Eastern Africa’s renewable freshwater resources amount to 187 km³ per year (AQUASTAT 2003). These surface and ground freshwater resources present opportunities for multiple uses in the domestic water supply, agriculture, fisheries, industry, aquatic, biodiversity and energy sectors. However, the availability of freshwater is highly variable both in space and time, and flooding and drought occur frequently. There is also competition for access to water resources between different user groups and between countries. Water availability and access are therefore priority issues.

The sub-region has extensive wetlands which are a buffer against pollution, flooding and siltation. They also provide critical ecological services, such as habitat for migratory birds, and fish breeding grounds. Wetlands also provide seasonal pasture as the water table recedes during the dry seasons. Many wetlands are hence undergoing rapid conversion to other land uses. There is also excessive sedimentation, dumping of solid wastes and discharge of huge amounts of sewage in some of the wetlands.

Eastern Africa’s freshwater resources account for only 4.7 per cent of Africa’s total, yet the sub-region is home to 19 per cent of the region’s population (UNDP 2003). This imbalance is set to worsen in the next two decades following unprecedented human and animal population increase.


This sub-region drains in substantial part the Nile, the whole Lake Victoria basin, Lake Turkana and Lake Natron, as well as well-known deltas and swamps, such as the Sudd in Sudan (NEPAD 2003). The lakes of Eastern Africa have abundant fish stocks and are rich with floodplains and wetlands that support diverse ecosystems. Lake Victoria is the second largest lake in the world and has a surface area of between 67 000 and 69 000 km² (ECA 2000); its surrounding wetlands contain 430 fish species, 350 of which may be endemic (NBI and others 2001).

Eastern Africa is yet to fully maximize the use of its water resources. Fifty-eight per cent of the population still lack access to clean and safe water (WHO/UNICEF 2004).

There is also vast unutilized irrigation potential. The irrigation potential of the Shebelli-Juba basin for Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia is estimated at 323 000 ha (this is less than half the potential irrigable land in the basin). However, currently less than 200 000 ha is under irrigation (ECA 2000). The Nile basin has considerable irrigation potential (ECA 2000):

  • In Burundi and Rwanda, given their topography, a well designed irrigation system could support allyear cultivation of 105 000 ha and 150 000 ha respectively;
  • In Uganda, at least 200 000 ha of land could be brought under irrigation;
  • In Ethiopia, potential irrigated land is estimated at 2.2 million ha; and
  • In Eritrea, the Nile basin could support 60 000- 300 000 ha of irrigated land.

Meeting urgent water needs can be achieved by maintaining and improving existing water management systems using intermediate technology. Examples are water harvesting, water recycling and leak detection for both drinking water-supply and irrigation practices. Small-scale and traditional water supply and irrigation systems can satisfy pressing needs for safe drinking water and food security. These systems are often more carefully managed than larger systems because communities feel “ownership” and take responsibility for them.

Eastern Africa is currently experiencing an energy crisis yet it has considerable hydropower potential, which is currently in excess of energy needs. It has developed only a fraction of its hydropower potential.

Aside from the traditional uses of freshwater discussed above, it has come to be recognized that adequate and reliable water resources are key to security. Eastern Africa is the “water tower” of the African continent. For example, 11 out of 12 Ethiopian rivers flow into neighbouring countries. The amount of discharge that remains within Ethiopia is not more than 9 per cent of the annual total (EPA 2003). Ethiopia contributes more than 78 per cent of the Nile waters that eventually reach Egypt. On the other hand, Uganda is both an upper and lower riparian state with dependency of 41 per cent on waters originating from outside its borders. Eastern Africa therefore has a duty to ensure that it shares its transboundary waters effectively amongst individuals, economic sectors, intra-state jurisdictions and sovereign nations, while respecting the need for environmental sustainability.


As shown in Figure 2, water stress is likely to increase. Eritrea and Uganda are expected to experience water stress by 2025, whereas the other countries are expected to experience water scarcity (WRI 2000). General circulation models predict an increase in rainfall of up to 20 per cent, a change in seasonal distribution of rainfall and an increase in air temperature of up to 5°C for this century (IPCC 2001), but there are also indications of increasing frequency and intensity of drought.

