Water Insecurity In The Horn Of Africa: Scarcity Or Institutional Failure? By: Hassan Mao


“Water Security” is herein described as the nexus between the availability, accessibility and use of water. The concept is defined as the ‘availability of, and access to water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet livelihood needs of all households throughout the year, without considering the needs of other users. Water Security is further described herein under ‘Securing Water for Production’. (Valerie Ndaruzaniye, 2011). While ‘Water Insecurity’ refers to the exact opposite of the mentioned concept that is been the unavailability and inaccessibility of enough water to meet the livelihood need of all households in a period of one year.

In the Horn of Africa, increasing scarcity and degradation of water sources seriously threatens human well-being. The population in the region (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda) has increased fourfold in the past 50 years and continues to grow rapidly (United Nations Population Division, 2010). Farmers need more water to feed more mouths and extended areas are needed for food production, at the expense of forest and pasture lands. With a high and stable number of pastoral communities and decreasing amount of pastureland, pressure on land and water grows. The mounting need for fertile soils and irrigated land is intensified by high international demands for food and energy. Investors from all over the world are ready to invest in commercial farming in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. With inadequate soil and water management measures being taken, this growing pressure on natural resources leads to a decrease in the quality and quantity of soils, forests and water resources. (Eric van de Giessen: 2011)

To put this region into water security context, according to Earth Trends, Environmental Information/World Resources Institute, Djibouti’s per capita is 460M3; Eritrea’s per capita is 701M3; Ethiopia’s per capita is 1,666M3 and Somalia’s per capita is 628 M3 (IRWR, 2011). According to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a country or a region is said to experience “water stress” when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. This means almost all parts of the Horn of Africa region can generally be termed as water stress region or facing water insecurity

dadka1Figure 1, Map of the Horn of Africa region (Yellow): Source: Google Map 2010

It is in this context; this paper will be exploring the water scarcity and stress in the horn of Africa region and how this will increase the vulnerability of the households and farmers as well as the impact it will have on the ability of the locals to utilize their socio-economic potentials. The paper will further attempt to assess the capacity of the existing institutions to manage the task at hand and finally the author referring to his personal knowledge and experience in the area as well as the reflections of the articles reviewed will hopefully suggest possible strategies for all the concerned stakeholders.

In this review article, the author will attempt to examine five peer-reviewed articles, some with specific regional details and others more general outlook on water security, and will then try to create a holistic picture on the water situation on the ground as well as the efforts of those in charge in trying to mitigate the challenges of water security and enhance greater socio-economic well being for their people. Here are the articles the author intends to review for this paper: 1:Valerie Ndaruzaniye (2011) Water security in Ethiopia, Risk and vulnerability assessment. 2: Eric van de Giessen (2011) Horn of Africa Environmental Security Assessment-Institute for Environmental Security. 3: Simbarashe Govere et.al (2010) Coping with Water Scarcity in Eastern Africa; the role of intra-regional virtual water trade. 4) Declan Conway, et.al (2008) Rainfall and Water Resources Variability in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Twentieth Century 5) Noah Amin (2007) Water Scarcity In The Horn Of Africa And Its Deadly Consequences.

Main Part

In this part, the discussion will be mainly centered on the major factors that are causing water stress and scarcity in Africa generally and in particular the Horn. Almost all the articles reviewed for this paper mainly agree the major cause of the water stress in the region, but as we will later discover it, there are few country specific challenges with greater regional water security significance to it.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Eastern African region, particularly the Horn of Africa, is considered highly geographically exposed to climate change and its impact over water. Out of 200 million people living in the Horn of Africa, 70 million are located in areas prone to extreme droughts leading to water insecurity and food shortages. In this Eastern African region, floods and droughts can occur in the same area within a very short period. Such events can exacerbate inadequate water availability in quality and quantity, sufficient enough to sustain agricultural activities and energy production. As a result, this often leads to famine and widespread disruption of socio-economic well being. (Valerie Ndaruzaniye, 2011)

Climate (Natural factor)

Valerie Ndaruzaniye, (2011) argues that Africa will face increasing water scarcity and stress with a subsequent potential increase of water-related conflicts, as almost all of the 50 river basins in Africa are trans-boundary. The Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (2007) report states that many factors contribute and compound the impacts of current climate variability in Africa and will have negative effects on the continent’s ability to cope with climate change. Various studies have shown that in Sub- Saharan Africa, low-income countries are especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change not only because of their geographic exposure, but also due to poor governance, entrenched poverty and conflicts.

Today, one third of the population in Africa is already living in drought-prone areas and 220 million are exposed to drought each year. African countries, particularly those in the Horn of Africa have been identified as being the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, particularly droughts. In this region, the unpredictable, multi-faceted climates are classified amongst the most variable ones in the world and on seasonal and decadal time scales. In general, Africa has a very low adaptive capacity not only to climate variability, but also to the existing socio-economic development challenges, which are exacerbated by the impact of climate change. Ndaruzaniye, (2011)

On the other hand, Eric van de Giessen (2011) shares some sentiments with Valerie, he raises other possible factors; A major problems related to water security in the Horn are water scarcity and temporal variability of rainfall. The recently published “Africa Water Atlas” demonstrates that the Ethiopian highlands have a large annual rainfall surplus, whereas all other regions (except for large parts of Uganda) face significant annual rainfall deficits. Floods can occur sometimes quite unexpectedly.

