Environmental and Socioeconomic Profile of Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a large country (>1.1 M km2 area) characterized by large geophysical and ecological diversity. Elevation in the country ranges from 4,620m above mean sea level to 120m below mean seal level. Climate in the country shows extreme spatial variations, mainly because of altitude and variations in topographic conditions. As Krauer (1988) has succinctly put it: ‘within short horizontal distances, climate conditions from tropical to subhumid, and subtropical to arctic can occur.’ The nature of the topography presents both opportunities and constraints to development. For instance, the rugged nature of the terrain makes road construction expensive and maintenance costly. On the positive side though, the topographic and climatic diversity has enabled the presence of numerous plant and animal species, and some of these are endemic to the country. Ethiopia is known for its biodiversity resource as one of the Vavilov centres of crop genetic diversity.

In terms of agro-ecology, Ethiopia is traditionally classified into three major zones, namely, Dega (highland), Woina-Dega (mid-highland) and Kolla (lowland). The Dega Zone consists of highlands with altitudes of over 2,300m, and the Woina-Dega Zone refers to areas with altitudes between 1,500 and 2,300m. The Kolla Zone represents areas lying below 1,500m. Large parts of the cultivated areas of the country are found in the Dega and Woina-Dega zones, while the Kolla areas are dominated by pastoral and agro-pastoral systems. Altogether, some 60 per cent of the total area of the country is reported to be suitable for agricultural production. Obviously, altitude - with its influence on temperature - is the only reference for the traditional agro-ecological zonation of Ethiopia. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) (2000) produced a more detailed agro-ecological classification by taking into consideration temperature and moisture regimes in addition to altitude. Accordingly, 18 major agro-ecological zones and 48 sub agro-ecological regions have been identified.

The landmass of the country is also often classified into highlands and lowlands by referring to the 1,500m contour line. According to this classification, the highlands account for 43-45 per cent of the total area of the country, while the lowlands account for the balance. The highlands occupy the central parts and they are endowed with moderate temperatures, and adequate rainfall (800 – 2200mm per annum) for rain-fed agriculture and fertile soils. As a result, the highlands have been settled for millennia, and settled agriculture is believed to have a matching history (McCann 1995). Presently, the Ethiopian highlands accommodate some 88 per cent of the human population of the country, and 75 per cent of the livestock population (Ermias 2003). Roughly, 95 per cent of the regularly cultivated lands are also situated in these highlands. Population density in the highlands is one of the highest in Africa. The inhabitants of this area are engaged in mixed agriculture, and cereals - mainly tef, wheat, barley, sorghum, maize and millet - are the major crops produced. Livestock play a key role; they are sources of draught power, food (animal products) and investment (wealth) to the farmers.
The lowlands, on the other hand, are located in the peripheral areas of the country in the north-western, western, southern, eastern and south-eastern parts. They are characterized by high temperatures, low rainfall (< 800mm per year), high potential evapotranspiration, strong and dry winds, and the prevalence of tropical diseases, particularly malaria. In the lowlands, water is the limiting factor to agricultural activities and human settlement. The inhabitants are largely pastoralists who migrate from place to place in search of feed and water for their livestock. The only crops cultivated in these areas are sorghum and millet, as they are drought-tolerant. In addition to the sporadic and unreliable nature of the rainfall, soil salinity is also a significant environmental problem in the lowlands (Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) 1998).    

The total population of Ethiopia was estimated to be 67 million in 2002 (Sahilu 2003), and the present estimate is around 73 million. With a growth rate of nearly 3 per cent per annum, the population is expected to reach 101.4 million by the year 2018 (Afrint 2003). Currently, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. More than 85 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and is employed in the agricultural sector. This shows the magnitude of the population pressure on the land resources. In addition to the human population, the size of that of livestock is also very large. Ethiopia has the largest number of livestock in Africa, and ranks tenth in the world. Pastoralists, who account for not more than 5 per cent of the rural population of the country own more than one-third of the livestock population (Dercon 1999) and live in the lowland areas. A consequence of the heavy pressure on the land resources is environmental degradation. Historical documents show that forests and woodlands once covered ~40 per cent of the total area of the country. Presently, however, forest cover is estimated at only 2.7 per cent of the country’s total area (Demel, Masresha, and Asferachew 2003). According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (1999) cited in Million (2001), the total area of natural forests in 1990 was about 13.9 million ha, and this was reduced to 13.6 million ha in 1995, with an annual rate of deforestation of 62,000ha. This is mainly because of the expansion of cultivation and settlements in forestlands. Consequences of deforestation and de-vegetation include soil degradation, alteration of hydrologic regimes, disturbance of local and/or regional climates, loss of biodiversity, and expansion of desert-like conditions.

