Landscape level integrated watershed management improves ecosystem resilience: Wetlands International Ethiopia programs’ implementation review

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Case study

‘‘What we are doing is a small beginning. We stretch to go forward to reach the whole Central Rift Valley ecosystem. The need is vast, and the demand is huge. This small beginning is something encouraging, and now what we are thinking is about how to scale it up.’’
– Jane Madgwick, Wetlands International CEO.

Lake Abijata (Ethiopia-Ziway) regenerating and increasing in volume after project intervention and protection of environs from the contact of humans and livestock. May 2022, photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International.



The Ziway-Shalla sub-basin in the Central Rift valley (CRV) is the main program intervention landscape for wetlands International in Ethiopia. The landscape, which is located within 70 15’-70 45’ N and 380 30’-380 45’E, has a total surface area of 887 km² of which 482 km² is aquatic and the remaining 405 km² is a terrestrial ecosystem. CRV consists of the Ziway, Langano, Abijatha, and Shalla lakes. Lake Ziway is the only freshwater lake and has tremendous environmental, economic and social values for more than two million people. Overall, the lakes support high levels of biodiversity and provide extensive benefits for people and nature – regulation of extreme climate conditions, pollution, siltation, and runoff; provision of food, fodder, water, fiber, and timber; research, education, recreation, tourism, and cultural services; supporting life and habitat for numerous biodiversity resources.

This sub-basin, however, is suffering various anthropogenetic pressures. Among these are land degradation, unregulated abstraction of water, sand and silt mining, deforestation of headwater source vegetations, overgrazing of floodplains, and encroachments from settlements and farming into the protected area system have been threatening precious species. Overpopulation, local economy re-laid on climate-sensitive occupations, point and non-point pollution, water erosion, invasion of alien plant species and climate change are the main drivers of these pressures. The scientific way of landscape restoration, therefore, is a remedial instrument to safeguard the wetland ecosystem, local community, and their livelihoods.

Hugely, with such backgrounds, Wetlands International is implementing various projects that target the CRV and its eco-systems. Currently, Wetlands International Ethiopia is implementing four projects in the sub-basin. The projects aim to solve the multi-faceted ecosystem, livelihoods, and environmental based problems of the CRV.

Wetlands International Ethiopia in the CRV

Our work in the CRV started with the Climate Resilient Flyways project. In this project, we aimed at safeguarding the lakes, which are important grounds for African-Eurasian migratory waterbirds. This program, while successful, showed a need for upscaling the proven interventions to different regions within the CRV. What has so far followed are 4 still ongoing projects, that each focus on different facets within the basin.

The first project that followed was the WASH-SDG project. This project focuses on services of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for the communities in the basin. It shows how, for climate-resilient WASH, you need healthy ecosystems in order to provide clean water. Next was the Sustainable Water Fund (SWF) project. Within the SWF project, a stronger focus was given to water management, working together with the Rift Valley Lakes Basin Development Office, towards a Water Allocation Plan and working together with the smallholder farmers of Meki Batu towards more water-efficient practices. The Sahelian Wetlands and Livelihoods (SaWeL) project continued with our work with smallholder farmers but has put a stronger focus on agroecological practices and improved market access.

In our latest development, we, Wetlands International, are working on a long-term land-scape-based transformative agenda in the Eastern Africa Rift Valley and Mangrove eco-regions. One of the main initiatives which best fits into this long-term strategy is the SIDA-funded Source to Sea: Eastern Africa Wetlands Initiative. The initiative, which is also well aligned with our integrated landscape-based programs in the Ethiopian Rift Valley landscape, is addressing the drivers of loss of wetlands and their biodiversity in the Ziway-Shalla sub-basin by putting in place enabling conditions for science-based, integrated wetland management and livelihood resilience-building solutions at landscape and ecoregional scales. The initiative is working to a) make knowledge and data accessible b) strengthen and increase the capacity of stakeholders for wetland management and biodiversity conservation c) develop and implement integrated landscape regeneration and livelihood enhancement strategies and d) support the development of ecoregion management plans and strategies. This timely initiative is working to provide a framework that enables the implementation of integrated knowledge-based landscape regeneration and livelihood enhancement strategies linked to policy influencing and institutional change for resilient landscapes and communities.

All these projects contain an aspect of landscape restoration, as unproductive land, low water retention, and erosion of sediments towards the lakes is one of the major issues in the CRV. In total, the projects are restoring and safeguarding more than 3677 hectares of land.