The water security situation in the Horn of Africa is more serious than in many other parts of Africa, let alone other parts of the world. This is largely due to the existing climate. However, not only natural factors are to blame. Also skills and institutional infrastructure play a large role in maintaining – or overcoming – water insecurity. For instance, the potential of rainwater harvesting and irrigation is significant, but greatly underutilized. In Ethiopia and Kenya, only 6,5 percent and 9,6 percent of the potentially irrigable land is under irrigation (FAO 2011). This implies that people can enhance water security themselves, by adopting innovative adaptive measures or by mitigating some causal factors.

Rainfall in most of the countries in the Horn of Africa is low, unevenly distributed, highly variable and therefore unreliable. In the Horn of Africa, less than 1 per cent of the cultivable area is under irrigation; in other words, the farmers’ dependence on rainfall is huge. As the region has limited other water resources, the scale and duration of rainfall is the main climatic factor determining land productivity. According to FAO (2011) the climate in the Horn of Africa has become increasingly unstable and the weather events are more severe. Similar observations are made by Oxfam Novib claiming that Kenya had three successive seasons of poor rains, Ethiopia had four and Somalia had even five of these failed rainy seasons.

Climate variability has also been observed by Declan Conway et.al (2008), they argue that as anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly manifest, the prospect of shifts in flows and variability underscores the need for better understanding of the drivers of variability and rainfall–runoff interactions in Africa. It is likely that extreme events are going to be the greatest socioeconomic challenge. Although sub- Saharan Africa is generally associated with drought- related influences, anecdotally there appears to be greater frequency and spatial extent of damaging floods, particularly in East Africa and Ethiopia (e.g., 2006 and 2007). Extreme floods have caused substantial socioeconomic disruption in East Africa (1961, 1978, and 1997; Conway 2002), whereas smaller floods may be somewhat overlooked but locally significant. For example, in Kenya (Tarhule 2005) Late 2006–07 saw major floods of unprecedented spatial extent (and timing) across Somalia, Ethiopia, and other parts of East Africa, which is broadly in line with projections in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report for increases in autumn and winter rainfall (Christensen et al. 2007).

Moreover, Noam Amin’s (2007) take on the region’s water shortage is not that different from other earlier mentioned scholars: He explains how the region is prone to devastating droughts. That is usually followed by floods, which often flush out junks of productive lands to the sea. Recurrent droughts often severely affect human and animal life that any sign of them are generally received with fear and worry. In fact, the Region experiences different types of water scarcities: (A) Natural due to its unfavorable climate (B) Demographic scarcity due to its huge livestock populations which often pollute available resources – dirty water similar to one not available. Exacerbating scarcity (C) Technical scarcity due to its low level of development. These problems are often compounded by lack of financial resources, political turmoil and lack of trained manpower resources (the brain-drain problem). Consequently, water scarcity is a major deterrent to sustainable economic development in the whole region

because of lack of development. In the Horn where the majority of the people are agro-pastoralists or lives in rural areas, access to water is limited to rainfall for both human and animal use and in most cases people have no access to safe water especially in dry seasons.

Most of the articles reviewed for this paper had a similar take on the major cause for water insecurity in this region – which is the natural factor. This region has been characterized by naturally occurring calamities throughout its long history, be it prolonged drought or subsequent floods that compound to the recovering inhabitants, but whether this is due to human induced climate change that has exacerbated this natural trend is up for another debate. One thing is apparent though; the frequency of these disasters has increased in recent times and all the predictions point to continuation of this recent trend if not worse changes to hit the region. But it’s not only natural factors that contribute to the vulnerability of the inhabitants and further reduce their adoptive capacity. As we will observe below other more human caused factors have added to the already fragile state of the region.

Population Growth

The rapid increase in population in the Horn of Africa region among other things is to be blamed as per the views of Simbarashe Govere et.al (2010). With Eastern Africa’s population growing rapidly, demand for freshwater is already becoming a problem. Figure 2 below shows the current and expected population growth in the region. Demand for freshwater in the domestic sector is also rising because of increasing per capita water usage. Horn of Africa is home to a sizeable population of pastoralists. In fact the region contains the largest grouping of pastoralists in the world: Sudan has the highest percentage globally; Somalia is third; Ethiopia is fifth; in Djibouti, one third of the population is pastoralist (CAII 2006). One of the main environmental problems associated with pastoralism is overstocking of animals, leading to depletion of drinking water sources and degradation of vegetation. Compounded by increasing demand from the domestic sector, this will present huge challenges to water resources management and water supply services. In addition, more land is being brought under cultivation in many countries, as part of strategies to increase food production and security. To worsen matters the situation the IPCC predicts that rainfall will decrease in the already arid areas of the Horn of Africa, and that drought and desertification will become more widespread (IPCC 2007)

Figure 2 population figures per country

                                             Population 1960              Population 2010 (est.)        Population 2025 (est)

Source: United Nation Population Division (2010)

Population growth has also been identified as a major water security challenge by several of the papers I have reviewed. Valerie Ndaruzaniye in his paper on water security identified population growth as a leading factor in this region, and in Sub-Saharan Africa in general. He argues it been one of the major factors exacerbating water security leading to increased competition over the depleted natural resources such as forests for agriculture and wood-fuel.

