Lake Tana: Victim of Unattended Creeping Disaster – By Solomon Abraha Reda


Lake Tana is the largest freshwater Lake in Ethiopia. It is located in Northwestern Ethiopia, astride the border between Gojjam and Gondar. It is a very popular Lake and a subject for poems and songs. Several private and government organizations are named after the Lake. It harbors a number of monasteries housing historic treasures. Lake Tana is a globally important biodiversity site and at the same time a source of water for the two power stations. The adjacent plains of Fogera and Dembia are home to one of the endemic cattle breeds, the ‘Fogera Breed’.  Strictly speaking it is not the exact source of the Abbay River (the Blue Nile). The source, in geomorphologic terms, is a place called Sekela, the source of the Gilgel Abbay River. However, there seems to be a non-academic convention that Lake Tana is the source of the Abbay River. This has elevated its international significance as the source of the Blue Nile, a center of the Nile Riparian engagement. The lake is a reason for the foundation of Bahir Dar and the major reason for its continued existence. Thousands of international and domestic visitors flock to this City eager to experience the thrill the Lake provides them with.

Half a year ago and ever since, alarming news emanating from various media filled the air as if lighting or an earthquake hit Lake Tana. Some cried “save Lake Tana”; others lamented “Lake Tana is dying”. Musicians released singles expressing their love for the Lake and calls for action to eliminate the plague. Some rascals even went to the extent of pointing their fingers at some group of fellow Ethiopians. Worse still was/is reducing the Lake into a regional pool and considering the solution to come from the ‘natives’ of the Amhara Region both at home and in the diaspora. University collaboration was invited not from all over Ethiopia, but only from the seven universities located in the Amhara Region. The truth is, the Lake is a national Lake belonging to all Ethiopians and the universities are federal not regional universities! Of course, this need not be surprising since all universities have become de-jure Federal, but de-facto regional for too long. Lake Tana and the problem it is facing has been made a regional affair so much that selectively inviting ethnic volunteers from a particular region has transformed the environmental protection affair into an opportunity for political alliance. By the way the Lake is within both the Federal and the Regional jurisdiction. As a source of a river of international significance; as a contributor to the Hidase Dam Reservoir; a source of water for Tis Isat and Tana Beles power stations; and as an international tourist destination the stake of the Federal Government over the Lake is very high. The damage to the lake will result in greater harm to Federal Government’s development projects.

In spite of the seemingly unkind words describing the way the problem of Lake Tana was announced and is being handled, we all grieve about it. We are determined that Lake Tana should not die as a result of the weed invasion. All Ethiopians, regardless of their ethnic, religious and political difference must do everything in their power to eliminate the weed from the Lake for good. We should rise as we did in Adwa, in Badme, and the Ogaden to fight foreign invaders. The invasive weed over Lake Tana is not different from foreign invaders. The latter kills us from outside and formers kills us from inside. Let us use this opportunity to consolidate our unity rather than to embolden our differences.

Lake Tana is not the first Lake to be affected by water hyacinth. Lake Victoria in central-east Africa has also been very much affected by it. The shoreline of Koka Reservoir was also a victim of the weed for many years. How fast the expansion of the weed takes place is well known to the botanical sciences. However, the conditions for its appearance and rapid expansion take many years to happen. Being proactive and vigilant must have been the least-cost solution. We all know that prevention is much better than cure in terms the financial cost and also permanent organ damage that can be experienced once the un-prevented illness sets in. What happened in Lake Tana could have been prevented through the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) at lake basin level with a strong research base. The “tragedy of the commons” has set in as the self-centered users in sectors and in research have been maximizing their benefits while taking actions of little significance to mitigate the deleterious processes that were taking place potentially harming the ecological integrity of the Lake. It can be argued that the weed invasion, and the man-made processes leading to it, was a creeping disaster that must have been noticed and acted upon early enough. It was not a sudden hazard as it is being portrayed in the proliferating media reports. Putting the blame on past inaction does not solve the problem; but it could serve as lesson for the future and expose those who are pretending to be “surprised” by the 50,000 hectares of water hyacinth over the Lake.

A web search results in several hundred research articles and reports on Lake Tana and its basin. For the entire last century, until the takeover of the EPRDF, research on the Lake was limited to the reports of European expeditions, on water-borne diseases, on some insects’ species, on livestock rearing in the adjacent plains, and on issues of Egyptian and British interest over the Lake. For ten years after the EPRDF takeover the establishment of Lake Tana fisheries research center had literally converted the Lake into a virtual ‘fish pond’. By 2003, when the ill-fated Lake Tana Resource Management Research Center (LTRMRC) was founded, research on Lake Tana fish, dominantly on the “barbus”,  had an overwhelming share of the total research reports on the Lake. The LTRMRC was founded in the Bahir Dar University. The mission of the Center was to do research and guide action to implement Integrated Water Resource Management for the unsustainable development of Lake Basin resources. A win-win between the diverse users (Federal and Regional) and the ecological integrity of the Lake was envisaged. The Center was established with Bahir Dar University budget. To make its existence known to the Region, to the Nation, and to the World the Center created a webpage hosted by the University website and sent out over two hundred leaflets (brochures) to different world universities and organizations as well to various regional offices. When The President of the World Lakes Organization (Lake-Net) Dr. David Barker, from USA, saw the Center’s webpage he was thrilled to find a contact for Lake Tana. For Lake-Net, Lake Tana is one of the 250 global biodiversity sites. Lake-Net president wasted no time to come to Bahir Dar and signed a memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Center and with the University President. Collaboration for research aimed at protecting the Lake environment was agreed upon. The first symposium (conference) on Lake Tana was held sponsored by Lake-Net in 2004.

