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Study Session 11  Impacts of Climate Change in Ethiopia


Climate change is expected to increase the surface temperature of the Earth and the oceans, raise sea levels, alter the global distribution of rainfall, affect the direction of ocean currents and major airstreams, and increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. Climate change is already causing loss of life, damaging property and affecting livelihoods in many parts of the world, and it is expected to continue to do so in the future. Climate change will affect all nations, but the impact will be higher on low-income countries, such as Ethiopia, which have limited capacity to cope with the effects of a changing climate. In this study session you will learn about the impacts of climate change on human health, the environment, agriculture, water supply, sanitation and socio-economic activities, focusing attention on the effects in Ethiopia.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 11

When you have studied this session, you should be able to:

11.1 Define and use correctly all of the key words printed in bold. (SAQ 11.1)

11.2 Describe the major impacts of climate change on health in Ethiopia. (SAQs 11.1 and 11.3)

11.3 Describe the interactions between climate change, the environment, agriculture, livestock and the Ethiopian economy. (SAQs 11.2 and 11.3)

11.4 Explain how climate change is affecting water resources in Ethiopia. (SAQ 11.3)

11.5 Identify the impacts of climate change on sanitation and hygiene in Ethiopia. (SAQ 11.3)

11.1  Climate change impacts on human health

Climate change can impact human health in many different ways, both positively and negatively. The positive health impacts of climate change are the benefits to health that may arise from a warmer climate. For example, warmer winters may result in fewer deaths resulting from exposure to cold weather; also the geographical range of some disease ‘vectors’, like mosquitoes, may contract if extreme hot weather conditions dry out the shallow water collections they require for their breeding cycle. Vectors are insects such as mosquitoes, flies and other animals (for example snails, rats and dogs) that transmit disease-causing agents such as bacteria and viruses from one host to another. Overall, however, many scientists think that the negative health impacts of climate change are expected to exceed the positive health impacts (Confalonieri et al., 2007).

The health impacts of climate change can be direct or indirect. The direct health impacts occur when climate changes in the temperature, precipitation and weather extremes affect our health and survival directly. For example, very hot weather can cause heat-related illness such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke; and floods can cause injury and drowning. These direct effects are predicted to increase as the rate of climate change increases in the future. You should be able to recall the effects of extreme weather events from Study Session 10.

The indirect health impacts of climate change are health problems caused by changes in natural and social systems as a result of shifts in the climate, which in turn have adverse effects on human health. Changes to social and ecological systems can allow disease to spread more easily, or cause disease to emerge in areas where previously it was unknown or only present at low levels (Senay and Verdin, 2005; Gage et al., 2008). For instance, 40 years ago you would not find a single case of malaria in the highlands of Ethiopia, but today outbreaks of malaria in the Ethiopian highlands are common. This is because climate change has increased the night-time temperatures in the highlands, allowing malaria-infected mosquitos to live at altitudes where previously they could not survive the cold nights. Longer periods of warm weather have created favourable conditions for mosquitoes to breed and these changes in the highland climate have led indirectly to outbreaks of malaria occurring for the first time (Abeku et al., 2004; Pascual et al., 2006).

  • Study Session 10 stated that an increase in flooding leads to higher frequency of diarrhoeal diseases. Can you explain how flooding resulting from climate change can indirectly have this effect on human health?

  • Flood water washes animal and human waste from latrines and open defecation into rivers, lakes, ponds and wells where people obtain their drinking water. It may also destroy water treatment facilities and breaks water pipes, allowing waterborne diarrhoea-causing organisms to spread through the water resources in rural and urban areas.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of waterborne and food-borne infectious diseases in countries like Ethiopia because of the inadequate supply of safe drinking water, low sanitation coverage and poor hygiene practices (Kovats et al., 2003; Confalonieri et al., 2007). For example, following the 2006 flood in many parts of the country there were outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea among people in Gambela Region, West Arsi Zone, Oromia Region, Addis Ababa and very remote places like Guji Zone (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2005). Acute watery diarrhoea is a symptom of many faecal–oral diseases including cholera.