Eastern Africa’s population is growing rapidly. In 2000 it was 182 million people, by 2010 it is predicted to rise to 230 million and by 2020 to 269 million. The burgeoning population will impact on available freshwater resources and wetlands in several ways. It will lead to increased pressure on the land, destruction of catchment, devegetation of wetlands, and devastation of forests. This will lead to secondary effects of soil erosion, overall loss of fertility of the soils and poor soil moisture retention, further destabilizing the equilibrium of the natural hydrological cycle.

Overexploitation of water resources in some parts of Eastern Africa has led to undesirable effects, such as lowering of the water table and saline seawater intrusion. The current population pressure on forests, wetlands, rangelands and marginal agricultural lands, as well as inappropriate cultivation practices, forest removal and high grazing intensities, have led to unwanted sediment and stream flow changes that impact the downstream communities (UNEP 2004). This has led to unprecedented levels of soil erosion and siltation.

In the last two decades, freshwater resources have been exposed to increased industrial pollution and invasive alien species (IAS). These problems are considered in Chapter 10: Invasive Alien Species and Chapter 11: Chemicals. The rapidly growing population and the attendant agricultural development (which demands more clearing of forests, irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides) and industrialization are the main causes of water quality deterioration. Lack of domestic and industrial waste treatment facilities continue to threaten the quality of Eastern Africa freshwater.

Lake Victoria is of great economic worth to the subregion and of great scientific and cultural significance to the global community, mainly with respect to its unique water-borne biodiversity. It is suffering severely from: degradation of water quality because of pollution from land-based activities; the introduction of invasive alien species (both fish and plants); and excessive exploitation of living resources. It is also facing the typical consequences of these problems: potentially irreversible environmental damage, hardships among the poor, and serious health concerns. The lake is facing heavy pollution by domestic and industrial wastes, and agricultural run-off that has high nitrogen and phosphorous content. Invasive weeds, such as Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth), thrive well in such polluted waters. There is therefore a danger that the continued organic pollution of the lake may reverse the success achieved so far using biocontrol methods to control the water hyacinth.

Human and ecological health problems are a concern in some lake basins, such as Lake Victoria. Water-borne and water-dependent diseases, such as dysentery, malaria, bilharzia, typhoid, cholera etc, are common, erupting violently from time to time during the El Niño rains that often cause widespread flooding. Social habits, lack of education, and ready cash due to the expansion of the fishery have contributed synergistically to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Whilst high protein foods like fish are available, they are often sold rather than consumed by fishers (UNEP 2004).

Overexploitation of the fisheries sector continues to be a threat to the freshwater ecosystem. The introduction of the Nile perch in Lake Victoria, overfishing, unregulated gill net mesh sizes and exploitative fishing techniques have led to the decline of nearly all the endemic species in the lake (UNEP 2004). It has been observed that there has been an increase in fish mortality, a marked reduction in age attained, and length at maturity of the Nile perch, a reduction in catch per unit effort, as well as an increased proportion of immature fish in the catches (UNEP 2004).

There is high potential for irrigation in Eastern Africa, yet, only half of this potential could possibly be reached due to capital shortage. Redirecting governments’ budgets could be an option and may prove to be more cost-effective and efficient.


Improved governance and management set the basis for realizing available opportunities. At the national level, responses regarding increased competition over freshwater resources include revision of water resource development policies and greater involvement of stakeholders in water resource management and water supply.

Many countries face implementation challenges. Ethiopia’s Water Resource Policy (1999) focuses on improving clean and safe water supply, but there are no appropriate directives and regulatory instruments to enforce the legislation. In 2001, Ethiopia engaged stakeholders to provide input in the development of a sectoral strategic action plan to realize the objectives of the national water policy. The General Water Resource Development Programme (2002-2016) was initiated to address water quality management as part of integrated water resource management within the river basin. Under this programme, institutional set-ups are to be strengthened and new ones established for effective water quality management and monitoring, such as laboratories at national and regional levels, River Basin Commissions/Authorities and a National Water Resource Council.

