The Ethiopian and Eritrean armies deliberately destroyed Tigray’s water sector

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Decades of steady progress in enhancing the region’s water supply have been reversed by the allied invading forces, leaving many Tigrayans in a state of desperation. 

Water is an essential resource for life. In Tigray, rainfall is the main source of water for agricultural production, but it is erratic and seasonal, as about 75 percent is distributed in July and August. 

Because Tigray is dominated by arid and semi-arid environments, it has experienced recurrent droughts over the years that affect millions of people. 

Up to 550,000 hectares can be irrigated in Tigray from existing surface and groundwater which could cover around 58 percent of the region’s cultivated land. However, despite monumental efforts over the past three decades, Tigray’s irrigated area only covers less than eight percent of the cultivated irrigable land.

Amid the war and siege on Tigray, any progress made in recent years was reversed by the invading Ethiopian and Eritrean armies as part of their concerted efforts to degrade Tigrayan society in its entirety.  

Prewar Status

Over the past thirty years, the governments of Ethiopia and Tigray, along with their development partners, have put a great deal of emphasis on improving the region’s water sector. 

Various governmental organizations and local and international NGOs have worked together in developing Tigray’s water sector. These partners were mainly involved in the construction of water supply, irrigation, and hydropower infrastructure. 

According to the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resources (TBoANR), about 30 percent of Tigray’s landscape was covered with soil and water conservation-based development works.

In the early 1990s, Tigray was characterized by severe land degradation, leading to an excessive amount of surface runoff water flowing out of the region. Decades of soil and water conservation efforts have greatly reduced the surface runoff. 

For sustainability and long-term durability of the water supply and irrigation projects, water users’ associations were formed. These associations were useful for cost recovery, early follow up, and timely maintenance.

In the past three decades, various types of wells and water supply dams were built. The TBoANR estimates that 19,159 rural and 715 urban water supply structures were constructed to serve 2,332,223 and 756,875 beneficiaries, respectively. 

As the Bureau’s reports indicate, these projects allowed Tigray’s water supply coverage to increase from below 18 percent before the 2000s to 61 percent in 2020. 

Due to a growing number of investments, there were also more than eight bottled drinking water factories in Tigray that provided purified and bottled water. 

In addition, around 134 dams, 1,250 river diversions, 4,038 motor pumps, 24,008 shallow wells, 308 deep wells, and other water holding structures were constructed in Tigray for irrigation purposes. 

In total, more than 36,245 irrigation infrastructures were constructed to irrigate 64,363 hectares of land aiming to serve 212,524 beneficiaries. As a result, the expansion and productivity of irrigated agriculture significantly increased in Tigray.

Moreover, the Tekeze hydropower dam was constructed to improve electricity access with a capacity to generate 300 megawatts in 2009. This hydroelectric power expansion allowed 45 percent of Tigrayans to access electricity. 

Wartime Destruction

During the war, the allied invaders purposefully destroyed Tigray’s economy. The Ethiopian government also prohibited most humanitarian aid in the form of food, medicine, and fuel, and basic services such as telecommunication, banking, trade, transportation, and electricity as part of its wartime strategy of laying siege to Tigray. 

Water infrastructure is among the key sectors the allied Ethiopian and Eritrean armies targeted to pillage. Key domestic, industrial, and institutional water supply lines, irrigation schemes, office infrastructure, and facilities were damaged or destroyed.

After the war began on 4 November 2020, 50 percent of the 9,213 total water supply schemes were destroyed and remain out of service, according to the Tigray Bureau of Water and Natural Resources (TBoWNR). 

The invading forces explicitly targeted the potable water purification and bottling factories in Tigray. Now only two factories are functioning as the rest were looted and damaged. There is also a lack of packaging and additives resulting from the siege. 

As a result, many rural areas and towns do not have access to water in Tigray.