  • What are faecal–oral diseases? Can you name any other examples that occur in Ethiopia?

  • Faecal-oral diseases occur when pathogenic organisms from faeces are transmitted from person to person via the oral route (mouth), for example when contaminated hands or utensils (cups, spoons) touch the mouth, or infected food or water is swallowed. Faecal–oral diseases include cholera, giardiasis, typhoid and dysentery, among others.

As you learned in Study Session 1, Ethiopia is already classified by the United Nations as water stressed, meaning that the availability of water is less than 1700 m3 per person per year. If climate change reduces the amount of accessible water to less than 1000 m3 per person per year, Ethiopia will be in the ‘water scarce’ category. Water stress and water scarcity increase the risk of water-washed diseases, which occur as a result of poor personal hygiene and inadequate washing. Examples of water-washed diseases include the infectious eye diseases trachoma and conjunctivitis, and scabies caused by tiny mites that burrow into the skin.

Malnutrition among children aged under 5 is another widespread problem in Ethiopia, and one which could become more prevalent if climate change leads indirectly to food shortages. As Study Session 10 described, more frequent or more severe droughts reduce food production because crops fail and livestock die (Abaya et al., 2011). Malnutrition, malaria and diarrhoeal diseases are particularly related to the increased frequency and intensity of floods and droughts in Ethiopia, as you can see in Table11.1.

Table 11.1  Climate change impacts on human health. (Few, 2007)
Health problemFloodDrought
Faecal-oral, waterborne and water-washed diseases

Contamination of the home and living environment

Disruption of water and sanitation facilities

Shortage of water for hygiene and food preparation; use of untreated water sources; inadequate sanitation
Vector-borne diseases Altered breeding conditions for mosquitoes; rodents taking refuge in housesAltered breeding conditions for mosquitoes; human population movements
MalnutritionCrop damage and loss of subsistence food; disruption of food supplies; disruption of livelihood/incomeLoss of subsistence food or income; regional food shortages; use of nutrient-deficient alternative foods

11.2  Climate change impacts on the environment

Climate change has several impacts on the environment in addition to the disruption to water resources we have just described. Increased heavy rainfall as a result of climate change can cause soil erosion, crop damage and waterlogging, which makes the land difficult or impossible to cultivate for agriculture. It is estimated that Ethiopia loses more than 1.5 billion tons of fertile soil each year through heavy rain and flooding; this lost soil could have increased the country's crop production by an estimated 1.5 million tons (Tamene and Vlek, 2008). Soil erosion like that shown in Figure 11.1 aggravates the problem of food security in the country.

Figure 11.1  Active land degradation as a result of soil erosion in Northern Ethiopia.

Climate change is also expected to affect biodiversity significantly, because it will change the environment and climatic conditions where plants and animals live (IPCC, 2007b). The average global surface temperature is about 15 ºC and it is estimated that if the global average temperature increases by 1.5 ºC to 2.5 ºC, many species will not be able to survive in the warmer environment (IPCC, 2007b). According to the IPCC report, at present rates of climate change, about 20–30% of the world’s plant and animal species will become extinct by the 2080s, and between 25% and 40% of mammal species in sub-Saharan Africa will become endangered. In Ethiopia, the unique environments that support our already endangered species (Figure 11.2) are becoming less hospitable because climate change is causing longer dry periods and shrinking the available water resources.

Figure 11.2  The Ethiopian wolf is an endangered species.

11.3  Climate change effects on agriculture, livestock and the Ethiopian economy

Climate change poses huge challenges to the global economy and to social development. Its impacts will disproportionately affect sub-Saharan African countries such as Ethiopia because their economies are highly dependent on climate-sensitive activities such as rain-fed agriculture. In Ethiopia, agriculture contributes about 47% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and more than 70 million people (85% of the Ethiopian population) depend on agriculture directly or indirectly for their livelihoods (Index Mundi, 2014). Therefore, any effect on agriculture will significantly affect the Ethiopian economy.

