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Plastic pollution as people swim in the Blue Nile

Indigenous People with a Lake and a River are Still Thirsty in Ethiopia's Bahir Dar City

Communities around the River Nile and Lake Tana still rely on the river to wash clothes and bathe — some who also depend on raw water for drinking face increasing waterborne diseases. Studies show plastic pollution is the biggest threat to the Lake’s biodiversity.

The River Nile flows out of Lake Tana in Ethiopia
Abay (Blue Nile) River flows out of Lake Tana, Ethiopia/Credit: Ayele Addis

According to the GIZ report, Ethiopia produces 0.23 – 2.03 kilograms per person per day of municipal waste, translating into 6 million tons yearly as of 2015. The same report underlines the uncontrolled dumping of waste in urban spaces and landfills as one of the gaps in waste management.

The report further identifies the main riverine litter contributor in Bahir Dar around Lake Tana in Ethiopia as the tourism and service industry. An earlier report [1] [2[3] by the Urban Development Housing and Construction Bureau in Bahir Dar in November 2020 identified 21 sources of marine debris in Lake Tana, 14 of which belonged to the leisure and tourism sectors. The contributors have exacerbated plastic pollution, soil erosion, effluent discharge into Lake Tana, and flooding vulnerability. 

Plastic Pollution
Plastic garbage in the side waterfall of the Blue Nile/Credit: Amhara Multimedia Production

According to Asefa Degsewe, a fisherman in Bahir Dar City, “The lake’s and the river’s waters are polluted due to sewage and plastic materials. The smell has changed, and now taking pictures, traveling, fishing, and standing near the Lake and the Blue Nile River is challenging”. 

He further says that tanneries, textile factories, hotels, and universities have worsened the pollution of the Blue Nile. The city has a 75-hectare industrial park with several textile and apparel industries.

Bahir Dar is the source of the waters of the vast Lake Tana of the Great Nile River. Tana has been selected as one of the 250 lakes needing global ecological diversity. It contains 28 species of fish, 21 of which are found nowhere else. 3-4 million people living around it have a direct connection with the lake. Among them, more than 15,000 members of society are located on the 37 islands the lake occupies. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the World, annual fish production from Lake Tana is worth 1.1 million US dollars. Although Tana can produce 13,000 tons of fish every year, it is not known to produce more than 1000 tons of fish.

The city is the world’s longest Blue Nile River starting point. However, the Blue Nile River is not used for drinking due to pollution. The 2022 GIZ Status Scoping Report identified Bahir Dar as a riverine litter hotspot. The price of one liter of bottled water and one liter of petrol for drinking purified water is the same.

Of course, the communities worship the river, just as some people keep using the river to wash clothes and take care of their hygiene. None of the millions living around the River Nile and Lake Tana currently use the water for drinking. Studies show that plastic pollution has threatened the Lake’s biodiversity. 

Cause of pollution

According to Mr. Asefa Degsewe, Bahir Dar city tanneries, textile factories, hotels, and universities have released hundreds of human wastes into the water. Fish are dying. Human and river life are separating each other. The fisherman says, “The watercolor will tell you if I take you to the other side of the river by boat, you will see the difference. They say it is filthy and [smells bad] here.”

Farmer Masresha Muluken, on the other hand, said, “Fertilizers for soil and vegetables and herbicides — the chemicals we use as an insecticide ultimately damages the river and increases pollution, resulting in massive Blue Nile weed growth".

According to the General Manager of Lake Tana and other Water Bodies Protection Agency, Ayalewu Wende (Dr.), there are many threats to the Blue Nile River. In particular, they say that plastic waste from Bahir Dar City accounts for the largest share of pollution. Factories, recreational areas, tourism service facilities, fuel service facilities, car garages, government offices, non-governmental development organizations, agricultural fertilizer chemicals, health facilities, hotels, religious institutions, and higher education institutions are involved in causing pollution to the River Nile. 

The 2022 GiZ Status Scoping Report described one of Ethiopia’s Marine and riverine litter hotspots as Bahir Dar City. In the city, more than 218,429 inhabitants live on the side of the Blue Nile River and Lake Tana. Various chemical and liquid waste pollutes the Blue Nile River and Lake Tana. The 2022 GiZ Status Scoping Report adds the leading causes as unsuitable waste management systems, widespread household littering, septic tanks for hotels built in line with the Blue Nile River and the Lake, soil characteristics, production of plant slant, unlawful construction of houses, deforestation, and soil erosion, rain-caused flooding, loss of lakeshore habitats. The city’s liquid waste sewage lines also flow into Lake Tana.

Dr. Ayalew Wende said, “The Lake and the Nile River have faced various challenges in recent years. The main impacts are soil compaction, silt accumulation, inappropriate biological use, open grazing, and farming. Especially in the last few years, the northeastern part of the Lake and Blue Nile River has been exposed to a severe threat of weeds and plastic pollution."

At Bahir Dar University College of Science, they have studied the nature of plastic waste, its effects, and social responsibility of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile River. The principal researcher Dr. Destaw Damte, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, said, “Plastic waste is one of the causes of significant damage to the Nile River and Lake Tana. Because of this pollution, the water becomes dirty. Their research proves that the primary source of pollution is the negative biological effect caused by dumping plastic solid waste into the river."