Institutional weakness

Another major challenge to water insecurity in the Horn of Africa is the poor governance factor. Civil wars, Islamic extremism, cross border conflicts are few of the security challenges that can be attributed to poor governance in the region. On a more relevant note to water insecurity, Eric van de Giessen (2011) elaborates how Governments, both local and national, seldom possess sufficient data or capacity to respond quickly to changing circumstances such as drought, floods, natural disasters and immigration. Despite the set up of early warning systems for crop production areas in the Horn of Africa, to mitigate food and water insecurity, the responsive capacity is low. Even though the predictions are usually highly valuable, insufficient communication about these forecasted meteorological data to local authorities often leads to a lack of timely follow-up action. Also, when such early warning systems indicate that a period of extreme drought is on the horizon, local governments and farmers have insufficient means to take responsive or preventative actions to cope with that situation. Many just do not know what to do.

Noam Amin in his paper of ‘water scarcity and its deadly consequence’ also mentions the lack of strong institutions and good governance to address water issues in these countries as a hindrance to water security. He further outlines poor governance at the source of social and political unrest; complex disasters and intra- and inter-state conflicts, which destabilize rural communities which, otherwise, would have maintained the ecosystem equilibrium. The effects of violent conflict on biological diversity in the region are also mainly negative. Violent conflicts impacted the environment both directly and indirectly. Indirect impacts include the effects of displacement and poor environmental governance on ecosystems. Displacement in Sudan, for instance, resulted in deforestation and unsustainable groundwater extraction in and around IDP camps. These challenges and many more contribute to the vulnerability of the inhabitants of these region further reducing whatever coping mechanism the peoples’ would have had to deal with the matter.

Conclusions and Recommendations

As one can see from the above-discussed papers, climate change influenced water insecurity in the Horn of Africa is real and is something that is currently experienced by the inhabitants of these countries. Most of the talks in the international climate settings are gathered around the idea of mitigation and /or adaptation to potential future impacts of climate changes and the unpredictable weather patterns set to occur in the world, but as far as this region is concerned the threat is real and already happening in rainfall distributions, persistent drought or failed rainy seasons among others. Water security mechanisms if implemented will hold significant promise for protecting local communities from the unpredictable weather extremes, which increase levels of risk and vulnerability in the Horn of Africa region.

In view of the pivotal role of information, governmental and academic institutions should work together to establish environmental information systems for the Horn of Africa. Enhanced meteorological information systems providing data on climate change, rainfall, evaporation and crop production should support decision making by indicating when floods, water or food insecurity are expected. Close cooperation with existing initiatives such as SERVIR-Africa is recommended. Further, data sharing and training is essential to enable weak governments, non-governmental organizations and local communities to organize an adequate and timely response to natural calamities such as draughts, famine and floods.

Finally, water makes or breaks relationships in this region. The linkages between water security, peace and development are exceptionally obvious in the countries of the Nile River Basin and the Greater Horn of Africa region. The importance of finding a peaceful solution to the existing tensions regarding the Nile Basin and the recently emerged Islamic terrorism cannot be over estimated. A comprehensive regional approach to climate change challenges is needed; closer regional cooperation on metrological information sharing for example will help local communities and farmers with planning for the season ahead and will in the process improve the water and food security situation of the region. This region has huge potential to finally emerge from its destructive past, but the water and food security challenges can hold its people back if not properly dealt with by the existing institutions. Having said that, there is new momentum found for the people of this region and hopes are all time high that this region will finally kick start its long struggle to brighter future for its people.


Declan Conway, et.al (2008) Rainfall and Water Resources Variability in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Twentieth Century: School of Development Studies, and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom

Eric van de Giessen (2011) Horn of Africa Environmental Security Assessment: Institute for Environmental Security. The Hague

Food Agricultural Organization; FAO (2011) Food Insecurity in the Horn of Africa. See: 

IPCC (2007) Climate Change: Synthesis Report.

Noah Amin (2007) Water Scarcity In The Horn Of Africa And Its Deadly Consequences

N. B. Ayibotele 1992; The World’s Water: Assessing The Resource.

Simbarashe Govere*, Felix Mtalo, Richard J. Kimwaga, University of Dar Es Salaam, College of Engineering Technology, Water Resources Engineering Department
P.O Box 35091, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

United Nations Population Division (2010) http://esa.un.org/unpp/.

USAID (2011) http://blog.usaid.gov/2011/12/water-security-in-the-horn-of-africa/

Valerie Ndaruzaniye (2011) Water security in Ethiopia, Risk and vulnerability assessment

Hassan Mao


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