It is predicted that changes in climate will lead to recurrent droughts and heavy rainfall in different parts of Ethiopia, reducing the amount of land that can be used for agriculture and decreasing crop productivity. For example, the 2006 flood in Gambela region (Figure 11.3) damaged about 1650 hectares of maize and reduced crop productivity by 20% as a result of waterlogging of farmland (Gambela Region Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, 2007). This meant a loss of income for the country and also exacerbated food shortages and malnutrition problems in the region.

Figure 11.3  Flood-damaged crops in the Gambela Region.

The impacts of climate change on the environment could also reduce the national income from the export of agricultural products such as coffee, pulses and flowers. Of particular concern is the possible impact on Ethiopia’s famous Arabica coffee, which is exported all over the world. Coffee plants are very sensitive to climate change and there are concerns that Arabica coffee production could become impossible in Ethiopia by the end of this century if the change continues at the current rate.

Ethiopia is home to Africa’s largest livestock population, and is the world’s tenth-largest producer of livestock and livestock products (MacDonald and Simon, 2011), which make up about 10% of the country’s foreign currency earnings (Pantuliano and Wekesa, 2008). Frequent and extensive droughts in the country have a considerable effect on Ethiopia’s livestock because decreased rainfall shrinks available water resources and reduces the productivity of grassland and rangeland (Figure 11.4).

Figure 11.4  Water resources and grazing for animals may be impacted by climate change.

The main causes of livestock deaths in Ethiopia are shortages of water and food during drought (IFAD, 2009; MacDonald and Simon, 2011). Increased temperatures can affect the behaviour and metabolism (internal body processes) of livestock, such as a reduced intake of food and a decline in productivity (IFAD, 2009; Thornton et al., 2009). Changes in rainfall and warmer temperatures may also increase the geographical distribution and survival ofvectors like flies and mosquitoes that transmit infectious diseases to livestock (IFAD, 2009; Thornton et al., 2009). These impacts on livestock are already being felt in Ethiopia; in the past two decades in Borana zone, southern Ethiopia, there have been losses of livestock associated with drought (Figure 11.5). The number of animals per household declined on average ‘to three oxen from ten; to seven cows from 35; and to six goats, down from 33’ (MacDonald and Simon, 2011).

Figure 11.5  Livestock may die as a result of drought.

Like drought, flood has a significant impact on livestock. Animals can be drowned or washed away by flood. For instance, more than 15,600 livestock were lost due to flooding in 2006 in SNNPR (EWD DPPA, 2007). Flood also covers large areas of grazing land with water, making it impossible for the animals to find food.

In addition to affecting agriculture and livestock, floods can cause huge damage to property, livelihoods and infrastructure. This occurred in the 2006 floods in Dire Dawa city, as described in the extract from a government report shown in Box 11.1.

Box 11.1  Impact of the 2006 flood on the Dire Dawa city economy

The flood significantly damaged the livelihoods of 9956 displaced [persons] in Dire Dawa city, washing away their homes and significantly damaging individual assets such as shops, private enterprises and market stalls. Approximately 2685 households were reported to have lost their homes. An additional 1000 homes were also damaged by the flood waters. The damage to livelihood assets had been assessed by the Dire Dawa Investment Bureau, the Dire Dawa Small and Micro Enterprise Agency and the Trade and Industry Office of Dire Dawa. The Investment Bureau found that ten investors lost an estimated 13,162,981 ETB from property damage by the flood. The Dire Dawa Small and Micro Enterprise Agency assessment reported that 882 people incurred losses of 6,697,992 ETB and the Trade and Industry Office also reported the loss of 10,193,302 Birr incurred by 116 traders.

Infrastructure was also severely damaged including roads, the Dechatu River main bridge which cost 2.4 million ETB, Taiwan and Halfkat Irish Crossing and the retaining wall of the Dechatu. In addition, several electric and telephone utility lines and poles were destroyed resulting in a black out in parts of kebeles 05, 06, 07 and 09 for several days. The damage was reported to have incurred the electric and telephone sectors estimated loss of Birr 500,000 and Birr 6,098.36 respectively. On top of these infrastructure damages, all roads found within a 40 [m] radius from the river were completely covered with silt. Its removal and clearance cost about ETB 517,100.

