The Importance of Political Context in Achieving MDG7 in Ethiopia: An Essay


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This article is based on an essay written by Katy Norman (Consultant at UNDP)

Seven years ago, leaders from 189 United Nations (UN) Member States congregated in the UN headquarters for the Millennium Summit. The three day meeting marked a new vision for the future, in which nations agreed to act to improve the quality of lives of citizens in the world’s poorest countries by 2015; a vision shaped in eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Derived from the UN Millennium Declaration, the MDGs serve as the new framework for (sustainable) development, and provide twenty one time-bound targets against which to measure progress. Today, at the mid-point between MDG adoption and the 2015 target date, some affected countries have made significant advances towards meeting the targets; others have shown ‘patchy, slow or non-existent’ progress (DFID, 2007). Nevertheless, the UN remains optimistic stating, ‘there have been some gains, and…success is still possible in most parts of the world’, with strong government leadership, effective policies and sufficient financial and technical support from the international community (UN, 2007: 3). Their main thesis is clear: ‘The MDGs are still achievable if we act now’ (UN, 2007: 3).

‘Ensuring environmental sustainability’ is the focus of MDG7: to improve humankind’s management of the environment so natural resources are available for future generations. The goal comprises four targets (Figure 1). This report assesses Ethiopia’s position with regards to the third, focusing specifically on water supply.

But what constitutes ‘sustainable access to safe drinking water?’ The definition is subjective, hiding ‘the fact that some ‘improved’ water sources can be more than 1000m away’ (Anand, 2007:516). For this report, it is understood as a water source less than one kilometre from point of use, from which it is possible to reliably obtain 20 litres of water per household member per day (after WHO, 2007). What follows, examines the current situation in Ethiopia midway to the 2015 target, outlines indicators and policies appropriate to alleviate the problem, and maps the country’s political context. One argues political will and good governance alongside the right policy are necessary for Ethiopia to have any chance of achieving its 70% MDG7 target.


Focus Areas

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

Water in Ethiopia: A Two-Fold Problem

Water is necessary for life; without it, we die. Moreover, it is a naturally endowed common, economic and social good. Whilst Ethiopia is one of few countries with a constitutional provision to a formal right to water (Anand, 2007), this has not helped achieve the MDG7 target. Only 39.4%2 of the population currently (2005 statistics) have access to safe drinking water, one of the lowest coverage levels worldwide (UNDP et. al, 2006). With a MDG7 target of 70%, an additional 38 million people need access by 2015 for success; Ethiopia therefore needs to more than double its 1990-2005 increase (Table 1).

Described as the water tower of Africa, Ethiopia has abundant water resources, including 12 river basins and 22 natural and artificial lakes. Why then, do over 45 million people lack safe drinking water? Reasons include that only a minority of water resources are utilised; surface waters are contaminated; stagnant waters breed mosquitoes; high fluoride levels exist in Rift Valley groundwater; and water must be harnessed from the three month long wet season, for the rest of the year is prone to drought. Moreover, much of Ethiopia’s surface water cannot be readily exploited without an agreement with downstream riparians. An estimated 97% of total mean annual flow crosses the country’s borders into neighbouring states. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s population of ~75 million is expected to double over the next 15-20 years, because of a 2.272% population growth rate (CIA, 2007), placing further stress on water resources that are dwindling due to climate change.

Ethiopia’s water problem is thus essentially two-fold: low coverage levels and poor water quality. Both require urgent attention to reach the MDG7 target, and to lessen associated health and social implications: Ethiopians are highly susceptible to numerous water-related diseases, from diarrhoea and dysentery to schistosomiasis and malaria, accounting for the exceptionally high Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) of 86.9/1000 (UN database, 2006). Moreover, women and children spend hours a day collecting water: time that would be better spent in education or employment.

