The WRI Water team for Ethiopia organized an exchange visit to Tanzania for officials from Ethiopia’s Abbay Basin Administration Office (ABAO) and Ministry of Water and Energy (MOWE) to learn about water allocation planning. The visit’s goal was to share experience and lessons on the development and implementation process of a water allocation plan (WAP) for the Lower Mara River Basin, recently launched with the support of USAID’s Sustainable Water Partnership and led by Winrock International.[1] The study tour took place from 20–24 February 2023.

Water is a vital but increasingly finite resource. Ethiopia is naturally exposed to high variability in rainfall and water distribution. In parallel, climate change is affecting the timing, intensity and distribution of rain, causing recurring drought and widespread water scarcity. In the Abbay Basin, one of Ethiopia’s twelve major river basins, high seasonal variability and lack of adequate water infrastructure and management practices are aggravating challenges around access to reliable and clean sources of water.

people in front of water board after visit
Group photo in front of the Lake Victoria Basin Water Board offices in Mwanza. Water allocation planning can play an important role in addressing competing water demands and water management challenges. Photo by Gordon Mumbo.

These dynamics are increasingly acute in the Tana Subbasin, one of the 16 subbasins in the Abbay, a highly populous area at the center of which lies Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest freshwater lake. The Government of Ethiopia has identified the subbasin as an economic growth corridor and priority region for irrigation and hydropower development. However, growing water demands, agro-industrial pollution and environmental degradation are impacting water availability and threatening economic activities and local livelihoods.

Confronting these challenges requires informed water resources planning and coordination across water-using administrative and sectoral spheres to advance sustainable water resources management. To this end, water allocation planning can play an important role in addressing competing water demands and water management challenges.

What is Water Allocation Planning?

Water allocation planning is a tool that facilitates better management of water use and distribution of available supplies, particularly in a context of growing water scarcity and uncertainty. This is made necessary when the natural distribution and availability of water fail to meet the needs of all water users in terms of quantity, quality, timing or reliability.

In Ethiopia, WRI has found that many basins, including the Abbay, are already highly water stressed for parts of the year. This stress reflects a risky imbalance between the demand for water vis-à-vis existing supplies: water stress, scarcity and insecurity result when demand exceeds supply. Insufficient water storage and distribution infrastructure exacerbate these effects.

Water allocation planning comprises a process for determining how much water is available in a given river basin, how that water should be shared among competing uses, and how much water needs to be left in the hydrological system to ensure long-term resource sustainability. It begins with extensive analyses, including an assessment of the local water balance, current use and expected future demand, and water requirements for environmental flow purposes. The complexity involves assessing water that is allocatable with consideration for livelihoods, equitable access, ecological protection, and various scenarios of socio-economic change and climatic variability. Water allocation plans then become legal documents that are updated every few years. While spurring efficient use, WAPs help prioritize domestic water supply in times of crisis.

Developing a Water Allocation Plan for Ethiopia’s Tana Subbasin

In the Tana Subbasin, WRI’s Water team is implementing a project that aims to improve governance processes, institutional capacities and frameworks to better manage water resources under the overarching agenda of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). The project, made possible through a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, provides technical assistance to ABAO on basin planning processes with an activity that supports the development of a water allocation plan for the Tana Subbasin.

As a basin-level government organization, ABAO’s mission is to manage the Abbay Basin’s water resources for socio-economic welfare without compromising the sustainability of local ecosystems. ABAO has been tasked by MOWE with developing WAPs for its 16 subbasins, choosing the Tana catchment as its initial pilot with the aim of scaling thereafter.

With little to no prior experience on water allocation planning in Ethiopia, WRI suggested an international experience sharing visit to learn the steps taken to develop a WAP in another country and river basin in Africa. An initiative in Tanzania was identified because of its relevance to the Ethiopian context.

Learning from Tanzania's Lower Mara River Basin WAP

The development of a WAP for the lower catchment of the Mara River Basin in Tanzania was completed in April 2021 following a three-year undertaking. The Lake Victoria Basin Water Board (LVBWB) drove a strong locally led process which culminated in the launching of the Lower Mara River Basin WAP, proceeding thereafter to its operationalization. Kenya and Tanzania share the Mara River Basin, with the Mara River flowing into Lake Victoria on the Tanzania side.

The Mara Basin is experiencing challenges due to increasing demand for water; deforestation; climate change; and economic activities such as mining, agriculture and animal husbandry, thus sharing many similarities with the Tana Subbasin.

As one of the nine Water Boards in Tanzania, the LVBWB is the body responsible for water resources management in the Mara on the Tanzanian side. The WAP development process was closely coordinated with the Ministry of Water of Tanzania and facilitated by the Lake Victoria Basin Commission (LVBC). With assistance provided by Winrock International and partners, including WWF Tanzania and GIZ, under USAID’s Sustainable Water Partnership Program, technical staff from the LVBWB and Ministry of Water took a central role. The decisions agreed on in the WAP came after extensive studies and consultations with water users, which found that the growing demand for water, if not properly managed, does not bode well for water security in the basin. The WAP formalized a water permitting system which now provides a strategy for managing and monitoring water consumption and supplies. The plan will be reviewed every five years to ensure adaptability.

