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Potential Ramsar Sites of Ethiopia

Yilma Dellelegn Abebe

A paper presented at the National Stakeholder Consultative Workshop

on Ramsar Convention and Ethiopia
March 18-19 2004

Addis Ababa
15 March 2004
Potential Ramsar Sites of Ethiopia

Yilma Dellelegn Abebe

Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society
P. O. Box 13303
Addis Ababa

1. Introduction

Ethiopia is a country that is better known for recurring droughts and extensive drylands.
This notion presents the impression that the country has minimal water resources not to
mention its potential of providing millions of m3 of water to other neighbouring
countries. EPA (2003) in its recent State of the Environment Report on Ethiopia explains
that 11 of Ethiopia's rivers flow out of the country into neighbouring countries. On the
contrary Ethiopia is rich in water resources that are exemplified by various types of
wetlands ranging from alpine tarns to marshes, swamps, lacustrine and riverine forms.

Ethiopia is rich in water resources and is believed to have more than 120 x 106 m3 of
water discharged from 12 river basins annually (EPA, 2003). It is also estimated that only
9 % of this total discharge remains in the country in various water formations including
lakes, rivers, bogs, swamps, springs and marshes. Water retained in wetland formations is
estimated to cover 18, 587 km2 of land area of Ethiopia (EPA, (2003). Total coverage of
wetlands comprises only 1.5% of the total land area of the country. This appears minimal
in the first place but the compound effect of mismanagement is also another factor that
places Ethiopia in the water stress/ water scarce zone of the region.

Water like many other resources is not equally distributed in nature. This effect can also
be a factor when raising issues in conservation and prioritising for utilisation. Many of
these wetland sites are open with no protection status. This is an important fact with its
own pros and cons for the future of several natural areas including wetlands.

With the various scenarios that wetlands face, either in their plight or proper
management, the world has come up with agreements that take into consideration the
protection of wetlands world over. The Convention on Wetlands of International
Importance or the Ramsar Convention is the only global environmental treaty that brings
nations together in the conservation of a particular ecosystem, wetlands. Being an
instrument for the protection of wetlands it has certain legal bindings that contracting
parties have to consider upon accession. One of the commitments is the requirement to
designate at least one wetland site of international importance upon accession and also
make the effort to maintain the ecological integrity of that wetland. There are of course
guidelines that assist in the selection and maintenance of integrity of wetlands.
Ethiopia is not a contracting party and thus has not designated a wetland of international
importance. But in the probable event of signing the treaty now or in the future, there is
need to premeditate conditions including preparing a country list of possible candidate
Ramsar sites for selection.

2. Ramsar Sites - an overview

Ramsar sites or wetland sites with special global importance are found in all contracting
parties. The main impetus for coming up with a List of Important Wetlands is to "develop
and maintain and international network of wetlands which are important for the
conservation of global biological diversity and for sustaining human life through the
ecological and hydrological functions they perform" (Ramsar Bureau Convention, 1997).
Some members have gone ahead and listed several sites while others still maintain the
first one or two they committed at the time of accession. Most recent update on number
of contracting parties is 138. The total number of sites designated by these countries is
1,368 and the total area covered by the sites is 119,611,621 ha. At the first
Convention meeting in Ramsar, Iran, Article 2.1 set out the fact that all
contracting parties need to commit one site for designation at the time
of signing the treaty. Furthermore, the Convention has made clear
indication that the setting aside of these special wetland areas denotes
that the sites are important not only to the country or region but to
humanity as a whole. Sites are selected according to standardized
criteria based on hydrological, limnological, ecological, zoological
and/or botanical factors.

A country that agrees to join the Convention must designate a site to be included in the
List of Wetlands of International Importance. Subsequent designation of other sites is
also possible as long as the country feels the need to set aside more. A Ramsar site that
accompanies the actual contracting procedure must also have filled out an information
sheet as supplied by the Ramsar Bureau with a map that describes its boundaries. In some
cases boundary definition is difficult by the very nature of wetlands, whose edges could
increase or decrease with seasons or years. In these kind of cases, boundaries should be
defined as precisely as possible. One solution to this kind of problem is to designate a
wider ecosystem that encloses the wetland e.g. the terrestrial habitats of a national park
that enclose a wetland (Ramsar Convention Bureau, 1997).

