water scores.

Addis Ababa is vulnerable to all these threats, and its growing population (increasing at 4.4% per year; also see figure) is worsening scarcity.


Addis Ababa has struggled to secure a regular supply of clean water for over 11 years. The locals mainly get their water from dams and reservoirs – the most common source being the Gefersa Dam, which can supply 30,000m3 of water per day. Total surface water supplies meet 87% of demand, with the other 13% comes from groundwater. The average citizen has access to 35 litres per day after accounting for 35% water losses. This is not a lot if we think about all the water an average European might use per day (drinking, cooking, washing, etc.) Overall, a growing population means more people will need access to potable water, most likely reducing the amount of water an average citizen currently receives per day. Lower water losses could reduce scarcity.

On that note, it might be useful to look at initiatives that address these issues in Addis Ababa. We can all agree that regulation is an important process that can ensure fair water distribution. However, Addis Ababa, being the capital of a poorer country, seems to lack a distinct water regulation system. A dissertation suggests that missing regulation explains why public tap users pay more than users with taps in their homes. It is also states that the water is regulated by a person assigned by the Kebele administration in the city (i.e. the lowest administrative unit in an urban centre). Overall, a lack of a clear water regulation contributes to the water scarcity issues, as not everyone has equal access to clean water.

There is however a distinct water service provider: the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA). This authority aims to provide potable water to the city and to regulate the sewerage system for a sanitary disposal of sewage. They also keep track of information such as the number of households that need water and tariffs of water. If there’s going to be a regulated standard for drinking water in Addis, then AAWSA would be a good place to start.

Bottom Line: Addis Ababa’s vulnerability to climate change and its growing population are not helping the search of solutions for solving the city’s water scarcity issues. Furthermore, the lack of a clear regulation system does not facilitate the problem either. New systems need to be researched and introduced to ensure correct water distribution and use and to reduce water losses as much as possible – the city cannot afford these in this day and age.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “H2Oh no! Ethiopia’s water crisis”

  1. Hi Ruby, Addis Ababa seems like a very interesting case study and I learned a lot from your blogpost. I was wondering about the climate impact on the city, as you mentioned there will be less rain every year. Will there actually be less rain every year or will the precipitation patterns shift leading to dryer summers and wetter winters? As wetter winters can obviously also cause problems like floods and landslides.
    I was also wondering how the water service reaches consumers, is this via a pipe system or a communal tap and what does the majority of the residents use? This can be important in regulating the water service as maybe more will be invested in the pipe system leaving many
    (poorer) consumers with failing communal taps.
    Additionally, I was curious if you know what causes the leakage of the pipe system, is it old pipes or just cheap and badly managed pipes?
    Lastly, I am curious how the water service is priced in Addis Ababa regarding the scarcity. Is there a regulation in place that will raise prices when a drought is predicted or does the price stay the same regardless of the conditions? This could maybe be a solution for the city to prevent shortages in the future due to increasing droughts.

    1. Hey Maud, thank you for your comment! The changing climate is quite an interesting topic in Addis Ababa. I read a general paper about the Horn of Africa, which Ethiopia is a part of, and it was stated that there is less rainfall every year and that there is an increased frequency and intensity of droughts. However, what seems to be the biggest issue concerning the climate is its unreliability and variability throughout the years. For instance, check out this link which shows Ethiopia’s average monthly precipitation from 1900 to 2014: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/average-monthly-precipitation?tab=chart&time=earliest..latest&country=~ETH It shows that some years will be drier than others, which is not useful when your country/city is facing water shortages and water quality degradation. I hope this somewhat explains it!

      In terms of water services, the main source of water seems to be public taps/fountains and yard taps, provided by the AAWSA – 75% of the city’s population gets their water from these taps. The remaining 25% of the population tends to have ‘in house connections’ – these people usually receive more water per capita per day. However, a survey on urban poor areas indicates that water can also be obtained from water vendors and kiosks, although these are less popular due to the higher costs of water.

      Leaking pipelines in Addis Ababa is mainly caused by the aging infrastructure and pipelines, as well as the bad management of the water system. If I am not wrong, the AAWSA is in charge of these pipelines, and their staff number is around 4000 for the city currently. Therefore, there is hope that this issue may be addressed.

      Regarding water prices, I’m afraid I’m not able to tell you whether prices vary when exposed to droughts, as information of water service prices is quite limited. However, you are right in the sense that it could be seen as a possible solution to managing water during drier periods – some literature has touched upon this!

      Hope this comment was useful!

  2. He Ruby, this is such an interesting but also wicked case. According to https://www.waternet.nl/en/service-and-contact/tap-water/average-water-use/ a one-person household in Amsterdam uses on average 142 L of water per day. This is extremely high compared to the 35 L in Addis. It is frequently suggested to raise prices to limit consumption, but is this an option in a country like Ethiopia where consumption is already significantly low? Perhaps not. The lack of an adequate regulation system is surely a problem, but I am curious if you found out more about actual regulations that could improve the current situation. Even if the 35% lost due to leakage could be minimized, a growing population and increasing frequency of droughts still remain a serious threat. Could desalination (despite its concerns) or wastewater treating offer additional water resources to face scarcity? Finally, you mention an unequal distribution of (clean) water. In my case study city ¼ of the population only use 4.5% of the available water. Do you know how bad the situation in Addis is and if this could be a potential starting point to focus on with a new regulation system.

    PS: love your title!

    1. Hey Laura, thank you for commenting! One of the biggest issues in Addis Ababa that isn’t mentioned above is that water is not continuously provided. In most of the city, water is provided for 12-24 hours a day, but in other areas, people have to go without a water supply for a day or more sometimes (in which case they store water, suggesting that they use even less per day).

      In terms of increasing water prices, this is a solution that has been covered briefly by some literature, but as far as I know, it is not a solution that is put into place. Increasing block tariffs (IBT) is a concept that is present. However, this doesn’t really solve much as the richer population is provided with subsidies and the poorer not. Therefore, the extent to which IBT helps reduce water consumption is questionable – especially as it results in further inequality in water distribution.

      Regarding regulation, the AAWSA (see above) is the main water utility of Addis Ababa and as far as I know, they manage regulation. I have read that the AAWSA delegates the responsibility of water regulation for the public tap systems to a person assigned by the Kebele administration of the city (Kebele = lowest administrative unit in an urban center  sub-cities are further divided into kebeles). For the rest of the water sources, such as yard taps and in house connections, the AAWSA seems to manage the system.

      Desalination does seem like a potential solution. However, in addition to all its socio-economic constraints, Addis Ababa is located in the highlands (because there a higher precipitation rate there). Additionally, the city is in the centre of the country, far from any coasts. Therefore, I feel that desalination is not the best suited solution for the city – whether they can afford it or not, that’s a different question. A small survey carried out in an Ethiopian town examined the advantages and disadvantages of a desalination plant and concluded that the quantity of water supplied was far lower than the satisfactory level of personal hygiene.

      In terms of the unequal distribution, I do not have a reliable number for you. However, I can tell you that households with ‘in house connections’ (25% of Addis Ababa population) obtain around 80-100 L per day compared to the 35 L above (for the remaining 75% of the population). Water regulation might be a way to fix this inequality, but it could involve reducing water consumption for some, which might have knock-off effects… Everything is so uncertain which is what makes the situation so difficult.

      Hope this comment was useful!

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