The need to improve Ethiopia’s water sector is obvious. The Government of Ethiopia (GofE) must implement effective water policies, and swiftly. Historically, greater priority has been given to urban service delivery, creating stark urban/rural disparities, contrary to Carter et. al’s (1996:162) claim that ‘national water policies in developing countries usually put high priority on rural domestic water supply’. Table 2 captures the intra-country variations concealed in national aggregate statistics. The figures speak for themselves, indicating a shift in policy focus favouring rural communities is needed.

Ethiopia's Water Sector:Major Issues

The GofE cannot be held responsible for the current water problem, it has implemented ‘the right policies, strategies, sector development programme and implementation arrangements’ to achieve MDG7 targets (UNDP et. al, 2006:30). These include the comprehensive National Water Resources Management Policy (1998) and Strategy (2000), providing guidance for investments in rural, town and urban water supply and sanitation; the 2001 National Water Strategy, promoting decentralised decision-making, stakeholder involvement and increased cost recovery levels; adoption of a Universal Access Plan (UAP) which ambitiously aims to achieve 100% coverage for water supply by 2012; and most recently, the 2005 Plan for Accelerated Sustained Development and to End Poverty (PASDEP), which sets ambitious targets over and above MDG7’s, and within a shorter time period. However, these policy frameworks have failed to deliver, raising the question, were they ‘the right policies, strategies…and implementation arrangements’? Each appears feasible on paper, but constraints in Ethiopia’s water sector have restricted policy success and with it, sector development.

UNDP et. al (2006:31) anticipate a $197 million ‘financial gap’ per year until 2015, impeding the expansion and improvement of water services. Sundberg (2005:5) attributes such severe financial constraints to unpredictable and volatile levels of foreign aid. Yet, even if investment increases to close the financial gap, it is debatable whether Ethiopia has sufficient capacity to spend additional funds effectively and efficiently. Decentralisation has caused more autonomy to be devolved to the woreda, town and rural communities, who are increasingly responsible for planning and managing water supply systems; although often without the capacity to do so. Whilst the GofE is in the process of institutionalising a sector support system, by enhancing business opportunities and increasing their capacity, the approach is new and will take time to develop. As such, limited capacity continues to constrain the water sector; greater efforts are needed to improve the capacity of all actors. Furthermore, one aim of the 2001 National Water Strategy is to ‘promote involvement of all stakeholders, including the private sector’, reflecting a broader global trend towards governments encouraging increased private sector involvement (Martin, 1996:298). However, whilst the GofE is said to be aware of the benefits from participating with stakeholders in project planning, design and implementation, facilitating their involvement in government-supported programmes has been limited. NGOs such as Water Action, maintain the federal government undermines their role in the design, construction and maintenance of water sources; this must change if water supplies are to be sustainable.

Still further obstacles exist. Ethiopia’s current Monitoring and Evaluation system is undeveloped, causing countless malfunctioning water sources to go unnoticed; reducing the water resources available to Ethiopians, so further increasing the water accessibility problem. The UNDP et. al (2006:32) argues ‘tracking and monitoring of the water sector needs to be more coherent and accurate…to feed into efficient planning and budgeting’. Professional in-country engineers could help alleviate the malfunction problem, but Ethiopia lacks professionally trained personnel. Moreover, the country’s cost-recovery framework is inadequate; average cost recovery is insufficient to recover operating costs, let alone maintenance costs. With so many issues manifest in the water sector, Ethiopia has more work to do than most countries to achieve its challenging MDG7 target on time. As Sundberg (2005:3) states, ‘Ethiopia is far from achieving [its] MDG7 targets, and will need to accelerate progress rapidly if it is to reach them’.

