Ethiopia Environmental Issues

The major environmental issues facing Ethiopia include deforestation, soil erosion and depletion of nutrients in the soil which, in parts of the northern highlands, are leading to a worrying increase in desertification. Drought also occurs frequently and the economy's heavy reliance on rainwater amplifies its effects, resulting in severe food shortages and famines.

The Horn of Africa has been identified as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Alternative models of global warming predict a rise in mean temperature for the Horn of 1-3 Deg. C by 2030, with consequent reductions in staple cereals yields of up to 30%.

Little of the natural vegetation of the Ethiopian highlands remains today except for south and south-western parts of the country. The influence of man and his domestic animals has profoundly altered both the vegetation and the landscape. Ecological degradation, including deforestation and erosion, is widespread, particularly in the northern and central highlands. Though not as severely degraded, the southern parts of the highlands are being increasingly affected.


In the late nineteenth century, about 35-40 percent of Ethiopia was covered with forest. Over-exploitation has massively depleted the country's woodlands to the extent that cover had dwindled to less than 4 percent of the total land surface by the turn of the millennium. The current rate of deforestation is estimated to be in the region of 150, 000 - 200, 000 hectares per year and the FAO estimate that fertile topsoil is lost at a rate of one billion cubic metres annually.

The northern parts of the highlands are almost devoid of trees and reforestation programmes often do not perform well. Seedling survival rates have varied from as low as 5 to 20 percent in some areas to 40 percent in others, largely because of inadequate care and premature cutting for firewood.

The primary cause of deforestation has been extensive forest clearance for export-driven agriculture, over-grazing and the commercial exploitation of forests for fuelwood and construction materials, without replacement. Development projects, cash cropping, human resettlement and logging operations, undertaken on the insistance of many international and bilateral organisations, have put pressure on high forest areas.

Soil Erosion

Soil degradation is the most immediate environmental problem facing Ethiopia. The loss of soil, and the deterioration in fertility, moisture storage capacity and structure of the remaining soils, all reduce the country's agricultural productivity. Soil erosion is greatest on cultivated land where the average annual loss is 42 tons per hectare, compared to 5 tons per hectare from pastures. As a result, almost half of the loss of soil comes from areas under cultivation even though they cover only 13 percent of the country.

Overgrazing, deforestation and poor agricultural practices, such as cultivation of slopes (up to 16o) not suited to agriculture, have contributed to soil erosion so severe, particularly in Tigray and parts of Amhara region, that as much as 200, 000 hectares of arable land have been washed away each year. Not surprisingly the highest average rates of soil loss are from former cultivated lands currently unproductive due to degradation and with very little vegetative cover to protect them.

Also, the rugged topography of the highlands suffers brief but extremely heavy rainfalls that characterize many areas and centuries-old farming practices, that do not include conservation measures, have accelerated soil erosion in much of Ethiopia's highland areas. In the dry lowlands, persistent winds also contribute to soil erosion.

The severity of the soil degradation problem is greatest in the north of the country and the Eastern Highlands, with the Amhara and Tigray highlands the most severely affected areas. It is no coincidence that the regions with greatest damage due to soil degradation are also the ones most affected by famine.

The withdrawal of arable land for past conservation projects has threatened the welfare of increasing numbers of rural poor. For this reason, some environmental experts maintain that large-scale conservation work in Ethiopia has been ineffective.

The present condition and rate of soil erosion in Ethiopia calls for immediate action to reverse this process. However, the present rate of population growth will lead to intensive use of land to produce more food and feed for the growing human and livestock population. It is clear that the intensification of land use must be accompanied by both increased production and conservation of the soil at the same time.

Soil Depletion

Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of soil nutrient depletion in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 20 per cent of all households use dung cakes as a source of fuel for cooking. Estimates suggest that the annual phosphorus and nitrogen loss nationwide, from the use...

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