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Meeting Ethiopia’s Development Goals by Addressing Links between Water, Energy and Food

In this project, SEI applied a 'nexus approach' to help policymakers achieve Ethiopia's Growth and Transformation Plans.
Land-use map of Lake Tana, Ethiopia

Key Messages

  • 73% of Ethiopia’s population are employed in the agricultural sector and 80% live in rural areas, therefore increased periods of drought have a hugely negative impact on the country.
  • The SEI nexus toolkit that was applied during this project showed how some easily implemented measures could yield major win-win outcomes for agriculture, energy and environmental planning.


This case study is from theFRACTAL Adaptation Inspiration Book– this link provides a summary of the book, the other case studies and a downloadable pdf.

In this project, SEI applied a ‘nexus approach’ to help policymakers and planners achieve Ethiopia’s ambitious Growth and Transformation Plans by improving agricultural and energy security. This was done at the same time as sustainably managing the country’s resources and reducing negative environmental impacts.

The collaborative project was undertaken in the Lake Tana and Beles River basins of the upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Objectives for managing local land and watersheds include reducing soil erosion, land degradation, and siltation of watercourses and reservoirs; increasing local storage of water for small-scale irrigation purposes and livestock; and maintaining wetlands and other ecosystems.

The FRACTAL Adaptation Inspiration Book contains a variety of case studies which are related to this case study, examining adaptation of urban water resources, agriculture and energy. The related articles can be found here:

Climate Risks and Other Stressors

Ethiopia is one of the world’s most drought-prone countries. The country faces various development challenges that exacerbate its vulnerability to climate change, including high levels of food insecurity, ongoing conflicts over natural resources, and severe problems of food shortages, notably due to unpredictable rains. Importantly, 73% of the population are employed in the agricultural sector and 80% live in rural areas.

Among the key impacts of climate change on the agricultural sector are:

  • Declines in soil moisture and reduced yields and/or crop failure
  • Lack of water resources and increased evapotranspiration will place even greater stress on agricultural production
  • Estimates suggest climate change may reduce Ethiopia’s GDP by up to 10% by 2045
  • Erratic rainfall and increased unpredictability of seasonal rains will likely lead to increased incidence of drought and other extreme events
  • Limited water quantity and quality will lead to the drying of wetlands and freshwater sources and to the possible disruption of hydropower generation.
  • Interlinked water and feed stresses will lead livestock to suffer from increased incidence of pests and diseases
  • As a consequence, livestock mortality is likely to increase. However, human health will also be affected

Adaptation Approach

The project analysed three scenarios:

  1. The business-as-usual scenario, which projected forward on the basis of today’s patterns of land and water use and management;
  2. The national plans scenario (which meets Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan targets), which gave highest priority to water for food production and energy generation;
  3. The nexus scenario (which meets the Growth and Transformation Plan targets, but also resolves outstanding conflicts between sectors), rendering the maintenance of the water level of Lake Tana the highest water-related priority.

Food and energy production and related environmental impacts differ substantially between the three development scenarios.

Continuing along a business-as-usual path reduces per capita food production compared to current levels because of rapid population growth.

The national plans scenario describes an intermediate level of food production coupled with high hydropower output from the Tana Beles station, which would seriously compromise the target to maintain water levels in Lake T ana.

The nexus scenario maximises food production and prioritises maintaining Lake Tana’s water levels; hydropower production is substantially lower than under the other two scenarios.

Link to SDGs

The nexus approach links several SDGs through its innovative approach: Water and energy resources are used in a more sustainable way (SDG 6 and 7). The infrastructure of water, energy and agricultural sectors will become more resilient by taking limited resources and possible climatic hazards into account (SDG 9). Thus, the approach also confronts the impacts of climate change (SDG 13).


SEI’s analyses conclude that national policies in the Lake Tana/Beles region hold certain trade-offs:

  • Increased water withdrawals for irrigation upstream may reduce water availability for hydropower generation and environmental requirements downstream
  • Agricultural and energy challenges are interlinked, indicating that the region has hit a biomass ceiling where the demand for biomass for fuel, fodder and food is in the same order of magnitude as the annual increment of biomass production
  • The widespread use of traditional biomass for cooking leads to large-scale loss of organic matter and nutrients from agricultural soils, which hinders productivity improvements


  • Shifting away from traditional biomass – by producing modern bioenergy on croplands or through other local energy innovations – could thus be important for transforming agriculture.
  • Creating incentives for the livestock sector to reduce the number of animals raised, or to plant fodder on current croplands could be alternative options to respond to the biomass shortage.


The water (WEAP) and long-term energy (LEAP) planning toolkits enabled joint learning between stakeholders from the agriculture, energy, water and environment sectors.

The nexus toolkit revealed and analysed interlinkages between these sectors, resource allocations, and environmental impacts.

Potential benefits and opportunities were furthermore uncovered: for instance, improved management practices requiring only small changes in hydropower dam operation rules would meet both environmental flow requirements and energy production goals, albeit with slightly larger inter-annual variation in energy production. Moreover, if upstream irrigation dams allow for higher downstream flows during the dry season, the result would benefit hydropower production, and ensure that environmental flow requirements are met.

Lessons Learnt

  • The SEI nexus toolkit helps planners at national and basin levels to better understand the complex relationships between different resource sectors.
  • It has also shown how some easily implemented measures could yield major win-win outcomes for agriculture, energy and environmental planning.
  • To achieve Ethiopia’s planned transformation in the agricultural sector, and to support energy transitions, several resource-use issues need to be tackled. The nexus approach and toolkit provide insights that can empower Ethiopia’s planners to achieve their sustainability objectives as the country progresses.
  • It can also provide answers to allocation questions beyond the project region – for Ethiopia’s entire growing population and urbanising environment.

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