The economics of irrigation systems in Ethiopia This Research by ZEF researcher Rahel Deribe Bekele focuses on institutional and technological factors

Irrigation has been a priority on Ethiopia's agricultural agenda

The government of Ethiopia has promoted irrigation as a means to reduce poverty among smallholders in the face of climate change and variability and population growth. Investment in irrigation comprises over one-third of the total budget of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Growth Program (WB 2015). Between 2004 and 2015, the area under agricultural water management increased three times (FAO 2016).

Ethiopia's government has invested heavily in irrigation over the past two decades.
In addition to physical and technological investments, a focus has been given to building and reforming institutions in the irrigation sector. However, concerns remain regarding the overall performance of irrigation both for human well-being and the environment.

However, concerns remain regarding the overall performance of irrigation both for human well-being and the environment.

The study used data from 464 irrigating farm households in Ethiopia.

Using data from 464 irrigating farm households (with a total of 2,166 irrigated and rain-fed plots), this study assessed the institutional set-up and the technologies used in various types of irrigation systems and examined their impact on profit generation, farmers’ empowerment, and environmental sustainability.

The study investigated the impact of irrigation technologies on profit generation, farmers’ empowerment, and environmental sustainability.

The irrigation sector at the higher institutional level

At the national and regional levels, the policies, strategies and legal instruments are well- specified, and the relevant institutions and organizations have been established. However, at each administrative level organizations encounter problems due to weak enforcement capacity, overlaps in mandates, duplication of effort and absence of an integrated system of information and resource management.

Left: Traditional irrigation canal (Wondo Genet woreda). Right: A main irrigation gate of Koga dam.

Trade-offs between income, empowerment, and environmental sustainability

Currently, there are multiple scales of decentralized irrigation water management systems and irrigation technologies in use in Ethiopia. The irrigation water management systems constitute privately managed system, users (farmers) managed system, jointly (users-and-agency) managed system and open access irrigation water management systems. One significant finding of the study is that farm plots served by pump irrigation systems reap higher returns and display a greater number of sustainable land management practices compared with farm plots supplied by gravity irrigation, regardless of the management systems they are in.

Top left: Planting onions (Kobo woreda). Top right: Treadle pump use in Atsebi woreda. Bottom left: Weeding of irrgated field (Kobo woreda). Bottom right: Traditional irrigation canal (Mecha woreda)

Furthermore, the average vegetation biomass observed for plots under all types of irrigation water management system has increased since the adoption of irrigation by farmers. The highest Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) score is noted in plots under privately managed irrigation systems with pump technologies.

Koga large scale irrigation scheme.

In this study, irrigation empowerment at the local level is defined as the ability and capacity of rural farm households in acquiring information, making decisions, participating in, and strengthening local organizations in developing, using, allocating and managing of irrigation water. Regarding collective empowerment the results of this study suggest that groups of farmers practicing gravity irrigation are more likely to contribute to the initial establishment and the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the irrigation system, whereas they are less likely to be formal members of water users’ associations. Households who have plots in openly accessed pump irrigation system are relatively less satisfied with the water use and management system, compared to other alternatives.

Left: Shallow well (Atsebi woreda). Right: Illu check dam.


The overall results of the research indicate a need for immediate intervention in gravity irrigation schemes and irrigation activities that are not supported by institutions to promote equitable access to and management of irrigation water.

Strong emphasis should be given to active engagement, participation, and capacity building of all stakeholders at each level in the management and use of irrigation systems.
Spring water source (Timuga)

This article is based on doctoral research conducted by Rahel Deribe Bekele when she was a ZEF junior researcher. She successfully defended her doctoral thesis titled 'The Economics of Irrigation Systems in Ethiopia: Technological and Institutional Analysis' on May 10, 2021 and obtained her doctoral degree from the Agricultural Faculty of Bonn University. More information on the author and her research at ZEF here. Dr. Bekele is now working as a consultant with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Contact: rahelderibe@yahoo.com

This research was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) through the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) and “The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Global, Basin and Local Case Studies of Resource Use Efficiency under Growing Natural Resource Scarcity (Project. No: 14.1432.5-001.00)”; and the Dr. Hermann Eiselen Doctoral Program of the Foundation fiat panis.


FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) (2016). AQUASTAT Country Profile – Ethiopia. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Rome, Italy

World Bank (2015). International development association project appraisal document to the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia for a second agricultural growth project.