In the surrounding rural areas of Dire Dawa, approximately 257.6 hectares of crops (cereals, vegetables, fruits and cash crops) in 17 kebeles were damaged and six houses were washed away. Soil and water conservation infrastructure in all these kebeles, water schemes in seven kebeles and irrigation schemes in five kebeles, were significantly damaged.

(EWD DPPA, 2007)

11.4  Climate change impacts on water resources

Climate change leading to increased surface temperatures, melting of snow and glaciers, rise in sea level and an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, can significantly affect water resources. As you learned in Study Session 10, global warming increases the evaporation of water into the atmosphere and changes the patterns of major airstreams and ocean currents such as El Niño and La Niña. This in turn alters the distribution of precipitation, so some regions experience greater rainfall and flooding while others become more prone to droughts.

More frequent and longer periods of drought reduce the amount of run-off into rivers, streams and lakes; also the water table drops, so there is less groundwater to supply springs and shallow wells. During droughts, rural people – particularly women and children – may have to walk for up to six hours to collect water from unprotected water sources such as ponds (Figure 11.6). In drought-stricken rural areas, a higher priority is given to collection of water than to other activities, which can cause children to drop out of school because their labour is needed for water collection. In urban areas, poor people may be forced to use unclean water or to buy water from vendors at high prices. The extra money they spend on buying water could have been used for other purposes such as food, fuel and health care.

Figure 11.6  Borena women in Southern Ethiopia collecting water from a pond during a drought.

11.5  Climate change impacts on sanitation and hygiene

Flooding due to climate change is expected to affect sanitation because it damages drainage infrastructure and wastewater treatment facilities. During flooding, the flood water can burst sewer lines, where they exist, and overwhelm waste treatment plants. In other areas, pit latrines and septic tanks are liable to overflow. Sanitation facilities in urban and slum areas are highly vulnerable to flooding because they are often poorly designed and constructed.

In rural areas where the latrine coverage is low and open defecation is still a widespread practice, the impact of flooding on sanitation is huge. Even where latrines exist, they often have slabs made of wood and mud, which are much more vulnerable than concrete slabs if there is a flood. Most latrines do not have a proper roof, substantial walls or a diversion ditch to divert flood water and stop it entering the latrine. If the latrine overflows, this leads to contamination of water sources and outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases, as we described in Section 11.1. The health problems caused by flooding are aggravated when people are displaced by the flood into overcrowded refugee camps with poor sanitation facilities and water supplies. When they return to their homes after the flood ends, their traditional sources of water have been contaminated by pollutants and disease-causing organisms (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2005).

Drought and water shortages also have considerable impact on sanitation and hygiene. Nowadays, an increasing number of households in better-off urban areas use water-flush toilets, which require several litres of water to flush human excreta into a septic tank or sewer. Water shortages mean that the excreta cannot be flushed away, so bad odour builds up which attracts flies. This increases the risk of transmitting faecal organisms on the hands. Water shortages also mean that people cannot maintain their personal hygiene by washing their hands and face or bathing their body.

To conclude this study session, consider the following question before moving on to the next which describes the importance of developing resilience to climate change and coping strategies for the future.

  • How is climate change affecting Ethiopia? Can you add your own observations?

  • Ethiopia is experiencing increases in temperature, and changes in the levels and patterns of rainfall. We hope you were able to add your own observations such as the start, duration and quality of the rainy season, or sustained drought in certain areas.