The projects are implemented through the landscape approach. This means that the projects don’t look at only the area they are concerned with, but try to take into account all aspects of the landscape (CRV) and bring together all stakeholders within. This framework tries to integrate practice and policy for multiple land uses in order to ensure equitable and sustainable use of land. By using this same framework for each project, we try to ensure that they build on and strengthen each other. In turn, this results in a greater impact on each project, all building towards a sustainable CRV landscape.

CEO’s Visit

Wetlands International CEO, Jane Madgwick visited these different projects’ activities in Ethiopia in June 2022. Three years ago, in 2019, she visited the Central Rift Valley when the locations and activities she recently visited were in the process of selection and to kick off the ‘‘improved water allocation and irrigation efficiency in the Ziway-Shalla Sub Basin’’ called the ‘Sustainable Water Fund (SWF) project, usually known among project partners as the Ziway Shalla in-balance (ZSiB) project.

‘‘People say I am difficult to impress, but this time, I am really impressed by the works done so far from what I have seen,’’ said the CEO in a discussion organized after the two days’ field visit. Within three years, she observed improvements and changes in many ways.

Jane Madgwick, Wetlands International CEO, navigates the location of the wildlife who came back after the regeneration protected vegetation. Photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International Ethiopia. May 2022.


The improved water allocation and irrigation efficiency in the Ziway-Shalla Sub Basin called the ‘SWF’ project was one of the projects being implemented in Ethiopia. She was comparing her three years ago observation and its current status. And after her recent visit to the locations and the activities undertaken, she said the activities have tremendous updates.

Three years ago, Jane said, they had seen that the water of lake Abijata was under a threat, and was in a lot of challenges. She said they walked through the area of the lake and they couldn’t be able to see its waters. Land degradation, soil erosion, and poor agricultural practices were also among the physically visible problems seen during the project location identification. Now, however, there are promising improvements. Even the lake Abijata has regenerated and its water body is immensely increasing.

Originally, the Ziway-Shalla sub-basin is one of the four lake sub-basins in the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Ziway, a relatively shallow lake, is the only freshwater lake in the sub-basin. The sub-basin has several important socio-economic and environmental functions that are threatened by poor water resource management. The basin suffers from poor watershed management causing land degradation, upland erosion, and sediment accumulation in the lake threatening livelihood and investment activities in the area. Pollution is also posing a problem to the water resources of the basin. Still, agriculture is by far the dominant sector affecting the water resource of the basin as the majority of farmers in the basin are engaged in mixed farming systems, combining rain fed agriculture and livestock keeping.

As a result of the project intervention, indigenous plant species have started to regenerate, soil protected and environment kept from degradation. May 2022, photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International Ethiopia.


As a clear reason, poor agricultural practices coupled with clearing of forest land and cutting trees for wood fuel and other purposes further aggravate the erosion, contributing to the silting up of the lakes and their tributary rivers. All these reasons necessitated the inception and designing of this ‘‘The improved water allocation and irrigation efficiency in the Ziway-Shalla Sub Basin’’ project with the view of tackling the erosion and siltation related problems in the sub basin while also contributing for improved livelihood.

Location of the specific intervention sites in Adazer kebele, and location of the specific intervention sites in the Meki sub-watershed. Generated by Mulata Tadesse/Wetlands International Ethiopia. August 2022.


The project is undertaking watershed interventions at a site called Adazer kebele through the application of Soil and Water Conservation (SWC) practices, generating on-farm benefits for upland farmers while increasing their awareness about the promotion of best agronomic and agroforestry practices, unsustainable land management, subsequent erosion and long-term consequences of such practices. The project targeted farmers and community levels to bring upland farming communities to invest in more sustainable ecosystem management practices; and sustainable agricultural farming practices with the purpose to overcome the subsequent soil degradation and increase yields and income level of the communities around.

On one side of the coin, the project has been implemented by integrating ecosystem restoration with livelihood development options. Landscape-oriented, scientific bio-physical soil and water conservation measures are the key intervention strategies and testimonial evidence in tackling severe soil erosion and subsequent land degradation in the upper catchment, where source water is originated.

Micro basins work contributing to increasing soil moisture content to revive the indigenous plant specious. Adazer kebele, West Arsi Zone, Ethiopia. Photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International. May 2022.


