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FEATURE: Mainstreaming adaptation to climate change – what hope for Ethiopia’s water sector?

Naomi Oates, Research Assistant at CDKN, reports how developing countries such as Ethiopia will need to respond quickly if they are to cope with predicted future climate impacts. Mainstreaming has become a popular approach to national-level adaptation, where climate change concerns are integrated with development policy and planning processes. Despite being fairly simple in theory, this is not easy in practice. This ODI Background Note highlights several challenges, some of which are unique to Ethiopia and others which are common to many developing countries.

Important first steps

The recent food crisis in the Horn of Africa has once again highlighted the urgency for poor developing countries to increase their resilience to climate impacts over the medium- to long-term, prioritising the most vulnerable groups. Ethiopia’s climate, in particular, is highly variable and there is a need to tackle existing climate risks effectively, as well as planning for future changes.

Ethiopia has made some notable steps towards mainstreaming climate adaptation at the national level. The government has had a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) since 2007, although projects have not been implemented due to lack of resources. The government is also in the process of designing a programme to mainstream climate change into its institutional framework and into core development policy, strategies and plans. However, this programme – Carbon Neutral Climate Resilience Ethiopia (CNCR-E) – is in the early stages of development.

The water sector is vital for adaptation


The water sector is arguably the most important sector on which to concentrate adaptation efforts, as water is the primary medium through which climate impacts will be felt. In Ethiopia changes in rainfall are likely to affect agricultural productivity, food and water security, livelihoods and economic growth. A mainstreaming approach would appear sensible as existing water sector policies and strategies seek to address current climate risks, for example droughts and floods. If implemented successfully, they also have the potential to significantly reduce climate vulnerability over the longer term.

Barriers to progress

One of the key challenges for the water sector lies in the fact that water security is fundamental to several development sectors. Responsibilities for water resource management are therefore split across government ministries. Coupled with poor coordination and communication, this can make it difficult to address climate change in a holistic manner.

In addition, government staff need to have the technical capacity and financial resources to address climate change in their everyday work. Ethiopia’s water sector already faces significant capacity constraints. Therefore the provision of external (and adequate) financial assistance and carefully designed technical support is likely to be a key determinant of success.

International finance – a double edged sword?

With the proliferation of international climate finance mechanisms, there is a need to consider the way in which external finance is provided. International funding mechanisms for adaptation are geared towards providing financial resources that are ‘additional’ to existing development aid budgets.

Whilst it is clearly important to ensure that developing countries receive the additional money they need to tackle climate change, there is a danger that this creates incentives to design new ‘add-on’ climate change projects or programmes in order to attract investment; projects that consequently remain on the periphery of core development practice. In the water sector, particularly, climate change adaptation needs to be addressed through routine sector planning and budgeting.

In short, there is still much progress to be made. To tackle vulnerability to climate change the Ethiopian government will need to address fundamental development challenges, secure significant external financial resources, and navigate a complex political landscape. It will be interesting to watch the CNCR-E programme unfold.

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