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Journal article

Tackling complexity: Understanding the food-energy-environment nexus in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana Sub-basin

This article describes a nexus toolkit, including WEAP and LEAP, to evaluate different development trajectories for Ethiopia.


Karlberg, L., H. Hoff, T. Amsalu, K. Andersson, T. Binnington, F. Flores, A. de Bruin, S.G. Gebrehiwot, B. Gedif, F. zur Heide, O. Johnson, M. Osbeck, and C. Young (2015). Tackling complexity: Understanding the food-energy-environment nexus in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana Sub-basin. Water Alternatives 2015, 8(1), 710-734.

Ethiopia is growing rapidly and is to become a middle-income country by 2025. To achieve this, the country is implementing an industrialization strategy led by agricultural development. It aims to intensify and transform agriculture, boost yields and economic returns. At the same time, energy use is shifting from traditional biomass to large-scale hydroelectric power generation with the intention of improving access to modern energy sources.

While the targets are commendable, it is not clear that either all direct impacts or potential conflicts between goals have been considered. This paper evaluates and compares the impacts of alternative development trajectories pertaining to agriculture, energy and environment for a case-study location, the Lake Tana Subbasin.

The case study focuses on current national plans and accounting for cross-sector interlinkages and competing resource use: the food-energy-environment nexus. Applying a nexus toolkit (WEAP and LEAP) in participatory scenario development the study compares and evaluates three different future scenarios.

A conclusion is drawn that the two processes – agricultural transformation and energy transition – are interdependent and could be partly competitive. As agriculture becomes increasingly intensified, it relies on more energy. At the same time, the energy system will, at least in the foreseeable future, continue to be largely supported by biomass, partly originating from croplands.

Two outstanding dilemmas pertaining to resources scarcity are identified. Water needed for energy and agricultural production, and to sustain ecosystem services, sometimes exceeds water availability. Moreover, the region seems to be hitting a biomass ceiling where the annual increments in biomass from all terrestrial ecosystems are in the same order of magnitude as biomass needs for food, fodder and fuel.

The paper proposes a stakeholder-driven nexus approach, underpinned by quantitative and spatially explicit scenario and planning tools, that can help to resolve these outstanding dilemmas and support more consistent policy and decision making towards: improved resource productivities; lower environmental pressures, and; enhanced human securities.

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