Rainwater management practices are often promoted with little regard for the site-specific biophysical characteristics and local socio-economic and institutional environments.

To promote rainwater management more successfully, a paradigm change towards promotion of location-specific interventions is needed. Beyond biophysical suitability, successful implementation crucially depends on farmers’ willingness to adopt a practice.

‘Similarity analysis’ is an approach that presents and matches geospatial and other data so successful interventions in a location can be mapped to other locations with similar biophysical, socio-economic and institutional characteristics within a basin. Mapping similarities and differences can help us identify promising locations for technologies and other interventions to be spilled over for wider impact.

The report ‘Similarity analysis for the Blue Nile Basin in the Ethiopian highlands‘ :

  • Presents the available spatial data for the Blue Nile Basin in the Ethiopian highlands.
  • Develops a methodology that allows identifying locations within a landscape that have similar biophysical, infrastructure, socio-economics, and governance characteristics relevant to rainwater management.

Download the technical report

See a list of other Nile Basin Development Challenge outputs


The so-called ‘Nile 4’ project aims at quantifying the consequences of improved rainwater management, measuring downstream, cross-scale consequences of successful innovation in the Ethiopian highlands.  On 23 May 2012, this project team organized a coordination meeting with the team of another Nile project (‘Targeting and scaling out of rainwater management systems‘, or ‘Nile 3’ project) to integrate targeting, impact assessment and priority setting between the two teams, as the pressure to integrate Nile Basin Development Challenge work streams is mounting.

Rainfall, one of the many factors the Nile Basin Development Challenge teams are interested in (credits: IWMI/Charlotte McAlister)

The coordination meeting gave a good occasion to review progress so far and identify the building blocks that the two project teams should capitalize on. For the year 2011, the N4 project team has been working on a number of important developments that should benefit the wider Nile Basin Development Challenge program and beyond.

The main research highlights for 2011, which will extend into 2012, include:

  • Modifying the open source Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) to better represent hydrophysical conditions in the Blue Nile Basin (for use at a whole basin and at the catchment scale of the project). The team has done so by incorporating the concept of ‘topographic index’ into the model routine to account for saturation excess flow and landscape run-off processes, more realistically representing how and where run-off and sediment generation occur within the defined catchment.
  • Developing a first version of the Water Evaluation And Planning (WEAP) model to assess water resource optimization in the Blue Nile. Further plans include the coupling of the WEAP and SWAT models and to run a number of climate change scenarios to gauge possible impacts.
  • Developing a new method for acquiring a 30-year weather data set for anywhere in the world. Currently, most African weather data sets do not feature adequate temporal or spatial resolution, length of recording period and reliable quality of data. This endeavour aims at re-dimensioning the existing Climate Forecast System of Reanalysis (CFSR) dataset as a temporal series of grid points to avoid having to download terabytes of data to access a single point. Cornell University is assisting the project team.
  • Applying and adapting the economic benefits-optimization model ‘ECOSAUT’ in the Blue Nile Basin. This model was originally developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The project team also compiled a literature/data source data of economic benefits in Ethiopia (and East Africa) to help scale up this work in the longer run.

The N4 project further documents progress on the overall program wiki and on the CPWF Spatial Analysis and Modelling topic working group wiki.

Fantahun Mengistu-NileBDC stakeholder workshop

Fantahun Mengistu, Director of ARARI

In October 2011, project partners and team members in the Nile Basin Development Challenge  met in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia to reflect on project progress and directions.

We asked Fantahun Mengistu, Director of the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI) to share some of the key points and take home messages from the meeting.

In the interview below, he notes that, although Ethiopia has a good national policy framework in place, there are some gaps in implementation at grassroots level: including proper integration between water and agriculture, more emphasis is given to blue than to green water, and fully understanding the farmers and the farmer circumstances – “we need to know very well the farmer.”

Sustainability is a key issue, it needs increased participation of communities, more emphasis on showing short term benefits to farmers, increased attention to integrated hydrological planning at basin and landscape level – we need to ensure that people getting upstream benefits does not mean that people downstream will suffer.

Watch the interview:

See photos from the workshop here.

In late 2011, all projects in the Nile Basin Development Challenge prepared ‘most significant change’ stories from the first phase of operations. One of the stories looked at project experiences with the installation of hydrological monitoring sites.

NBDC Brief 10 is a summary  of the story.

A key objective of the Nile BDC is to gain insights into hydrological processes (e.g. water budgets and partitioning of rainfall between soil moisture, groundwater and runoff) in order to inform decision-making about different rainwater management options. To do this, we have established hydrological monitoring networks in three research catchments, one in each of the woreda’s where the research is being conducted (i.e., Jeldu, Diga and Fogera).

We also decided to engage with relevant stakeholders and communities to establish the instrumentation networks. We hope this participatory approach will:

  • instill trust and goodwill amongst the community;
  • provide opportunities for local communities to better understand the hydrological regime of their localities;
    help establish a conducive atmosphere for the flow of knowledge between researchers and the communities and vice-versa.