While designation is a prerogative of each contracting party, conservation action at site

level is also required. At the 4th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 4), in
Montrreux, Switzerland a recommendation (Recommendation 4.2) was stated that would
assist the parties to take action at their designated sites (Ramsar Convention Bureau,
1997). Accordingly, States are free to decide on the legal status or protection measures at
sites, undertake conservation work with the aim of preventing changes to sites and
promote wise use of wetlands by maintaining positive traditional land use practices and
establishing nature reserves where possible. One important way of carrying out the wise
use concept is to develop management plans for all sites that have been listed as Ramsar
sites or not (Ramsar Convention Bureau, 1997).
4. Criteria for Identifying Wetlands of International Importance

Guidelines for selecting Ramsar sites are clear and have been adopted by the 4th and 6th
meetings of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to assist the implementation of
Article 2.1 sites (Ramsar Convention Bureau, 1997). The criteria are based upon:

a) Representative or unique wetlands

These are wetlands that represent a habitat that is more or less natural and found in a
characteristic bio-geographical zone. These systems could also play a significant role
in the upkeep of the ecological system of an area. This could be related to the
multiple functions that wetlands provide including floodwater protection, nutrient
cycling, reservoirs for water, home to biodiversity etc.

b) Significance in terms of plant or animal

A site can be internationally important if it supports considerable numbers of
endangered, rare or endemic species of plant or animal species. Maintenance of
genetic pool for ecological diversity of a region and aspects of acting as a habitat for
critical stages in the biological cycle of certain fauna or flora is also considered.

c) Specific criteria based on waterfowl

• Regularly supports 20,000 or more waterfowl
• Regularly supports high numbers of certain species of waterfowl
• Regularly supports 1% of the total population of one species or subspecies of

d) Specific criteria based on fish

• Holds significant proportion of indigenous fish species subspecies or families
• Source of food for fishes, spawning ground or migration path for fish.

The above criteria have been elaborated further to help Contracting parties assess the
suitability of wetlands for inclusion on the List of Wetlands on International Importance.

5. Ethiopia's Potential Ramsar Sites

The assessment of sites has not been carried out in Ethiopia before with the objective
defining and designating them for Ramsar. As a result, we would need to rely on previous
similar work that would give us a general impression of what we have within our borders.

Ethiopia is believed to have a high number of potential Ramsar Sites and the presence of
many would need some kind of prioritisation work for selection. This is evident
especially when we observe that the ecological and landform diversification in Ethiopia is
multifarious. One work we can refer to would be the Important Bird Area Programme
carried out by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society. According to this
programme, there are 73 hotspots for birds in this country. Out of these 73 sites 41% are
wetlands (Mengistu, 2003). From the recent work of Birdlife International (2002)
Ethiopia has 31 sites that could qualify as Ramsar sites. The Birdlife publication
(Birdlife, 2002) mentions the convergence of the criteria used by Ramsar Convention and
Birdlife International to select sites. Based upon this union, this book has identified that
there are at least 586 wetland sites in Africa that are IBA but could well fulfil the criteria
for Ramsar listing.

The objectivity of the criteria used to select these sites is strong enough to suggest that
even if the end point of the Birdlife approach is to assign sites as hotspots for birds and
biodiversity in general, the Ramsar approach has also used criteria that converge with the
Birdlife one. It has been seen that Ramsar uses 4 of the main criteria used by Birdlife.

The Birdlife criteria compatible with Ramsar for IBA selection are:

a) Sites that hold significant numbers of globally threatened species

b) Sites that hold 1% of a biogeographic population of waterbird species
c) Sites that hold 1% global population of congregatory seabird species
d) Sites that hold 20, 000 waterbirds or 10,000 seabirds of one or more species.

Ramsar Criteria compatible with Birdlife for site selection are:

2). Sites that support vulnerable, endangered species or threatened ecological

4). Sites that support plants or animals at critical stages of its development or
provides refuge during adverse conditions.
5). Site that regularly support 20,000 or waterbirds.
6). Sites that regularly support 1% or more of the individuals of a population of
one species or subspecies of waterbird.