The project performed various moisture and water harvesting works in the degraded 150ha communal lands for the past two years. Among these are eyebrow basins, half-moons, deep trenches, herring bones and micro basins. In addition, stone bunds and gabion check dams have been constructed to overcome the velocity of rapid runoff, reduce slope topography steepness, percolate water in to the ground and thereby to avoid the associated soil removal from small to medium gullies.

Springs emerged from rocky grounds and soil moisture content increased following key intervention works. Photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International. May 2022. Ethiopia.


To repair the malfunctions of the ecosystem rapidly by introducing locally high-value wood species in the most affected area, more than 50,000 seedlings of Acacia albida, Acacia saligna, Cupresus lustanica, Grevilia robusta and Olea African have been prepared for plantation at the restoration site. Side by side, selected key livelihood support activities’ options have been implemented within the above integration. The activities include goat and animal fattening, beekeeping, poultry production, and high-value fruit production within and around farmers’ homesteads.

During the visit, therefore, activities of preparing land for planting trees, creating contour bunds, mulching to increase the carbon content of the soil, filling up the gullies, developing livestock grazing schemes and reducing logging pressure by supporting tree planting and natural regeneration were well underway, and observed to have well practiced, and started to bear tangible results. As a result of the key watershed development activities (see picture above), Erosion and sediment in the catchment have started to reduce, while farmers around the catchments have been introduced to best agroforestry and Soil and Water Conservation practices.

Seedlings under care for transplanting at SWF nursery site., Photo by Serawit Atnafu/Wetlands International Ethiopia. May 2022.


The project, at its final phase, aims to deliver results on farmers and community level, while creating broad stakeholder understanding of the issues and the interventions to come. The project is piloting improved agro-forestry and agricultural practices on 50ha and 100ha land respectively by combining with various Soil and Water Conservation measures. Restoration work will be conducted on 150ha communal degraded land.

Generally, Wetlands international is working that anti-erosion interventions will be implemented; the basis will be laid for decreasing sedimentation levels; the negative trend of environmental degradation of the Ziway- Shalla ecosystem is hopped to be stopped and the recovery will have started, at the end of the project life. In the same manner, the root causes of the degradation are believed to be addressed, enabling continued recovery of the wetlands, water bird populations and other biodiversity.

Jane said she has been blown away by what we have already done in the catchments of the Ziway-Shalla sub-basin by the SWF project with the involvement of thousands of members of the community in the project sites. ‘‘It is really impressive that the local community have trusted what we did and what we are doing, collaborating with us and most of all, understanding why it is necessary to increase the water infiltration in the catchment sediments, and now owning it, in such a short time.’’

The real results might take longer, but what we have witnessed within three years of intervention is really promising. We have seen indigenous seedlings sprouting in the infiltration zones, we have seen springs recovering already in the mountainsides, and we have observed wildlife coming back and breeding because the areas have been protected. Still, the increase in the volume of the waters of lakes we have seen, together with its previously migrated bird species coming back, is amazing. Most of all, we have seen signs of hope in the eyes of the local community who are involved in the activities and who are owning the works, all according to the CEO.

The soil and water restoring and safeguarding works are mainly done by the participation of the local community. May 2022, photo by Jane Madgwick/Wetlands International.


What we are doing for now is a small beginning. The next challenge is to go forward to scale up the initiative at the Ziway-Shalla landscape level covering the four lakes resources of the Central Rift Valley sub-region of Ethiopia. Jane said, ‘‘What we are doing is a small beginning. We stretch to go forward to reach the whole Central Rift Valley ecosystem. The need is vast, and the demand is huge. This small beginning is something encouraging, and now what we are thinking is about how to scale it up.’’

To answering this, it requires working together with all key stakeholders involved in the safeguarding and restoration of this endangered landscape.  With very strong connections and partnerships and with the goodwill of the communities living and working in the areas, we now come to understand that it is possible to bring about a large-scale impact as we improve watershed management, we also play role in improving the vast ecosystem.

For now, the different Wetlands International Ethiopia projects implementation is helping the farming community in the areas by preventing devastating land degradation and soil erosion. This was achieved through training and capacitating local communities on climate-smart agricultural practices, wetland ecosystem management, and soil and water resource management at a landscape scale. This also is improving farmers’ villages by securing water and food at the farm level. This is a step towards realizing the establishment of a climate change resilient village, Wetlands International as a vision.