Monitoring the impact of the 2015/16 El Nino on rural water insecurity in Ethiopia: learning lessons for climate resilience

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Geological Survey
Department Name: Groundwater


The developing drought in Ethiopia is linked to the ongoing strong 2015-2016 El Niño event and is leading to widespread food and water insecurity in the region, particularly for the large numbers of people living in remote rural areas. Whilst there is a well-developed national and international response to food insecurity, the failure of local springs and wells, the primary source of water in these areas, has caught many off guard, with growing evidence that migration is driven by water shortage. Research in east Africa during and since the last major El Niño drought in the late 1997/98, indicates that access to reliable groundwater sources is a major contributory factor to improving livelihood resilience, particularly of the poorest.

This current El Niño-related drought in Ethiopia, provides an important research opportunity to: (i) gather robust evidence of the behaviour under stress of shallow groundwater sources (mountain springs, valley springs, wells, boreholes); (ii) monitor the timing, magnitude and contamination issues associated with recovery; and (iii) assess the coping strategies developed by family groups and communities as water points fail. Methods developed since the last major El Niño event make this possible, for example: robust inexpensive sensors for continuously measuring groundwater levels, novel rapid methods for indicating pathogen contamination and a new suite of groundwater residence time indicators.

With this new evidence it will be possible to ensure vulnerable communities become more resilient to future droughts by: identifying resilient designs of water point; targeting mapping efforts to areas to identify vulnerable areas, and contributing to the design of early warning systems. The research brings together an experienced team from BGS, ODI, and AAU, all of whom are currently working in Ethiopia, supported by partners in the meteorological department at the University of Reading and various implementation partners in Ethiopia.

Planned Impact

Not required


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MacDonald A (2019) Groundwater and resilience to drought in the Ethiopian highlands in Environmental Research Letters

Description By monitoring the performance of different types of water supply during drought and carrying out detailed discussions with communities affected by the 2015/16 El Nino drought we have discovered: (1) different types of water supply are more reliable during droughts, with boreholes much more reliable than springs and hand dug wells; (2) that some communities without a reliable water supply were travelling more 12 hours to collect a small amount of water during the peak of the drought with considerable impacts on health, nutrition, school attendance, farming activities and increased conflict and migration; (3) the areas affected by drought were generally those that were water insecure in a normal year, and therefore could be identified and mitigation measures put in place.
Exploitation Route UNICEF and the Ministry of Water and Environment in Ethiopia are very interested in the results and we are discussing how it may affect the type of water supplied they promote for drought prone areas. Also DFID has a new infrastructure programme in Ethiopia for rural water supply and the results of the work could be used by them to help inform this new programme.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy

Description The results from the project are being used by the Ethiopian Government to help design future resilient water supply infrastructure. The projects co-I Seifu Kebede based in Addis Ababa University is in regular contact with the ministry and invited to shore the results at appropriate sector meetings.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Ministry of Water Irrigation and Energy, Ethiopia 
Organisation Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy, Ethiopia
Country Ethiopia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Our research team is undertaking research in Ethiopia and will be examining water points paid for by the Ministry. Our research team will provide updates to the ministry at least annually.
Collaborator Contribution An MoU has been put in place between the project and the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Irrigation and Energy. The Ministry will engage with the research process and seeking regular updates. The ministry will pay for staff to accompany the project team when required.
Impact The collaboration is at an early stage, but should facilitate uptake of the research later in the project
Start Year 2016
Description Discussion with community leaders and District officials in Amhara and presentation of local posters 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The results of the two years of monitoring were summarised and presented in a series of posters to aid discussion with the community members and district officials who had helped with the original research. These structured feedback sessions were a useful way of helping the communities who had been the subject of the research, engage with what the research team had found. In particular, how the quality of water can change after heavy rains and needs boiling, and which types of new water sources are more resilient to drought.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Invited talk to Engineers Australia on Groundwater and Water Security in Developing Countries 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact An invited talk to Engineers Australia and Australian Water Association on Groundwater and Water Security in developing countries. Between 100 and 150 water professionals attended and after the 1 hour lecture there was a long and lively debate about how groundwater can be used to help people adapt to climate change.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Presentation at the 34th SEGH International Conference: Geochemistry for Sustainable Development 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented climate resilience of groundwater to a mainly geochemical audience dealing with health and agriculture at a conference in Zambia. This was a great opportunity to discuss with an audience that does not normally hear about groundwater
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Presentation: Monitoring the impact of the 2015/16 El NiƱo on rural water security in Ethiopia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation and installation at a meeting at the Royal Society on "Building resilience to the impacts of El Niño".

The event presented the lessons learned from the NERC/DFID programme; bringing together policy makers, practitioners, and researchers to ensure these findings contribute to the development of practical approaches to building resilience to future El Niño events. A talk was given and also an installation for engaging with the informed audience of researchers, policy makers and NGOs. The event led to a special focus issue in ERL and good discussions with senior government scientists
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description The Ethiopian WASH CLUSTER Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Addressed the Wash cluster forum - a gathering of all the donors, NGOs and government agencies involved in water supply ion Ethiopia. Discussed the research we were undertaking and received strong backing for the importance of gathering evidence on how the El Nino drought impacted water supplies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016