Near the summit of the green hills above Ethiopia´s southern Great Rift Valley, Maseret Melese and her family face an uncertain future in the village of Makela.
Most of Ethiopia´s 65 million inhabitants occupy its highlands, in communities such as Makela, and more than 80 per cent of them are dependent upon agriculture for survival. In turn, the Maseret´s groves of coffee and fields of maize and tif - a cereal unique to Ethiopia - depend upon the vagaries of rainfall to grow.
"When we were 20 million and drought was not as frequent as it is now, rain fed agriculture could and did feed our population," says Amha Mulugetta, who heads Ethiopia´s Science and Technology Commission. "But rain fed cultivation in the highlands will no longer support us, even in the good years."
Nor will the vulnerable resources of the highlands be able to withstand the pressure from millions of families like the Maserets upon them for much longer. Erosion is worsening and farmers, in desperation, are ploughing almost to the tops of some hills. "People are clinging to the mountains and in most cases the density of population is beyond the capacity of the land," said Mr Amha.
"We have a mismatch of resources," he said, "abundant water where there are no people and a population in the highlands that exceeds its carrying capacity. If we can remove the constraining bottlenecks we can sustain our future."
Except for the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia´s 12 major river basins represent the second largest potential water resource in Africa. But its distribution is uneven: annual rainfall in the parched north east region of the Ogaden, beside Somalia, is less than 200 mm while over 2000 mm of rain falls in some parts of the lush Great Rift Valley in the south west.
"Water is the very key to our development in Ethiopia," said Mr Amha, whose Commission, with assistance from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), is embarking on a major study of the country´s water resources.
Better knowledge about Ethiopia´s ground water reserves will have a critical part as a strategy is drawn up for driving the country´s development by water. Ground water has already come to the rescue of Ethiopia´s capital, Addis Ababa, which will have nearly 40 per cent of the demand for water from its growing population met by wells in the Akaki groundwater field. In the arrid Moyale region wells are drawing up ground water to help helping the region´s sparse population meet the threat of drought.
Both projects were undertaken with the cooperation of the IAEA and utilised a powerful tool, isotope hydrology, which provides planners with reliable information about the source and capacity of ground water reserves. It is estimated that Ethiopia´s water resources should allow irrigation of about 3.7 million hectares of land but at present only 200,000 ha is under irrigation. However, as well as better distribution of water, to attract Ethiopia´s population out of the hills and into the valleys will also require controlling malaria and the tsetse fly, said Mr Amha.
The bite of the tsetse, a blood sucking fly that spreads human sleeping sickness in other parts of Africa, in Ethiopia carries a blood parasite that is mostly lethal to cattle. Mrs Maseret, who lives with her children, a cow and a calf, under the circular thatched roof of their clay and wattle house, like most farmers in Ethiopia cannot survive without cattle.
In September 2001 the Ethiopian government, with IAEA technical assistance, opened a campaign against the tsetse fly. The environmentally friendly form of insect control, known as the sterile insect technique (SIT), eradicated the tsetse fly in Zanzibar. It is also being investigated as a potential weapon against the mosquito that spreads malaria.
"We cannot use the areas of highest potential because of the constraints of the tsetse, malaria and water," said Mr Amha. "Our response is not basic, but based on high technology and will require high levels of investment. But these are the areas that can make a difference to our future."