Some lessons

The three research catchments are almost certainly the most sophisticated hydrological experimental monitoring networks ever established in Ethiopia. As such they should be exploited to the full. If they are to be utilized successfully it is clear that participation from local communities and a range of stakeholders is vital.

Download the Brief

We also interviewed Matthew McCartney (IWMI) about his hydrological work in the project:

Multi-stakeholder conversation on land and water

In late 2011, all projects in the Nile Basin Development Challenge prepared ‘most significant change’ stories from the first phase of operations. One of the stories looked at how water-focused collaborative research in Ethiopia by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has evolved over the past 8 years.

NBDC Brief 9 is a summary  of the story.

It started with research on livestock-water linkages during CPWF Phase I (2004-2008), continued through further analysis of crop-livestock production systems within a BMZ-supported project on water productivity in crop-livestock systems (2007-2009), and now has a broader rainwater management (RWM) focus on landscapes and the institutional linkages needed to achieve change through the Nile Basin Development Challenge (2010-2013).

We have seen the research agenda move from water productivity to crop-livestock-water system productivity that strives for an optimal balance in allocating water resources for crops and livestock.

Rainwater management as integrating framework

The ‘rainwater management’ concept that emerged seems to be attractive to people and organizations in Ethiopia. In particular we see uptake by those who promote watershed management as a key natural resources management strategy but end up doing soil conservation structures. RWM strategies also help national institutions move from a rainwater harvesting focus towards integrated rainwater management, and from surface water management towards integrated blue and green water in the landscape.

This broader concept, with institutional, technological and political dimensions, calls for a wider participation of actors at farm, landscape, national and regional scales. Beyond the wider involvement of different actors, it calls for a greater emphasis on overall sustainable landscape productivity that addresses water depletion, land degradation, low productivity and institutional capacity. It has inserted new thinking in ongoing national programmes, including the multi-donor forum on ‘Sustainable Land Management’ which is integrating water in the national land management agenda.

Closer to home, this emerging RWM concept is influencing members of the NBDC team – in terms of methodology and working approaches, particularly by moving people away from disciplinary-based research towards integrated landscape management. Shifting the focus away from research and landscape components towards wider system approaches has also brought scientists at IWMI and ILRI together in a particularly long-lasting and productive collaboration, to the extent that the two groups in Ethiopia operate as one in several projects.

Download the Brief

Tilahun Amede, Nile Basin project leader is co-editor of a new book ‘Integrated Natural Resource Management in the Highlands of Eastern Africa: From Concept to Practice.’

It documents a decade of research, methodological innovation, and lessons learned in an eco-regional research-for-development program operating in the eastern African highlands, the African Highlands Initiative (AHI). It does this through reflections of the protagonists themselves—AHI site teams and partners applying action research to development innovation as a means to enhance the impact of their research.

This book summarizes the experiences of farmers, research and development workers, policy and decision-makers who have interacted within an innovation system with the common goal of implementing an integrated approach to natural resource management (NRM) in the humid highlands.

This book demonstrates the crucial importance of “approach” in shaping the outcomes of research and development, and distils lessons learned on what works, where and why. It is enriched with examples and case studies from five benchmark sites in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, whose variability provides the reader with an in-depth knowledge of the complexities of integrated NRM in agro-ecosystems that play an important role in the rural economy of the region. It is shown that the struggle to achieve sustainable agricultural development in challenging environments is a complex one, and can only be effectively achieved through combined efforts and commitment of individuals and institutions with complementary roles.

Chapter 1 gives an overview of INRM as a concept and the birth and evolution of AHI, including the methodological framework through which innovations were developed and tested and its results. Chapter 2 provides an overview of farm-level methodological innovations oriented towards participatory intensification and diversification of smallholder farming systems for optimal system productivity (economic, social, and ecological). Chapter 3 summarizes AHI
experiences with a set of approaches employed to operationalize participatory watershed management through an integrated lens which looks not only at soil and water but at a wider set of system components and interations.

Chapter 4 explores lessons learned to date on methods and approaches for participatory landscape governance, exploring how processes that cut across farm boundaries, involve trade-offs between different land users or require collective action may be addressed effectively and equitably. Chapter 5 explores the role of district level institutions and cross-scale linkages in supporting grassroots development and conservation initiatives, including improved coordination and better support to local livelihood priorities and bottom-up governance reforms. Chapter 6 explores methods and approaches for scaling up and institutionalizing integrated natural resource management innovations (e.g., those presented in earlier chapters), as well as approaches for self-led institutional change that can institutionalize the process of methodological innovation and impact-oriented research.

Published by IDRC, ICRAF and Earthscan, the full report can be downloaded from the IDRC institutional repository

In October, a companion project to the Nile Basin Development Challenge began. Entitled ‘enhancing communities’ adaptive capacity to climate change in drought-prone hotspots of the Blue Nile basin, Ethiopia’, the project is funded by the United Nations Environment Program.

The project will develop a learning site to help enhance the adaptive capacities of local communities to climate-change induced water scarcity. It will also provide evidence to governments to consider climate change and ecosystems in land use planning and natural resource management.