Measuring Progress: Indicator Targets

Recognising the current state of the water sector, the following four indicators are deemed appropriate to gauge Ethiopia’s progress. First, counting households that are <1 kilometre from an ‘improved’ water source (Table 2), from which a household member can reliably obtain 20 litres of water per day. This aligns itself with the aforementioned definition of ‘sustainable access to safe drinking water’. Secondly, IMR would comprise a clear measure of progress, given the strong link between water access and health, and between IMR and water-related diseases more specifically. Additionally, the number of ‘improved’ water sources functioning sustainably, and providing water of quality that meets national standards could judge improvement; the emphasis here is important. The idea that ‘more water sources’ create improved access to drinking water is naive, hiding the fact that many water sources in Ethiopia are inadequately constructed, and out of operation as a result. Greater water access will only arise if sources are sufficiently constructed and maintained so they function sustainably. Moreover, water quality must meet national specifications, based on WHO guidelines, to ensure drinking water is safe, helping reduce the IMR. The number of rural community Water User Committees could further indicate progress, responding to the argument in development literature that local communities must be empowered, confident and capable of taking responsibility for their nearest water sources. Ball’s (1996:362) claim that, ‘[t]he responsibility for local water sources should rest with the local people’ helps justify this choice.

Together, these indicators measure ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ advancements, both crucial to the long-term sustainability of water supplies. It is a flaw that importance is often placed on construction at the expense of targets relating to water resource sustainability and impact, since ‘sustainability depends on community participation’ (Carter et. al, 1996:165). A World Bank study (1995) to ascertain the importance of community participation in 121 rural water projects similarly concluded that, ‘beneficiary participation contributed significantly to project effectiveness’ (Narayan, 1995). Interestingly mention is given to ‘beneficiary’, not ‘community’ participation, whilst the latter seems most commonly used today, reverting back to the former may prove useful. ‘Community’ implies unity amongst people in their agendas and purpose, and a homogenous body with distinct routes of internal communication. However, in reality, communities are frequently heterogeneous, comprising several groups from disparate tribes and ethnicities who are unlikely to behave as one. Despite Ethiopia being divided into nine ethnically based states, multiple ethnicities reside in some, and conflicts often arise from envies and power struggles. ‘Community’ heterogeneity must be considered in policy formulation.

Achieving MDG7: Policy Implementation

Water policies constitute ‘set[s] of principles or guidelines by which water resources are allocated [between competing uses and users], developed and managed’ (Evans, 1996:53). Without clear policy, the political will to fully address the water problem is difficult to generate (Abrams, 1996:26). To be successful, policies ought to be affordable, easy for communities to maintain and appropriate to local conditions; policies are certainly not universal and cannot be generalised (Seppälä, 2002). In Ethiopia, previously implemented policies have been unsuccessful, as the 60.6% of Ethiopians still without access to safe drinking water illustrates.

The overarching goal of Ethiopia’s 1998 National Water Resources Management Policy (NWRMP) was, ‘to enhance and promote all national efforts towards the efficient, equitable, and optimum utilisation of the available water resources of Ethiopia for significant socio-economic development on sustainable basis’. Ensuring equitable water utilisation is an easy to use term for governments, but it raises questions of environmental justice and requires elaboration; what is equitable water utilisation? How can it be measured? The GofE was responsible for implementing the NWRMP, in a top-down manner, characteristic of water policies at the time. In fact, the formulation of MDGs at the level of the ‘global community’ has caused the centralised, top-down approach to be mirrored in nation states’ policy implementation (Anand, 2007:5). However, it is now well recognised that good governance, not government, is crucial for policy success, which requires adoption of a bottom-up approach. Ball (1996:365) highlights that government responsibility of water supplies is not working in LEDCs, suggesting a need for decentralised decision-making, planning and project implementation. Similarly, the World Bank maintains that, ‘nothing should be done at a higher level of government that can be done satisfactorily at a lower level’ (Nicol, 1996:254). Moreover, Quiroga et. al (1996) claim a water supply is only sustainable if it satisfies user expectations; communities must be strongly involved in problem identification, problem solving, decision-making and management. Thus, for policies to prove effective in Ethiopia, institutional reform is necessary, away from centralised, to decentralised management and administration.

