Solving Water Security and Sustainability in Eritrea

A NextGen Blog post by John Olson, Michigan State University

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

John Olson is currently an undergraduate at Michigan State University pursuing a degree in environmental economics and management. This blog post covers Africa’s historic and modern-day Eritrean reliance on spate irrigation systems, problems associated with spate irrigation and its contribution to the current water crisis throughout Eritrea.

Eritrean Water Crisis

Located in the Horn of East Africa and bordering the Red Sea, Eritrea has found itself amid a freshwater crisis. Approximately 80% of the current Eritrean population lacks access to essential water services (plumbing, delivery, etc.). Almost 50% are without clean water – making it one of the most water-poor African nations.[mfn]Ha, Megan[/mfn] The monsoonal rainy season here, which spans from late June to early September, dumps much of its precipitation in very infrequent, torrential bursts in the central highlands of the country.[mfn]Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)[/mfn] It is a nation that is highly reliant upon its agricultural sector, yet it faces the combined pressures of climate change and water insecurity. Finding sustainable solutions to irrigation problems stemming from spate systems is an urgent matter for all members of Eritrean society.[mfn]DeMarco, Nick[/mfn] Spate irrigation is a form of flood irrigation that makes use of extensive, man-made structures to divert water from a point of origination toward a typically dry region with fertile soils.

The Dogali Bridge (Credit: David Stanley © Creative Commons)

Current Agricultural Practices

The most agriculturally productive Eritrean region surrounds Sheeb, a relatively small town nestled between the northern part of the Red Sea and Eritrean mountains to the west. For centuries, Sheeb farmers have relied upon the limited freshwater resources, almost entirely limited to the highlands, to grow their maize, wheat and sorghum crops. Like most agricultural hubs across the Eritrea plains region, Sheeb’s growers have made use of spate irrigation schemes to sustain their fields.[mfn]Tesfai, Mehretab and Stroosnijder, Leo[/mfn] Spate irrigation has historically been the second most common agricultural practice amongst Eritrean smallholders, following rain-fed agriculture.[mfn]The World Bank[/mfn]

After a large downpour, the artificial canal networks that have been integrated within the highlands direct the recently deposited surface water toward the farmers’ fields, flooding them to achieve high levels of saturation.[mfn]International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)[/mfn] Spate systems extend the moisture timeline of soils by establishing a temporary groundwater system that can feed multiple rounds of crops. Along with transporting of flood waters, the spate canals facilitate the movement of sediments from the highland regions to the coastal plains, therefore replenishing the farmers’ fields with nutrients needed for sufficient crop growth.[mfn]Tesfai, Mehretab and Stroosnijder, Leo[/mfn]

Central Highlands of Eritrea (Credit: Martin Schibbye © Wiki Commons)

Spate Irrigation Challenges

Eritrea’s problem with its spate irrigation system is not related to the quantity or quality of yields generated by this agricultural practice. Instead, the most significant downfall of spate irrigation can be attributed to the high inefficiencies associated with water loss stemming from evaporation and excessive percolation during the flooding phase.[mfn]Tesfai, Mehretab and Stroosnijder, Leo[/mfn] Eritreans cannot afford to waste any water. Farmers have not only been over-allocating water to their fields in an unsustainable manner; they have inadvertently also made the water crisis progressively worse by limiting the supply of freshwater that is available to the public. Certainly, maximizing agricultural output is of a high importance for any nation dependent upon this sector as a source of income and food for its people. Yet, just as significant, is the ability to ensure a stable supply of freshwater – either in the form of surface or groundwater.

Sustainable Solutions

Within the past few decades, agricultural and hydrological researchers at the University of Asmara have undertaken projects aimed at gradually implementing micro-drip irrigation systems into small-scale farms. This facilitates measuring costs and benefits associated with food production and water usage for comparison with flood irrigation techniques. A pre-feasibility study conducted by Abraham Mehari and his colleagues found that micro-drip irrigation systems have the capacity to reduce water usage by approximately 50%, while simultaneously doubling prospective output levels of sorghum and other related, drought-tolerant crops. This has provided scientists and government officials with a sense of optimism as there appears to be significant potential for improving food and water security through investments in micro-drip agriculture.[mfn]Asgedom, Samuel[/mfn]

Additionally, a 2003 joint study conducted by the Association of Eritreans in Agricultural Sciences (AEAS) and the Sustainable Land Management Programme of Eritrea (SLM) determined that crops produced under drip irrigation schemes typically show signs of higher quality than those generated by conventional techniques.[mfn]Tesfai, Mehreteab[/mfn] A nationwide drip irrigation network for small-scale farmers would increase access to clean drinking water, raise crop quality food and lower food prices. Eritrean public health would then improve, allowing greater economic productivity. In turn, this could help Eritrea attain badly needed structural transformation.[mfn]World Health Organization (WHO)[/mfn]

Drip Irrigation System (Credit: United States Department of Agriculture © Wiki Commons

The Future of Eritrean Water 

Eritrea’s ability to effectively switch from widely-used spate irrigation systems to drip-irrigation frameworks will remain dependent on its ability to implement and reform policies related to water rights. In Sheeb, the system of water allocation is currently positionally based with upstream farms having first access.[mfn]Tesfai, Mehretab and Stroosnijder, Leo[/mfn] With the advent of more sophisticated irrigation schemes such as micro-drip irrigation, either private or public institutions will be required to invest in the development of above or underground storage units for slow release of water to receiving fields. the latter would require a shift to more comprehensive distributional water legislation at various levels of government. Similarly, if the general population is to have improved access to clean water, incentives for Eritrean growers to further water conserve water must be combined with holistic structural irrigation changes.


“An ancient form of water management helps farmers in Eritrea cope with water scarcity.” Feb 12, 2009. Accessed 5/16/21 by JO.

Asgedom, Samuel. Ghebru, Bissrat. Loosli, Pablo. Mehari, Abraham. Stillhardt, Brigitta. Suryawanshi, Sudarshan. “Implementation of Affordable Micro Drip Irrigation Systems in Eritrea Pre-feasibility study.” May 2001. Accessed 5/16/21 by JO.

“Country Profile – Eritrea.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2005. Accessed 5/17/21 by JO.

DeMarco, Nick. “Sustainable Agriculture in Eritrea.” The Borgen Project. Jan 16, 2018. Accessed 5/17/21 by JO.

“Eritrea: An Overview”. The World Bank. April 6, 2021. Accessed 5/17/21 by JO.

Ha, Megan. “How Does Eritrea’s Lack of Clean Water Affect Its Poverty Issue?” The Borgen Project. Sept 1, 2020. Accessed 5/16/21 by JO.

“Innovations Driving Health MDGs in Eritrea.” World Health Organization (WHO). Sept 2014. Accessed 5/16/21 by JO.

Tesfai, Mehreteab. Soil Use and Management. Bedford, United Kingdom. The British Society of Soil Science. Jan 19, 2006.

Tesfai, Mehretab. Stroosnijder, Leo. Agricultural Water Management. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Elsevier. May 29, 2000. 

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