Summary of Study Session 11

In Study Session 11, you have learned that:

  1. Climate change can affect human health both positively and negatively, but the negative health impacts are expected to exceed the positive effects.
  2. Changes in temperature, precipitation and weather extremes (such as heatwaves) can affect people directly, whereas indirect health impacts result from changes to natural and social systems caused by climate change.
  3. Climate change is expected to have a greater impact in low-income countries such as Ethiopia because of low numbers of trained people, poor infrastructures and limited economic capability to respond to the challenges.
  4. Many diseases of humans and livestock are increasing because of the indirect effects of climate change.
  5. Droughts and floods cause losses of human life and livestock, damage to homes, businesses and infrastructures, erosion of soils, grassland and farmland, and loss of productivity.
  6. Climate change is expected to reduce biodiversity because it has impacts on the environment and climatic conditions that threaten the survival of endangered plants and animals.
  7. Climate change is expected to have significant impacts on the economy of Ethiopia which is highly dependent on climate-sensitive activities such as rain-fed agriculture and livestock production. National income from exports, such as coffee, pulses, flowers and animal products, is likely to be reduced if climate change continues.
  8. Drought has many impacts on WASH in Ethiopia. Water scarcity reduces access to clean drinking water, deters people from bathing and handwashing, and restricts the use of water-flushed toilets. People are forced to use unsafe water sources, or walk long distances to collect water, otherwise they must buy it, which adds to poverty and so increases the risk of disease and also causes children to miss schooling.
  9. Floods have many impacts on WASH in Ethiopia. Flood water spreads pollutants and disease-causing organisms from latrines, areas of open defecation and damaged sanitation lines and waste treatment facilities.

Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs) for Study Session 11

Now that you have completed this study session, you can assess how well you have achieved its Learning Outcomes by answering these questions.

SAQ 11.1 (tests Learning Outcome 11.1)

Give two examples of potential positive health impacts and two examples of potential negative health impacts of climate change in Ethiopia.


Examples of potential positive health impacts of climate change in Ethiopia include:

  • a reduction in deaths due to exposure to extreme cold in winter
  • a reduction in the geographical distribution of some vectors of infectious disease (e.g. mosquitoes that transmit malaria) because they are less able to survive in the changed climate conditions.

Examples of potential negative health impacts of climate change in Ethiopia include (you only need two of these):

  • an increase in extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires) that directly cause injury or loss of life
  • a reduction in the productivity of agriculture and livestock farming, leading to food shortages and malnutrition, which in turn increases susceptibility to disease
  • an increase in the contamination of environmental water sources by animal, human, agricultural and industrial waste, leading to an increase in waterborne and water-washed diseases
  • an increase in the geographical distribution of some vectors of infectious disease, because they are more able to survive in the changed climate conditions.

SAQ 11.2 (tests Learning Outcome 11.3)

Rewrite the paragraph below using terms from the list provided to fill the gaps:

agriculture, climate, crops, export, livestock, waterlogging.

Ethiopia's economy is highly dependent on……………… which is very sensitive to ………………change. For example, an increase in flooding will wash away ………………, reduce the amount of grazing land for ………………, and reduce productivity due to ……………… of farmland. The impact on Ethiopia's GDP is likely to be significant because national income relies heavily on the ………………of agricultural products.


Ethiopia's economy is highly dependent on agriculture which is very sensitive to climate change. For example, an increase in flooding will wash away crops, reduce the amount of grazing land for livestock, and reduce productivity due to waterlogging of farmland. The impact on Ethiopia's GDP is likely to be significant because national income relies heavily on the export of agricultural products.

SAQ 11.3 (tests Learning Outcomes 11.2, 11.3, 11.4 and 11.5)

The water supply in Ethiopia is expected to decrease if climate change results in more frequent and more severe droughts. Give one reason why a shortage of water is likely to have a negative impact on each of the following:

  • a.the Ethiopian economy
  • b.the health of people on low incomes in rural and urban populations
  • c.the education of school children
  • d.the efficiency of sanitation.


  • a.The Ethiopian economy is likely to be affected by water shortages because agriculture and many industries are dependent on water for their productivity.
  • b.The health of people on low incomes in rural and urban populations is likely to be affected by water shortages because they may be forced to use unsafe water sources for drinking, which increases their exposure to waterborne disease. They might also wash less frequently, which could increase the risk of water-washed diseases.
  • c.The education of school children is likely to be affected by water shortages because they are often required to walk long distances to collect water and so are unable to attend school.
  • d.The efficiency of sanitation is likely to be affected by water shortages because there would not be enough water available to flush human excreta from toilets and latrines into septic tanks.