One major paradigmatic shift in water policy thinking has been from ‘hardware’ to ‘software’ projects, from construction to management. Evidently, Ethiopia requires high-quality construction of ‘improved’ water sources, especially in rural locations (Table 2), but constructed sources need to be sustainable, maintained and used efficiently. For this, communities must be involved from project design, through implementation, to maintenance and management of sources. As Ball (1996:363) highlights, when the ‘people-part’ is just an add-on or low priority aspect in a technical/construction project, the project has usually failed to create sustained new water sources. They may have been technically ‘sustainable’ but they were not ‘sustained’. Clearly the right policy for Ethiopia to achieve its MDG7 target, must integrate both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ components.

With these factors in mind and to achieve the aforementioned indicator targets, the following is deemed a suitable policy for Ethiopia; based on the assumption that access to adequate, clean water is a basic human right. High-quality construction of ‘improved’ water sources in rural areas11, alongside the development of educated, trained and gender-balanced water user committees, to be responsible for managing and maintaining their nearest water sources.

An element of construction is necessary to meet the high demand in rural areas, where historically investment in the water sector has been subordinate to urban investment. Local management of water resources via water user committees is critical, responding to the need for increased community empowerment, and a transition from government to governance. Anand (2007) argues mechanisms of governance are vital to improving water access, more so than a formal articulation of a right to water. Water committees must be gender-balanced, as commonly women spend hours a day collecting water, for their voice to then be silenced in decision-making. Committee members must be educated about water issues, and disseminate their knowledge to the wider community, and be trained in sustainable administration, operation and maintenance of sources. Indeed, ‘appropriate and progressive training represents the secret of many projects’ success’ (Martin, 1996:297) and can reduce the chance of community regression. The preferred policy could, however, be criticised as imposing a western agenda unspecific to the Ethiopian cultural context, and could face local distrust. Language barriers may also impede education and training, and communities might be unmotivated, given the successive failures of past policies. Nevertheless, integrated with other sector policies in a systemic way, the proposed policy is deemed appropriate for getting Ethiopia on track to meet its MDG7 target.

Mapping the Political Context

But, what is the likelihood of policy and institutional change in Ethiopia to improve water access? Mapping the water sector’s political context provides a clue, illuminating the political actors affecting policy development and implementation, and the power relations between them. Figure 2 depicts the complex and multi-dimensional political climate of Ethiopia’s water sector. Eleven political actors are engaged, with different priorities, reasons and resources for their involvement (Appendix 1). For policy success, each actor needs well-defined roles and responsibilities and must cooperate with others, since all actors, from government, business and NGOs to donors, have a role to play in addressing Ethiopia’s water problem. As the UNESCO director-general Koichiro Matsuura stated, ‘good governance is essential’ (Kinver, 2006).

However, despite repeated calls for effective stakeholder participation and decentralisation in water policy, central government still asserts the greatest influence in Ethiopia (Figure 2). The transition from government provision to government facilitation of water policy has not materialised. NGOs continue to maintain that central government undermines their work, and despite privatisation of water being a major current narrative, private sector inclusion in Ethiopia’s water sector has been negligible (Figure 2): contradictory to the government’s rhetoric that it ‘continues to take measures that will spur the growth and development of the private sector’ (OECD, 2007:261). The situation is critical. Institutional reforms are needed to create a framework whereby the federal republic government provides an enabling environment, defines national policies and coordinates investments, whilst public and private bodies bear responsibility for allocating, regulating and monitoring water. Without genuine stakeholder involvement at all levels, ‘water policies and institutional reforms are white elephants…rarely, if at all, implemented’ (Seppälä, 2002:381).