List of potential Ramsar Sites in Ethiopia

Potential Ramsar Site Ramsar criteria Region

1 Abe (Lake) 2,4,5 Afar
2 Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park 2,4,5,6 Oromiya
3 Akaki-Aba Samuel 2,4,5,6 Oromiya
4 Alemaya & Adele (Lake) 4,6 Oromiya
5 Ashenge (Lake) 2,4,6 Tigray
6 Awassa (Lake) 4,5,6 Southern Peoples
7 Awi zone 2 Amhara
8 Bahir Dar-Lake Tana 2,4,5 Amhara
9 Bale Mts National Park 2 Oromiya
10 Baro River 2,4,5,6 Gambella
11 Berga 2,4,6 Oromiya
12 Bishoftu 2 Oromiya
13 Boyo wetland 2,4,5 Southern Peoples
14 Chelekleka 2,4,5,6 Oromiya
15 Chew Bahir 2,4,5,6 Southern Peoples
16 Dessa'a Forest 2 Tigray
17 Finchaa/Chomen 2 Oromiya
18 Fogera plains 2 Amhara
19 Gambella National Park 2 Gambella
20 Gefersa Reservoir 2,4,6 14
21 Green Lake 2,4,5,6 Oromiya
22 Guassa (Menz) 2 Amhara
23 Gudo 2 Oromiya
24 Jibat Forest 2 Oromiya
25 Koka dam and Gelila 2,4,5,6 Oromiya
26 Langano (Lake) 2 Oromiya
27 Metu-Gore-Tepi 2 Oromiya
28 Nechisar National Park 2 Southern Peoples
29 Sululta 2,4,6 Oromiya
30 Turkana (Lake) and Omo Delta 2,4,5,6 Southern Peoples
31 Zway 4,5 Oromiya

6. Implications of defining Ramsar Sites in Ethiopia

I dare say that designating a wetland as a Ramsar site would mean conserving it. Ethiopia
can designate a site or sites but does that imply that we are doing all that we can to ensure
that the various functions and values from the wetland are being used wisely. The Ramsar
Convention has three pillars one of which is designating sites to the List (Birdlife
International, 2002). The other pillars are wise use of all wetlands and the practice of
international cooperation in relation to shared aquatic systems. It goes without saying that
the pillar of listing sites is without value if the other two pillars are not adhered to. The
notion that designating sites is very different from gazetting sites as traditional nature
reserves. Ramsar sites world over respect the traditional or indigenous values attached to
the use of wetlands and accept that wetlands should be used wisely to ensure lasting
value to people. But it should also be known that committing a site also means that the
Government and especially Regional States make necessary effort to protect that site
from deleterious causes. It means working together with communities and traditional
societies to bring about a change in the status quo of use of a wetland. Once a wetland
becomes a Ramsar site, the site is part of an international network of sites that would
offer protection to various life forms and provide sustenance to livelihoods. Committing a
site means that the site would need our time, effort and financial capacity to bring it to a
standard that is internationally acceptable. When we consider the benefits that would be
accrued from the wetland providing necessary support is perhaps the basic requirement
that a Government can provide.
7. Conclusions

Ramsar listing is an important step in the accession of the Convention. Ethiopia has yet to
ratify the Convention but ratification is meaningless without proper education and
awareness of basic facts that underlie the reason for conserving these ecosystems. I would
like to suggest that Ethiopia should necessarily take this step to show international
commitment but also have a strong national programme that promotes the values and
conservation of wetland ecosystems. As an important ecosystem to which all our water
needs are associated to, the Government should also think about formulating a policy and
guidelines for the protection and proper use of these systems.

8. References

EPA. 2003. State of the Environment Report for Ethiopia. Environmental Protection
Authority. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ramsar Convention Bureau. 1997. The Ramsar Convention Manual: a Guide to the
Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1977) 2nd ed. Ramsar Convention
Bureau, Gland, Switzerland.

Birdlife International. 2002. Important Bird Areas and potential Ramsar Sites in Africa.
Cambridge, UK: Birdlife International.

Yilma D. Abebe and Kim Geheb (eds). 2003. Wetlands of Ethiopia. Proceedings of a
seminar on the resources and status of Ethiopia's wetlands, vi + 116 pp. IUCN-
Eastern Africa Regional Office, Nairobi, Kenya.

Mengistu Wondafrash. 2003. Wetlands, Birds and Important Bird Areas in Ethiopia.In:
Wetlands of Ethiopia: Proceedings of a seminar on the resources and status of
Ethiopia's wetlands (eds. Yilma D. Abebe and Kim Geheb) pp 25-36. IUCN-
EARO, Nairobi, Kenya.