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Environmental implications of changes in the levels of lakes in the Ethiopian Rift since 1970


The Ethiopian rift is characterized by a chain of lakes of various sizes and hydrological and hydrogeological settings. The rift lakes and feeder rivers are used for irrigation, soda extraction, commercial fish farming, and recreation, and they support a wide variety of endemic birds and wild animals. The levels of some of these lakes have changed dramatically over the last three decades. Lakes that are relatively uninfluenced by human activities (Langano and Abaya) remain stable except for the usual inter-annual variations, strongly influenced by rainfall. Some lakes have shrunk due to excessive abstraction of water; others have expanded due to increases in surface runoff and groundwater flux from percolated irrigation water. Lakes Abiyata and Beseka, both heavily impacted by human activities, show contrasting lake level trends: the level of Abiayata has dropped by about 5 m over three decades because of the extraction of water for soda and an upstream diversion for irrigation. Beseka has expanded from an area of 2.5 to 40 km2 over the last three decades because of increased groundwater inputs from percolated irrigation water. Lake Awassa has risen slightly due to land use changes resulting in increased runoff in its catchment. This paper addresses these lake level changes and their environmental repercussions, based on evidence from hydrometeorological records, hydrogeological field mapping supported by aerial photography and satellite imagery interpretations, water balance estimation, and hydrological modeling. A converging evidence approach is used to reconstruct the temporal and spatial variations of lake levels. The results reveal that the major changes in the rift valley are mainly related to anthropogenic factors. These changes appear to have grave environmental consequences for the fragile rift ecosystem. These consequences demand the very urgent implementation of integrated basin wide water management practice.

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The author is grateful to the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Addis Ababa University for the logistic field support it has provided since 1994. Thanks go to the Ethiopian Meteorological Services Agency, the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ethiopian Mapping Authority, the Geological Survey of Ethiopia, and the Abiyata Soda Ash Factory for providing relevant data.

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Correspondence to Tenalem Ayenew.

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Ayenew, T. Environmental implications of changes in the levels of lakes in the Ethiopian Rift since 1970. Reg Environ Change 4, 192–204 (2004).

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  • Environmental changes
  • Ethiopian Rift
  • Lakes
  • Over-irrigation
  • Salinization
  • Water resources