The experience of the Lower Mara WAP was determined relevant for a learning visit. The WAP agenda is actively being promoted in the catchment and there was motivation among Tanzanian agencies to showcase this experience to their Ethiopian counterparts.

Fisherman in Tanzania lake
A person fishes on Lake Victoria on the Tanzania side from Musoma. Kenya and Tanzania share the Mara River Basin, which flows into Lake Victoria on the Tanzania side. Photo by Francesca Battistelli/WRI

The Exchange Program and Its Objectives

The primary objective of the study tour was to understand the development, operation and management of the Lower Mara WAP through consultations and field visits. It offered an opportunity to discuss, exchange and identify good practices and approaches and to facilitate learning and experience sharing between the two basin authorities and water ministries, offering opportunity for dialogue in river basin management.

The week-long study visit began on February 20th 2023, with a workshop with the Ministry of Water in Dodoma and continued with consultations with the LVBWB in Mwanza and site visits to the Mara Basin from Musoma.

In Dodoma, the Ethiopia team—headed by the Director of ABAO—received a briefing from Tanzania’s water ministry about the country’s water governance and enabling context and the WAP process from the federal perspective, highlighting the opportunity it presented to assess and track available water resources. The group then travelled to Mwanza for a more detailed discussion with the LVBWB on WAP development and ongoing implementation modalities, led by the head of the LVBWB, its staff and a representative of the LVBC. Finally, the group proceeded to Musoma to visit the catchment-level LVBWB office, its technical laboratory, and to see first-hand ongoing conservation activities and nurseries that provide seedlings for watershed restoration efforts.

The visitors were taken through the process of WAP development from research to getting political buy-in nationally and locally, the development of WAP guidelines to formalize and steer the process, applied models and monitoring systems, stakeholder engagement for sharing WAP implications and procedures, and the final approval process.

Nursery visit
Visiting a nursery growing seedlings for catchment conservation efforts. This knowledge exchange allowed members to see first-hand ongoing conservation  and restoration efforts. Photo by Francesca Battistelli/WRI


The exchange visit enabled the Ethiopia team to learn about technical aspects such as necessary datasets and modelling to the different scales of engagement and decision-making. The WAP enabling factors identified during the study visit are multifaceted and related to governance, data and participatory processes.

The following important learnings were deduced:

  • Successful WAPs are dependent on supportive national legislation, strategies and institutions.
  • Good data is the foundation of water allocation planning and a lack of reliable and up-to-date water demand and supply data can challenge WAPs. WAPs should be based on best available, locally collected data with capacity support to agency staff on modelling and scenario analysis.
  • WAPs are multi-sectoral and data-intensive, requiring an interdisciplinary team. Multiple skillsets and multi-sectoral planning are essential for inclusive WAP development that looks across water users and water-using sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry, industry, ecological conservation, household needs and more.
  • WAPs comprise a complex, costly and inherently political process, requiring extensive networking and collaboration across agencies and stakeholders, including government, private sector actors and water users themselves. Adequate human and financial resources are needed.
  • Local ownership is vital. WAP development and implementation should be led by an existing institution with responsibility for catchment management and engage all relevant agencies and actors in validating steps along the way.
  • Engagement and open communication during initial WAP development is critical for successful WAP implementation. Without agreement and buy-in from those that would be impacted by WAP operations, WAPs will face challenges during implementation. Proper stakeholder engagement reduces reluctance of users to be included in the plan and ensures specific needs are accounted for when allocating water. Time is also needed for outreach to ensure political goodwill and buy-in, including from administrators and law enforcement.
  • An effective monitoring system is essential to continuously provide inputs to water management decisions, assess river basin health and maintain a timely WAP.


Water allocation planning is a complex yet important tool for the sustainable and inclusive management of basin water resources.

The case of the Lower Mara in Tanzania is a well-rounded example of WAP development. The success of the Lower Mara WAP was determined by its multi-agency and multi-stakeholder approach, active and strong support by the National Ministry of Water, and the clear mandate, leadership and enforcement authority of the LVBWB. In Ethiopia, water allocation planning is not yet exercised, primarily due to inadequate organizational structures and lacking legal frameworks which do not devolve water resources management to the basin. Overlapping mandates among the basin authorities and the regional water bureaus also challenge an already limited permitting system, which is not properly coordinated and is thus not currently conducive to allocation planning. Lastly, WAPs would face a long approval process with final endorsement by Ethiopia’s Basin High Council, which would hinder the timeliness of a WAP altogether.

The exchange visit underscored the importance of water allocation planning to improve basin management and address water scarcity. Overall, the Ethiopia participants rated the experience very positively, overwhelmingly meeting expectations and improving knowledge and skills. The hope is that the lessons and good practices will provide a good foundation and understanding as the team embarks on developing the water allocation plan for the Tana Subbasin.

[1] The exchange visit took place under the framework of a Water project in Ethiopia funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.