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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 of dung for fuel, is equivalent to the total amount of commercial fertilizer applied annually.  Land degradation is further exacerbated by overgrazing, deforestation, population pressure, perceived land tenure insecurity and lack of land use planning.

Our Response

In our work we support reforestation, natural resource conservation and sustainable agriculture to reverse the environmental degradation and to provide rural people with food, fuelwood and fodder. 

In particular, our work involves:


  • selecting indigenous tree species (see right) for reforestation projects and identifying tree planting sites,
  • encouraging rural communities in our project areas to plant trees around their homes, on their farms and on community lands by providing tree seedlings, natural fertilizers and simple farm equipment,
  • propagating indigenous tree seedlings every year to help conserve the soil, reduce groundwater depletion and reverse the adverse effects of eucalyptus trees.  Development of indigenous trees has been supported by research conducted within the Science Faculty of the Addis Ababa University.
  • establishing a community tree nursery of indigenous species which will be transplanted to some of the most unstable and erosion-prone areas of northern Ethiopia.  The nursery, which will be managed by the local community, has a target of 10,000 trees annually.  Once this initial site is productive, similar schemes will be established in other areas,
  Soil conservation and reclamation
  • developing a worm breeding programme, or wormery, which over time will feed on a wide variety of food and agricultural waste, producing high quality compost to replace depleted nutrients in the soil,
  • encouraging small-scale irrigation by providing simple pumps and hoses in those areas with access to ground water.
  • moving towards conducting trials of drought-resistant grasses and legumes which will be used to combat desertification by reclaiming some of the most degraded and vulnerable land.  This consists of small strip plots (up to 100mtrs X 10mtrs) in suitable locations alongside water courses and low-lying catchment areas.  These will be seeded and fertilized with appropriate hardy species (cenchrus and stylosanthes varieties) which will stabilize the soil while providing nutritious forage for livestock.  Initially, the plots are fenced to prevent early over-grazing until such time as the crop is well established.  Further plots will then be prepared, eventually providing comprehensive coverage.

Training and employment

In all our work on the environment and in agriculture, we will offer training, advice and technical support to local farmers.  We will provide support for tree planting, the conservation of natural resources and sustainable agriculture by giving incentives, such as, tree seedlings, improved seeds, fertilizers and simple farm equipment.

Our nurseries, wormeries and tree planting initiatives will help rural communities to lift themselves out of poverty by providing training and employment opportunities for local families.





  Ethiopia's indigenous trees  include:

  Juniperus procera (Yehabesha tid),

  Acacia abyssinica (Bazra Girar),

  Hagenia abyssinica (Kosso),

  Olea europaea subsp. c uspidata (Weira),

  Ekebergia capensis (Lol),

  Prunus africana (Tikur Inchet),

  Dombeya torrida (Wilkiffa),

  Podocarpus falcatus (Zigba),

  Syzygium guineense (Doqima),

  Pittosporum viridi (Embelbay),

  Millettia ferruginea (Birbira) and

  Erythrina brucei (Korch).

  IDP is not responsible for external web content
    •   medical equipment for rural hospitals
  •   equipping rural classrooms
  •   supporting local farmers
  •   clean water & sanitation
  •   protecting the environment
  •    preserving and promoting Ethiopia's
       traditions, culture and history

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