Lake Tana Watershed, Ethiopia

Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the main source of the Blue Nile, has great national and transnational economic, political, ecological, and cultural significance. It also is under severe environmental threat from deforestation, soil and water erosion, sedimentation, increasing demand for water, pollution, and climate change.

Through its Environmental Security Assessment Framework (ESAF), FESS seeks to identify those dimensions of environmental change and natural resource use that diminish or threaten human security and create or increase the potential for instability and conflict. In light of the serious implications of environmental degradation in Lake Tana and its watershed, in late 2008 FESS launched an environmental security assessment of the Lake Tana region. FESS previously has conducted environmental security assessments in Nepal (2004), the Dominican Republic (2005), Uganda (2006), and the Philippines (2007). The Lake Tana area ESAF study will be the first that focuses on a subnational unit of analysis, although Lake Tana’s contribution to the Blue Nile makes it simultaneously part of one of the world’s most important transboundary water systems.

Rationale for an Environmental Security Assessment of the Lake Tana Region
Environmental security is a condition in which a community, nation, or region, through sound governance and sustainable utilization of its natural resources and environment, takes effective steps toward creating social, economic, and political stability and ensuring the welfare of its population. The attainment of environmental security is not an end state but an ongoing process that requires the knowledge, capacity, and commitment that result from consistent monitoring and evaluation. Environmental security assessments (ESAs) incorporate interactions among environmental, natural resource, political, and socioeconomic factors to help identify sources of human insecurity and potential instability. The purpose of ESAs is to facilitate clear priorities and develop local, national, and international policies for integrated management of the environment and natural resources, and for the design and execution of initiatives to reduce environmental insecurity.

FESS has developed an assessment methodology, the Environmental Security Assessment Framework (ESAF), which seeks to identify environmental insecurity and instability concerns around the world. The framework is a multiphase analytic tool that combines data gathering and field interviews and culminates in a series of recommendations for effective and sustainable policies and programs for governments and other stakeholders.

Threats to Lake Tana and its catchment area have serious implications for environmental and human security in Ethiopia and raise other ecological and cultural questions as well. Lake Tana is the largest fresh water body in Ethiopia, accounting for 50 percent of the total inland waters in the country. The lake provides livelihoods to over 3 million people living around it and is a significant source of hydropower. The lake also is a major contributor to food security, providing water resources for agriculture and livestock, and supporting a significant fishing industry. Staple crops such as rice, pulses, and teff are grown in the watershed, which is home to Ethiopia’s unique cattle breed, the Fogera. According to the Ethiopian Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 1,454 tons of fish are caught each year at Bahir Dar, which the department estimates is only 15 percent of the sustainable catch. The fish resource potential is estimated at 10,000 metric tons per year.

The entire Tana–Beles region has been identified as a one of the first growth corridors by the Ethiopian government in its 2005–2010 Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP). The potential impact of these development activities on Lake Tana is not fully known. However, serious degradation in the Lake Tana catchment could threaten attainment of the economic and social goals of the PASDEP and other medium and long-term planning efforts.

Changes in the lake and its watershed also have important international implications. A decrease in the quantity or quality of the outflow from Lake Tana may impact, the downstream riparian countries along the Nile, who rely heavily on these water resources for much of their agricultural production.

Ecologically, the lake area includes substantial wetlands, which provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, including habitat for fish and bird species, regulation of water flow, and mitigation of climate variability. All of these would be threatened by environmental degradation.

The Lake Tana area and its 37 islands also are home to 20 ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church monasteries, which represent a cultural heritage of national, regional, and global significance as well as important tourist attractions.

Environmental Security Concerns in the Lake Tana Watershed
Lake Tana has an area of approximately 3,000 square kilometers and is fed by 4 perennial rivers and numerous seasonal streams. The lake performs a variety of ecological, economic, and social functions, but is plagued by a variety of severe environmental stresses, including:

Decrease in water levels. According to LakeNet, water levels in the lake varied by approximately one meter up or down between 1992 and 2001, and there was an especially noticeable drop in 2003. During a recent visit, the FESS team and a local environmental scientist observed a dramatic retreat of the lake at one site, where the shoreline had receded by about half a kilometer over the past four years.

There are concerns that population growth and development activities are impacting the lake in increasingly negative ways. Some experts have speculated that Lake Tana could shrink drastically in size within two or three decades. This would have serious consequences for the biological functioning of the lake ecosystem and for the well-being of the population in the watershed. However, there is a lack of reliable data, which complicates the construction of future scenarios.