Soil erosion by water is the major form of environmental degradation in Ethiopia. It is much more severe in the highlands. As estimates from a national-level study indicate, total soil loss all over the country is about two billion tyr-1 (FAO 1986). This is estimated to cause an annual onsite productivity loss of 2.2 per cent from the 1985 yield level. The same study estimated that soil erosion was putting out of use some 20,000 to 30,000ha of croplands annually, and projected that around 10 million highland farmers would have their lands totally destroyed by the year 2010. Measurements from experimental plots and micro-watersheds showed that the highest rate of soil loss occurs from cultivated fields, which is 42 tha-1yr-1 on average (Hurni 1993). Assuming an average soil depth of 60cm, Hurni (1993) predicted that most of the area of cultivated slopes in the highlands would be entirely stripped of the soil mantle within 150 years. In monetary terms, soil erosion was estimated to have cost Ethiopia 619.2 million Birr by the year 1990 (Sutcliffe 1993) (2.07 Birr ~ 1.00 United States Dollar (USD) at that time). According to Sonneveld (2002), the cost of soil erosion to the national economy has recently reached around 1.0 billion USD per year.

In addition to the physical loss of soils, mining of soil nutrients through continuous cultivation induced by the population pressure is the other factor contributing to the declining agricultural productivity. The traditional practices of soil fertility replenishment, such as fallowing, and the use of cattle dung and crop residues have now largely been abandoned. This is because of the land shortage, as well as the use of dung and crop residues for domestic energy production purposes as the forests and trees have become very scarce. Sutcliffe (1993) estimated that the diversion of these important traditional ways of maintaining soil fertility reduces agricultural productivity by 10 to 20 per cent below its potential. In view of these trends of fast population growth, decreases in per capita landholdings and food production levels, and land degradation processes, some researchers argue that the Malthusian crisis is the prevailing state in Ethiopia (Grepprud 1996; Sonneveld 2002).

Degradation of environmental resources deprives the rural population of basic livelihood assets and contributes to their food insecurity and poverty. By all measures, Ethiopia is presently one of the poorest countries in the world. Some 44 per cent of the national population was living below the poverty line of a dollar a day in 1999/2000 (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) 2001). According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2002), the country ranks one of the last in terms of the standard development indicators. For instance, only 24 per cent of the national population has access to improved water supply and only 15 per cent has access to adequate sanitation. Similarly, infant mortality rate is 97 per one thousand live births, 48 per cent of children are malnourished, and 9.6 per cent, 45 per cent and 57 per cent of children are stunted, underweight and wasted, respectively (UNDP 2002). The average life expectancy at birth is well below 50 years. The caloric intake of the population is 16 per cent lower than the 2,100Kcal that has been set by World Health Organisation (WHO) as the minimum acceptable level (Kifle and Yoseph 1999). Health services are grossly inadequate. Further, the country has one of the lowest road densities in the world. 

The pillar of the Ethiopian economy is agriculture. It contributes, on average, some 47 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 90 per cent to the total export earnings. The agricultural sector constitutes crop, livestock, fishery and forestry sub-sectors. The crop sub-sector is dominant and accounts for more than 60 per cent of the agricultural GDP, while the livestock sub-sector accounts for around 20 per cent; the other sub-sectors account for the balance. The smallholder household production system is predominant, as smallholder farmers cultivate over 90 per cent of the total cropland in the country and produce over 90 per cent of the total agricultural output (Mulat, Fantu, and Tadele 2004). The smallholders’ landholdings are very small (~1.0-1.5ha per household) and the use of agricultural inputs is one of the lowest even by sub-Saharan African countries’ standards. The Ethiopian agriculture is almost totally rain-fed, despite availability of a considerable potential for irrigation development (Seleshi et al. 2005). On the other hand, rainfall variability is high; on average, ‘one every three or four years is a drought year’ (Dercon 1999). Lowland and labour productivity also characterises Ethiopian agriculture.

Ethiopia was self-sufficient in food production until the late 1950s; indeed, the country was an exporter of grains (Dercon 1999). Since the early 1960s, however, domestic food production has failed to meet national requirements for food, and the number of food insecure people has been increasing since then (Debebe 2000; Mulat, Fantu, and Tadele 2004). Over the past fifteen years, the country has been receiving 700,000 tons of food aid per annum on average (Mulat, Fantu, and Tadele 2004). Currently, Ethiopia is one of the most food-insecure countries in the world. The existing national economic development strategy, which was formulated in 1994, is Agriculture Development Led Industrialization (ADLI). This strategy takes agriculture not only as the means of ensuring household and national food security, but also as the driving force for the transformation of the whole economy. The ADLI strategy is aimed at improving productivity of smallholder agriculture through the provision of, inter alia, agricultural inputs, such as chemical fertilisers; improved infrastructure, such as rural access roads and marketing facilities; and promotion of small-scale irrigation and natural resource management practices. Some critics argue that over-emphasis on agriculture under the existing circumstances through the ADLI strategy has conceivably contributed to food insecurity in the country (Devereux 2000; Sørensen 2003).

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