Two brochures about the Center were sent to the then President of the Amhara National Regional State (ANRS) and to the then Director of the Amhara Region Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI). The Center got collaboration from a global organization and it hoped to do better by a domestic collaboration. However, that failed to materialize leading to the demise of the Center. The director of ARARI was determined to eliminate any “competitor” to the Fishery Research Center under his authority. He was convinced that what Lake Tana needs is a research on fishery; everything else was “a waste of time and finance”. This was exactly what he told the then President of ANRS. The President of ANRS preferred to believe the ARARI Director’s version of the story as it came from his fellow cabinet member rather than putting his inquires directly to the LTRMRC- head. Emboldened by the a tacit support from the Region’s President the Director of ARARI continued to isolate the LTRMC by holding separate workshops on Lake Tana exclusively on fish stock. By soliciting support from some Bahir Dar University staff and rallying them against the LTRMC he managed to weaken the Center and pave the way for its disappearance for good in a couple of years. For the next eight or so years until 2012 the fishery research center, which by now attained monopoly of research on Lake Tana, continued to do research on fish (barbus); nothing else but fish. Lake Tana water continued to be exploited by various users without any regard for the deterioration of the environmental integrity of Lake.

Research on the Nile Basin was growing to be well-funded and more attractive to consultants, teacher-researchers and graduate students from within Ethiopia as well as from overseas universities. This stimulated the establishment in 2012 of the ‘Nile Water Institute’ (NWI) in Bahir Dar University, a University which saw the demise of a specialized research center for Lake Tana (the LTRMRC). The NWI started by organizing a Conference under the theme “Lake Tana Basin” in 2012. Although the organizing institute was a Nile Institute bringing Lake Tana into focus was taken as a positive move. Two papers were presented about the need to implement an integrated management of the Lake. Unfortunately, the two important presentations fell on deaf ears as no discussion of any significance was done on the subject. In fact the conference was overcrowded by many unrelated presentations to the theme of the conference. It was in this conference that the appearance of water hyacinth over Lake Tana was reported publicly for the first time. Ato Rezene Fissehaye, a senior weed researcher from the Agricultural Research Institute presented a paper in this Conference in 2012, five years before the “surprise” news about Lake Tana became a media headline. Although the report by Ato Rezene deserved to be alarming news by all standards, given the high speed at which water hyacinth expands, no one during the Conference and/or after it seemed to care. In the last five years, after Ato Rezene’s ‘warning’, about four publications have appeared on water hyacinth over Lake Tana. From the lack of publicity of the research results it was clear that the aim of the research was just for publishing and the benefits gained therefrom.

The proceedings to the Bahir Dar University Conference in 2012, organized by the Nile Water Institute was published and on the cover page the theme of the Conference “Lake Tana Basin” was clearly written. Moreover, the Conference was named as the second Lake Tana conference apparently a continuation of the first Lake Tana symposium 2004 sponsored by Lake-Net and organized by the defunct LTRMRC. While the 2012 conference proceedings is still posted on the World Wide Web, with its cover page content clearly visible, the Nile Water Institute in its web page, background section, renamed the 2012 Conference as the first Nile conference organized by the Institute. Why? Does the Institute regret that it gave importance to Lake Tana in its maiden conference instead of focusing on the Nile River? Who would be offended by this? The Donors?

After 2012 a few hundred articles on hydrology, erosion and sedimentation, land use-land cover changes, etc. of Lake Tana and its basin have been published; but the overwhelming majority of  these research results are for graduate degrees in Ethiopian universities and Universities overseas. This kind of research by and large finds itself on the shelves of university libraries or on the internet distant from the actual decision making for sustainable Lake Tana resource management. There should still be a muti-disciplinary and multi-sectoral research and development body which should be empowered to implement Integrated Water Resource Management in the Lake Tana Basin. The existing Lake Tana sub-basin organization, hosted by the Abbay Basin Authority, can be a foundation for such an institution building; but its current status as a vestigial wing of the Tana-Beles Project does not give it the stamina to implement the complex IWRM agenda. Crisis management is necessary to restore the status-quo; but sustainable development of the Lake Tana resources should not depend on reactive and spontaneous actions.