Conclusion: The Importance of Political Context

Evidently, political context matters; all processes of water resource management are invariably political, due to their social, economic and environmental importance. However, whilst the correct policy must be applied, appropriate structures are also needed to facilitate policy implementation. Seppälä (2002:381) argues, ‘the role of central government in water management has been far too dominating in the past’, but this is true of Ethiopia today, 8 years away from the MDG7 target deadline. Whilst well-defined policies have been formulated that appear feasible on paper, the top-down approach to their implementation has proved ineffective, obstructing policy success. Now, more than ever before, equitable water governance is required, based on notions of decentralisation, user participation and demand management. This does not erase the role of government, it remains essential, but political will and facilitation is important at all levels. No policy innovation will succeed, even if locally managed, without first ensuring it’s politically feasible. Indeed, disruptive political contexts can seriously hinder implementation of policies and projects outlined in international agreements.

However, achieving equitable management and integrated and participatory processes in a political climate as complex as Ethiopia’s is easier said than done, not least because ‘political context shapes the way policy processes work’ (Nash et. al, 2006:7). Institutions need to become less marginalized and fragmented, and their capacities built to understand and commit to new policies. Only then will water management become local, as advocated in the 1992 ‘Dublin Principles’, and an enabling and empowering policy environment and institutional structure be created; a universal requirement for policy success. Essentially, without a shift from government to governance, alongside political will and the right policy, Ethiopia’s chances of achieving its 70% MDG7 target on time are, unfortunately, miniscule.


See also

Abrams, L. (1996) ‘Policy Development In The Water Sector: The South

African Experience’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy:

Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 21-30.

Anand, B. (2007) ‘Right To Water and Access To Water: An Assessment’, Journal of International Development, 19, 511-526.

Ball, D. (1996) ‘Allowing Local People To Cope With Change and Take Responsibility For Sustaining Their Groundwater Sources’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 362-370.

Carter, R., Tyrrel, S., and Howsam, P. (1996) ‘Effective and Transparent Strategies For Community Water Supply Programmes In Developing Countries’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 162-168.

CIA (2007) ‘The World Factbook – Ethiopia’ (; 06/01/08).

DFID (2007) Millennium Development Goals (; 06/01/08). Evans, T. (1996) ‘Water Resources - The Need For Regional, Continental and Global Assessments: An African Perspective’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 53-60.

Kinver, M. (2006) ‘Water Policy ‘Fails World’s Poor’. (; 06/01/08).

Martin, L. (1996) ‘Private Sector Participation In Water Projects’ in P. Howsam and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. London: E & FN Spon, 293-300.

Narayan, D. (1995) The Contribution of People’s Participation: Evidence from 121 Rural Water Supply Projects. Environmentally Sustainable Development Occasional Paper Series No. 1. Washington DC, USA.

Nash, R., Hudson, A., and Luttrell, C. (2006) ‘Mapping Political Context A Toolkit for Civil Society Organisations’ (; 06/01/08).

Nicol, A. (1996)’Political Decentralisation and River Basin Management’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 251-258.

OECD (2007) ‘African Economic Outlook 2007: Ethiopia Country Study’ (; 06/01/08). 734717 December 2007

Quiroga, E., Galvis., G, Garavito., C, Pinto., E. and Visscher, J. (1996) ‘Improving Water Distribution and Management In Community Supply Systems’, in P. Howsam, and R. Carter (eds) Water Policy: Allocation and Management in Practice. Proceedings of International Conference on Water Policy. London: E & FN Spon, 343-350.

Seppälä, O. (2002) ‘Effective Water and Sanitation Policy Reform Implementation: Need For Systemic Approach and Stakeholder Participation’, Water Policy, 4, 367-388.

Sundberg, M. (2005) Absorptive Capacity Achieving the MDGs: The Case of Ethiopia. (; 06/01/08).

UN (2007) The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007. New York; United Nations.

UN database (2006) World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision Population Database (; 06/01/08).

UNDP et. al (2006) Ethiopia: A MDG Outlook. (; 06/01/08).

WHO (2007) ‘Health Through Safe Drinking Water and Basic Sanitation’, (; 06/01/08).

WHO and UNICEF (2006) ‘Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation’: Coverage Estimates Of Improved Drinking Water In Ethiopia. (; 06/01/08).

Political Actors in Ethiopia's Water Sector

MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability


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