On 24 and 25 November, the project was launched with a stakeholder experience-sharing workshop at Wollo University.

After formal welcomes and technical presentations by Tilahun Amede (ILRI/IWMI) and Polly Ericksen (ILRI), the first day focused on sharing experience in integrated watershed management and collective action from within the region. It was also about identifying key interventions and lessons that could be integrated in planning and implementation of emerging watershed and climate-related projects in the region. The second day introduced the project to the partners, integrated their ideas into the planning and design and explored broader partnership.

Major challenges emerging from the presentations of five watersheds included:

  •   Negotiations and convincing the farmers could be time taking and sometimes painful;
  •   Some Initiative died after the completions of projects; question of sustainability, ownerships
  •   Poor exit strategy by donor supported projects;
  •   Duplication of management and institutions (Watershed development committee vs. Gov’t Committee)
  •   The conflict between social planning unit of the gov’t vs. Watershed planning unit
  •   Lack of landscape scale planning; delineation commonly based on project objectives and available budgets


On the final day, participants agreed to:

  1. Organize community meetings and local consultation at watershed scales for initiating the project
  2. Use the watershed as a joint learning site between Wollo University, ARARI, ILRI and UNEP
  3. The local administration has taken the responsibility to facilitate the implementation of the project
  4. ARARI has agreed to consider the watershed as a satellite research site in the watershed through its SIRINKA research centre
  5. There is also understanding to send MSC and PhD students from various disciplines to work on integrated approaches

For more information, contact Dr. Tilahun Amede at ILRI.


On 19 December 2011, the Nile Basin Development Challenge hosts the 2nd ‘National Platform meeting on land and water management in Ethiopia.’

The national platform intends to link local experiences with national planning, and open opportunities to engage with policy makers. While the National Platform meetings are expected to take place twice a year, we envision that the platform leads the establishment of thematic working groups with several activities throughout the year. During the 2nd national platform meeting, we will introduce the objectives, functions and structure of the platform and discuss priority areas/themes and approaches to address them.

The first platform meeting was held on 8 April, 2011 – read a news item; download the meeting report.

One of the ‘learning to innovate’ sessions in the 2011 Third International Forum on Water and Food looked at experiences within the CPWF with multi-stakeholder Platforms (MSP) and Innovation Platforms (IP).

The session started with a brief introduction, and then three presentations from Alan Duncan (ILRI/Nile – his presentation; a poster on innovation platforms), Andre van Rooyen (ICRISAT/Limpopo – his presentation) and Kim Geheb (Mekong – his presentation), each focusing on different ideas and experiences.

A ‘bus stop’ exercise followed, with a different but short presentation at each stop (see this video interview – in French – with Hubert Some from SNV).

Participants then formed into four groups to further discuss specific questions.

  1. How do we scale out such platform processes? Key notions include: replication; snowballing; relationships among the various stakeholders; step back to allow the process to move forward;  financial resources; the specific contexts; and skilled process facilitators …
  2. What are the most significant lessons and messages in this area for ‘research for development’? each process needs a vision, a dream; these processes  are complex and time-consuming to operationalize; we should not underestimate the role of networks; should informality receive institutional support?; multi-way communication is essential …
  3. What is new and innovative in the experiences shared? It explicitly concerned about benefits of specific groups of stakeholders; it is used to facilitate research through continuous dialogue; researchers are taking on broker roles; change results from processes that motivate multiple actors and networks;  innovations result from consolidating diverse actors …
  4. What are the research questions on platforms that could be addressed across CPWF Basins? How to monitor and track behavioural and institutional change; how can knowledge data and information be incorporated into how platforms do things, building up institutional learning over time; The need to compare different platform approaches and the outcomes they produce; How do local ownership processes develop in different contexts; Are there factors that constrain or prevent the success of such platforms, and how do we share these …

Watch the discussion group video reports:

Kim Meheb from the Mekong Basin rounded off the session by synthesizing the main ideas and lessons emerging. These include: There’s no ‘blueprint’ for doing multi-stakeholder platforms; one of the strengths of these approaches is they way they allow for things to change along a MSP process; we need to design processes to allow people to join along the way – a ‘snowballing’ effect; two-way dialogues between what research uncovers and what policymakers or local communities demand are important parts of what we want to achieve; the importance of the ‘capacity to listen’ is something that we need to pay much more attention to; we increase the potential for change ‘exponentially’ once trust enters the equation; and that ‘muddling through’ and opportunism are important aspects of ‘adaptive management’ … however, our organizations are often not good at grasping these opportunities – our structures and compliance mechanisms often inhibit this.

Read related blog posts:

During the 2011 Third International Forum on Water and Food (in South Africa) Amare Haileselassie from ILRI reflected on ways that livestock can be integrated into rainwater management systems and strategies in Ethiopia. The overall aim is to improve ‘livestock water productivity’ through the adoption of various practices at farm and landscape levels.

View the video interview:

See his powerpoint presentation to the forum

Read a recent policy brief on water-efficient livestock production

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