TBoWNR data also indicates that 3,196 irrigation infrastructures are currently out of service as a result of the destruction by the allied invaders. Furthermore, an estimated 57 percent of irrigation farms on the banks of the Tekeze River and 89 percent of Welkait sugarcane farms were destroyed during the war on Tigray. 

Destruction of a switchboard, office facilities and people fetching unpotable water in Mekelle and rural areas.

Moreover, a large number of fruit plantations involved in irrigation schemes were also targeted by the allied invaders. This included destroying fruit plantations in numerous districts of Tigray such as Samre, Agulae, Mereb Lekhe, Kola Tembien, and Egela. 

The TBoWNR reports that a number of water sector projects under construction in Tigray, including 36 water supply and 25 irrigation projects, were deliberately targeted, destroyed, burned, and/or looted. 

For example, the Gereb Giba water supply dam project in Mekelle under construction at a cost of 270 million USD was targeted. Its heavy machinery such as excavators, loaders, dump trucks, truck mixers, shower trucks, and drilling machines were pillaged. 

Supply Strained

The invading forces not only caused physical damage to water sector infrastructure but also released false information that Mekelle’s water supply had been poisoned. Consequently, Mekelle residents were terrorized as other sources of water for domestic consumption were not available. 

Due to water shortages and poor sanitation, four people died while extracting water from open water sources in the Sebe’a Kare area of Mekelle. 

Tigrayans have also suffered from water borne diseases as the siege and blockade have created a lack of water treatment chemicals such as chlorine for purifying drinking water. This is most pronounced in rural areas of Tigray. 

Affordable detergents useful for sanitation and hygiene facilities are also not available to most in Tigray. 

More than 1.2 million people were internally displaced from the region, mainly from Western Tigray. These IDPs are mostly sheltered in Shire, Mekelle, and other towns of Tigray such as Alamata, Sheraro, Axum, Adwa, Abyiadi, Adigrat, and Maychew. 

As a result of this influx of additional water users, the water supply systems in these towns are complicated as the burden on each town has grown beyond their capacity.


Furthermore, the Mekelle water supply has been burdened due to high levels of water consumption as the number of migrants has drastically increased. As a result, more than 40 active boreholes in the Aynalem and Chineferes wellfields around Mekelle are on the verge of collapse due to over-exploitation of the city’s water supply system. 

The Tekeze hydropower system was also bombarded during airstrikes at its transmission station near the dam. Thus, partial service with only 75 megawatts of electricity is being generated. 

Due to the electricity interruption, water supply, milling machines, and food preparation have been interrupted, thus complicating the life of Tigrayans without electricity. The absence of light has also created favorable conditions for thieves. 

Due to the siege and war on Tigray, the damaged water infrastructure (irrigation, water supply, and hydropower) have not been maintained or reconstructed, as spare parts and other essential machinery and equipment are lacking in Tigray. 

Unfortunately, overall water sector development works that were underway before November 2020 have now been curtailed indefinitely. 

Ways Forward

Help is needed from the international community in supplying chemicals, detergents, and materials for water purifying, sanitation, and hygiene purposes. Spare parts are also needed to maintain and restore the damaged water schemes in Tigray. 

The international community, including UN aid agencies, should play a role in the revitalization, rehabilitation, and restoration of Tigray’s water sector.

Given Tigray’s dryland topography, the water supply must play an indispensable role in the overall socioeconomic development efforts. All development policies should consider water as a primary resource for local livelihoods that is also essential in relation to the food and energy sectors. 

For this reason, peace and security should be guaranteed for Tigrayans by deterring any future aggressions similar to what has been happening in Tigray for over two years.

Tsegazeab Gebreselassie Kahsay,  Hintsa Libsekal Gebremariam,  Dawit Teweldebirhan Tsige, and  Mogos Amare Adane have contributed to this work.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Women and children queuing up to collect clean water delivered by truck in a drought affected village; Raya Azebo, Tigray; 07 January 2008; UNICEF Ethiopia, Getachew.

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