Unsustainable agricultural practices. Centuries-old traditional and extensive cultivation practices that prevail in and around the Lake Tana watershed tend to degrade the environment. The situation has been made worse by the increasing demand for food.

The need for more food to feed a growing population and a lack of access to modern technology are stressing the Lake Tana basin. The situation has resulted in smaller and more fragmented land holdings, the intensification of agricultural and livestock production, and widespread degradation, especially via deforestation and overgrazing. The problem may worsen in the future as the population growth rate in the region is 3 percent per year, implying a doubling every 25 years.

The government of Ethiopia, in collaboration with donors, has been developing food self-sufficiency strategies for the Amhara region, where an overwhelming majority of the population do not have adequate land to provide for their food needs. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the government has introduced measures aimed at improving land tenure and security, which in time may result in lower fertility rates, in turn decreasing the prevalence of the more environmentally destructive techniques practiced by highland farmers. However, despite the attention now being paid to the problem, much damage already has been done to the Lake Tana watershed.

Soil and water erosion, sedimentation, and water quality. Deforestation of the surrounding mountainsides and the resulting erosion and sedimentation has seriously degraded water quality and quantity. Pollution, both point source and nutrient loading, also is of concern.

Objectives of the Lake Tana Environmental Security Assessment
The concept of environmental security encompasses the individual (human security), community, nation, and region. Thus, this study is not intended as a comprehensive assessment of all the environmental challenges in the Lake Tana watershed but focuses on the analysis of pathways by which environmental conditions in and around the lake may threaten the stability and security of local communities.

This ESAF study builds upon and seeks to fill the gaps in parallel research and development work currently being undertaken by the Ethiopian government and multilateral and bilateral funding institutions.

The environmental security assessment of the Lake Tana region has four objectives:

  1. Identify environmental risks to human security and stability at the local, national, and regional levels;

  2. Establish and describe the links among changes in the conditions of the lake, environmental degradation and deforestation of the watershed, and human security;

  3. Highlight the possible downstream effects on human populations in downstream communities and countries of a major reduction in size or disappearance of Lake Tana and their implications for relations among the Nile Basin countries; and

  4. Increase awareness of the environmental security implications of current trends in the Lake Tana watershed, thereby informing policymakers and other stakeholders and enabling them to develop policy priorities and implement sustainable natural resource management practices.

Environmental Security Assessment Methodology and Process
The Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability (FESS) has developed a research methodology, the Environmental Security Assessment Framework (ESAF), to assess the implications of environmental factors for development, stability, and security. FESS defines environmental security as a condition in which a nation or region, through sound governance, capable management, and sustainable utilization of its natural resources and environment, takes effective steps toward creating social, economic, and political stability and ensuring the welfare of its population.

The purpose of the study is to identify environmental security factors that pose a significant risk to stability and to facilitate clear priorities. ESAF findings also are used to develop national and international policies for integrated management of the environment and natural resources, and for the design and execution of initiatives to reduce environmental insecurity. FESS has undertaken environmental security assessments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including the Dominican Republic, Nepal, the Philippines, and Uganda.

The ESAF makes use of multiple dimensions of stability and instability (e.g., social, economic, political) as initial barometers of security conditions in a country or region. As with the concept of security itself, these variables are not treated as dichotomous but rather understood as a continuum, with instability becoming more acute and relevant to security as it moves through stages of heightened tensions, turmoil, and conflict. Nor are these stages viewed as a linear progression—they may be nonlinear, temporary, or reversible. In certain situations (e.g., countries marked by harsh authoritarian rule and poor environmental governance), stability itself may be associated with environmental security problems. In essence, the ESAF provides a rich description of the status of and trends in environmental security through the use of layers of interrelated information to refine and contextualize understandings and distill hypotheses that lead to credible scenarios and actionable recommendations.

Building on previous information gathering activities in the area, a team of FESS researchers are working in cooperation and consultation with a variety of Ethiopian stakeholders and conducting a series of interviews with government officials, representatives from bilateral and multilateral institutions, academics, private sector professionals, and members of civil society organizations. After the conclusion of the field research, FESS will prepare a comprehensive report consisting of the findings of the environmental security assessment of the Lake Tana area.