Kenya has made progress in reforming the water sector, especially in supply and sanitation. Goals as stated in the 2002 Water Act include enhancing the provision, conservation, control, apportionment and use of water. As a result of these reforms, the Water Resource Management Authority was established, and the first National Water Resource Management Strategy was drafted in 2004 to provide a clear road map for assessing, developing and managing the limited available freshwater resources in an integrated and sustainable manner. Devolution of responsibilities to the lowest appropriate levels is gradually taking place. Kenya is also preparing a national IWRM and water efficiency plan.

Box 8: Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest body of freshwater. The lake and its catchment support 30 million people, and fisheries and agriculture are the main economic activities. In 1995, the three riparian countries, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, established LVEMP, a long-term programme which aims at improving the sustainable use of the basin’s natural resources.

Results of the first phase include:

  • A water quality model for Lake Victoria for various uses, the establishment of 56 water quality monitoring stations and standardized monitoring procedures; and
  • Reduction in the infestation of water hyacinth by 80 per cent from 1998-2002 and establishment of a Regional Water Hyacinth Surveillance System.

Two major transboundary issues associated with the two upstream countries Rwanda and Burundi were identified during LVEMP-1. These are the influx of water hyacinth and siltation associated with deforestation. Both countries will therefore be included in the second phase of the project. Some of the other issues to be considered in LVEMP-2 are:

  • Establishment of national steering mechanisms;
  • A focus on investment for high priority environmental issues (eg effluent treatment); and
  • Development of a management information system.

Source: LVEMP 2005, Nyirabu 2002

Uganda’s water policy (Ntambirweki and Dribidu 1998) is geared towards privatization and decentralization. Its goal is managing and developing water resources in a sustainable manner through community participation, capacity-building and a demand-driven approach. The major areas of concern pertaining to water resources management are poor watershed management, inadequate water accessibility and quantity, poor water quality, inadequate institutional capacity, and international water rights.

Major international programmes for water resource management include the Lake Victoria Environmental Management Programme (LVEMP) and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP). The LVEMP was established in 1995 by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to improve sustainable use of the basin’s natural resources. It focused primarily on fisheries management, pollution control, control of invasive alien species and land use management. A more detailed account of the LVEMP is given in Box 8.

The Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP), the Nile Basin Initiative’s (see Northern Africa section) investment programme, currently focuses on the identification of major subregional development options and appropriate projects; three River Basin Management and Development Projects in the Sio-Malaba/Malakisi, the Mara and the Kagera Basins; and capacity-building through NBI’s training project aimed at developing IWRM skills in all NBI countries.

Both LVEMP and NELSAP are expected to foster dialogue and cooperation, and contribute to the improvement of food security and the alleviation of poverty.

Capacity-building is critically needed. Ethiopia, for example, recently designed a project called Ethiopian Groundwater Resources Assessment Programme (EGRAP) with the aim to assess the groundwater resources of the entire country. The country has also started developing a national groundwater database (see Box 9).

Box 9: Ethiopian Groundwater Resources Assessment Programme

A multilateral project was recently designed to carry out detailed hydro(geo)logical studies in the entire country over a period of fifteen years. This project is called EGRAP. The Ethiopian Groundwater Resources Assessment Programme will focus on “type areas” for complete hydrogeologic analysis. They are selected on the basis of hydrogeologic setting, data availability and socioeconomic requirements. The knowledge gained through the “type area” studies will be transferred to similar areas of the country, providing for an efficient and cost-effective approach to assess the groundwater resources of the entire country. EGRAP is incorporated in the Water Sector Strategic Development Programme.

A start was also made with the development of the Ethiopian National Groundwater Database (ENGDA). The Ethiopian National Groundwater Database will be used for storing, processing and analysing groundwater data, and is critical to the long-term programme of EGRAP. At this stage, several standardized field forms have been developed and a data dictionary is being prepared. Obviously, there is still a long way to go to develop the national database.

Three national counterparts (Ministry of Water Resources, Geological Survey of Ethiopia and the Department of Geology and Geophysics of Addis Ababa University), the US Geological Survey and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are currently involved in EGRAP.

Source: Amha and others 2001