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
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
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:
- Identify environmental risks to human security and stability at the local, national, and regional levels;
- Establish and describe the links among changes in the conditions of the lake, environmental degradation and
deforestation of the watershed, and human security;
- 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
- 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
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.