Improving Water Resource Management in the Nile Basin

Photo: Tilahun Amede (Ph.D.)

Tilahun Amede (Ph.D.) works at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Maputo, Mozambique. ICRISAT aims to empower people living in drylands around the world to overcome poverty, hunger, and a degraded environment through better agriculture.

For the past several years, Tilahun has been involved in research-for-development projects on rainwater management strategies in the Nile River Basin. He has worked for the International Water Management Institute and the International Livestock Research Institute to lead the CGIAR Challenge Programme on Water & Food’s Basin Development Challenge for the Nile. Tilahun has also worked as a senior research fellow at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and as an assistant professor at Hawassa University in Ethiopia. He has been making a valuable contribution to the fields of agronomy and water management in Africa for over 20 years, and has published more than 40 papers in peer reviewed journals. He spoke with Nourishing the Planet’s Carol Dreibelbis,  a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program, for an exclusive interview.

Question: What is a “Basin Development Challenge,” and what makes these research programs effective?

Tilahun Amede: Each Basin Development Challenge (BDC) works at the river-basin level to identify one big agricultural challenge. Research then focuses on developing interventions that can improve livelihoods and ecosystem services in ways that benefit all countries in the river basin. BDCs emphasize collective action and cooperation to achieve these goals. In the drought-prone Nile basin, rainwater management has the potential to increase agricultural productivity and improve water access for all member countries.

What specifically does your work in the Nile River Basin focus on, and what knowledge gaps does the BDC aim to fill?

Many upstream countries of the Nile, including Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, are under extreme pressure from land degradation, deforestation, and drought. This threatens food security, aggravates poverty, and creates local conflict. Land and water degradation in upstream countries also affects downstream countries as it reduces water flow, increases siltation, and affects dams and infrastructure. It costs Egypt and the Sudan up to US$500 million per year to de-silt dams.

In the Nile, we have identified rainwater management systems as a key development challenge. We hope to map, store, and efficiently utilize runoff for agricultural production and ecosystem management. We also aim to improve the management of landscapes in upstream countries by promoting integrated rainwater management; reducing erosion; increasing vegetative cover; improving water storage in soils and reservoirs; improving productivity of crops and livestock; creating institutional capacity to manage resources; and generating evidence for policy change in upstream and downstream countries.

We have also established a national platform in Ethiopia that enables researchers, development partners, government institutions, investors, and policymakers to share best practices, jointly identify knowledge gaps, and develop priorities for collective action.

How is most food produced in the Nile Basin now, and what would sustainable food production look like in the future?

Most food in the Nile is produced through rainfed systems, although irrigation is used in the Sudan and Egypt. There is already food insecurity in most of these countries, and it is expected to worsen due to increasing population pressure, climate change, declining soil fertility, and recurring drought. Food insecurity in these countries can be best addressed by improving the productivity of farms using improved rainwater management strategies. There is a huge yield gap (two to three tons per hectare) that leaves room for increased production in the Nile basin. To close this gap, the region needs to engage in sustainable intensification to produce more food per unit of land and water.

How will integrated rainwater management strategies improve the resilience of rural livelihoods? 

Water management is the key to reducing poverty. Integrated rainwater management strategies will help communities improve the management of their landscapes and improve food security by reducing erosion, increasing water availability, increasing access to small-scale irrigation, and increasing livestock and crop productivity.

The Nile BDC recognized early on that these improvements can happen only if community organizations are strengthened, market opportunities are improved, institutional linkages are strengthened, and evidence-based policy is designed to support local communities. Because of this, we are supporting multiple initiatives in this direction.

What has surprised you the most while working in the Nile basin?

Despite century-old debates on how best to use the Nile water, there has been very limited regional discussion to date on how best to manage Nile basin landscapes. Downstream countries tend to focus only on getting more water, while upstream countries tend to think little about the consequences of their actions downstream. This is a real concern.

Similarly, public awareness about the need to improve the basin is non-existent. Many farmers know little about or pay little attention to land degradation until they are suffering its consequences; this means that instead of preventing low crop yields, farmers react to low crop yields. I believe solving this issue requires collective action. Institutions need to improve their communication with farmers and create awareness that land and water are interconnected.

It has been said that water will be the cause of future conflicts in Africa and around the world. Do you agree with this?

I don’t share the belief that water must be a source of conflict. In my experience, water is a way to connect countries, bringing them together to talk about both water and other issues. By working together to improve water access and management, decision makers have a forum to discuss both water and other issues, and minimize overall tension.