Improving water security for the poor

Water security in fragile environments

The challenge

Agriculture is a vital part of the economy in Ethiopia and an important source of income for many small-scale farmers. Land degradation in the highlands is a major problem for farmers as it reduces agricultural productivity and growth. Soil erosion depletes arable land and leads to the sedimentation of dams, threatening water security for household use and livelihoods.

Sustainable land management has gained attention as a tool to support agricultural productivity, and avoid the negative economic and livelihood impacts of land degradation and erosion. In Ethiopia, the government has adopted the approach with an aim to protect vulnerable environmental systems and stabilise the income and livelihoods of the poor.

The activities of sustainable land management, such as terracing and planting approaches, encourage water to infiltrate into the soil. This helps recharge groundwater and increase water availability from streams and wells during the dry season, which will provide greater water security for household water use and for agricultural water use.

The observatory

This observatory will investigate the role of sustainable land management activities in securing water for livelihoods and household use. In 2012, the Water and Land Resource Centre established six ‘Learning Watersheds’ in the highlands of central and north-western Ethiopia in order to pilot sustainable land management. This work has included promotion of small-scale irrigation activities. These established research sites offer an opportunity to study the complex relationship between poverty and water security in fragile ecosystems.

We will explore how changes in water security benefit women, men, girls and boys. Understanding how gender influences access to water will help develop initiatives to enhance women’s access to and control over water in Ethiopia.

The research will help inform national programmes on sustainable land management, water supply, and small-scale irrigation, ensuring that groundwater is used sustainably at the watershed scale.

Research questions

  1. Can sustainable land management interventions interrupt the relationship between water insecurity and poverty, supporting human development within the interventions and contribute to sustainable growth nationally?
  2. How do sustainable land management programmes relate to interventions promoting groundwater use, and how can the benefits of groundwater development for the rural poor be secured and maximised?
  3. How are the benefits and impacts of participatory sustainable land management approaches distributed within households and communities?

News and blog

Making small-scale irrigation work for women, January 2019

How Sustainable Land Management can improve water security in the Ethiopian Highlands, August 2017

Gender and water: understanding water security in the household, April 2016

Water for agriculture: managing the land and rains in the Ethiopian highlands, July 2015


Grasham, C., Charles, K.J., & Geneti, T. (2022). (Re-)orienting the Concept of Water Risk to Better Understand Inequities in Water Security Frontiers in Water Volume 3, Article 7994515

Mersha, B.D., Zeleke, G., Alamirew, T., Dejen, Z.A., & Gebrehiwot, S.G. (2022). Soil moisture spatio-temporal variability under treated and untreated catchment conditions in a fragile tropical highland environment: implication for water security. Arabian Journal of Geosciences, 15:696

Mersha, B.D., Zeleke, G., Alamirew, T., Dejen, Z.A., & Gebrehiwot, S.G. (2022). Assessing the effect of sustainable land management on improving water security in the Blue Nile Highlands: a paired catchment approach Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 194:197

Kato, E., Mekonnen, D., Tiruneh S., & Ringler, C. (2021). Sustainable land management, gender, and agricultural productivity IFPRI-REACH Project Note, November 2021

Kato, E., Mekonnen, D., Tiruneh. S., and Ringler, C. (2019). Sustainable land management and its effects on water security and poverty. IFPRI Discussion paper 01811.

Korzenevica, M. (2019). Emerging themes on considering water equity. REACH Research Brief, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

REACH (2015) Country Diagnostic Report, Ethiopia. REACH Working Paper 2, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Research team

IRC: Dr John Butterworth

International Food Policy Research Institute: Dr Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Dr Claudia Ringler

University of KwaZulu-Natal: Dr Seifu Kebede

University of Oxford: Dr Katrina Charles

Water and Land Resource Centre: Dr Solomon Gebrehiwot, Berihun Mersha, Dr Gete Zeleke

‘Understanding how water security affects Ethiopia’s growth and poverty reduction efforts is vital to realising its drive for middle-income status by 2025.’

Dr Gete Zeleke, Water and Land Resource Centre

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