According to Dr. Destaw Damte, the amount of plastic pollution is a significant risk to the Nile and Tana; according to a study conducted on the seashore, more than 400 tons of plastic waste from the Tana and Nile basin alone creates pollution in 120 km². If this waste is not removed correctly, it will enter Tana through the seven permanent and 40 seasonal rivers that feed Tana and the Blue Nile River and pollute the water, which is the source of the Nile. He said that if immediate action is not taken in the current situation, there is a danger that it may cause worse damage.

(Source BDCSPPPO 2020) BDCSPPPO (Bahir Dar City Structural Plan Preparation Project Office) (2020) Bahir Dar City Structural Plan Preparation Project Office: Bahir Dar City Structural Plan Report. Bahir Dar—Ethiopia

Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) and Debertabor University report shows that one of the main factors that threaten the ecology and biodiversity of Lake Tana is the increasing population density around the Lake. It depends on the level. When the population is increasing, overusing the natural resources in the area and food, expanding farms to obtain fodder and firewood and cultivating wetlands, illegal use of public lands and existing forests are increasing. Currently, the shores and wetlands of Lake Tana are severely damaged by the rapidly growing population in the area. The rare fish species in Lake Tana are also being seriously affected by the predatory fishing system. The growing population makes the Lake’s resources destructively short-lived.

On the other hand, agricultural and livestock activities generate waste that is transported to rivers by groundwater or surface runoff. Among these substances are fertilizers and pesticides. According to Bereket Andargie, an advocate for the welfare of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana, and famous artist, the source of pollution of the Tana and Nile rivers in Ethiopia is the dry plastic waste discharged into the river in the City of Bahir Dar. He says one of the most severe problems is dumping large amounts of plastic into waterways.

According to Kefeyalew Eshete, an advocate for environmental pollution and the biodiversity of the Nile River and the founder of Charity Without Borders, plastic products and materials with a low decomposition rate make up the largest share of the solid waste that pollutes the Nile River. Most of the solid waste in the Nile River and water sources is plastic bags. "The pollution level around Lake Tana and the Blue Nile River, where tourist activity is seen, combined with the lack of cleanliness culture in the surrounding area, has neglected the protection of the environment,” Kefeyalew says.

“No one must be diligent in protecting the river and the Lake. As a result, the water pollution has worsened widely,” says Shashe Askalamariam, a Bahir Dar city resident engaged in volunteer work.

Aragaw Assefa,  De-la-Torre Gabriel, & Teshager Alebel (2022) researched Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) pollution driven by the COVID-19 pandemic along the shoreline of Lake Tana, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. The research article indicated PPE pollution had become one of the most pending environmental challenges resulting from the pandemic. Mismanaged PPE waste was found in all the sites, mainly consisting of surgical face masks (93.7%). Statistical analyses revealed significantly higher PPE densities in areas where several recreational, touristic, and commercial activities occur, thus showing the primary sources of PPE pollution. Furthermore, polypropylene and polyester fabrics were identified as the main components of surgical and reusable cloth masks, polluting Lake Tana and Blue Nile rivers.

Another major cause of pollution is many agricultural chemical fertilizers and pesticides. A large proportion of these agrochemicals contribute to growing weeds in rivers. According to the general manager of  Lake Tana and another water bodies protection agency, Ayalewu Wende (Dr.), according to the research conducted by his institution, a wide range of toxic sediments are being observed in the river. Excess nutrients, solids, and algae from soil fertilizers are affecting the river’s biodiversity. 

Dr. Belayneh Ayele, the former director general of the Amhara Region Environment, Forestry, and Wildlife Protection Authority, said, "The danger that challenges the biological existence of the Lake is mainly water discharge from the factories around the Lake which has become an additional reason for the deterioration of the water quality.” His office also ascertains that the increasing population around the Lake is depleting the Lake’s natural resources.

Dr. Belayneh adds, “Chemical fertilizers are a significant cause of eutrophication by providing excess nutrients. These fertilizers contain macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. They also contain trace elements such as iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, molybdenum, and chlorine. Animal husbandry is one of the causes of Nile River pollution. In particular, they explain that due to undischarged discharges carrying feces, various pathogens contaminate the river water with severe consequences for wildlife and human health. Many chemicals used in livestock, poultry, and aquaculture contaminate river water. Gas stations built near the river and car wash services around the river allow oil spills to flow directly into the Nile River and Tana Lake. All these wastes have caused severe ecological problems in the river. These substances are dangerous pollutants because they do not mix in water, both domestically and industrially. As a result, they prevent the exchange of oxygen from the water with the atmosphere, and aquatic life is killed by inhaling it.”

Amhara Livestock and Fisheries Resources Development Office 2021 annual report pointed out that the animals living around the Nile River and Lake Tana are heavily polluted by plastic. The pollution from the highly toxic substances has killed the animals in the river and its surrounding area. Another reason for the breakdown of the river is the disposal of expired medicines, which are mixed with the river.


Amhara National Regional Government’s Tana Lake and Other Water Bodies Protection and Development Agency General Manager Dr. Ayalew Wende said animals found in the Nile River and Lake Tana and other water bodies died after being fed plastic due to plastic pollution. Also, plastic pollution is making people’s lives very difficult. It also has many disadvantages that are easy to understand. For example, they say that they have brought about lasting damage and pollution by clogging water drains, becoming a breeding ground for various bacteria and harmful organisms, and preventing plants from growing.

Dr. Destaw Damtie explained that random disposal of plastics after use is seen in the community. His research has confirmed that 79% of the plastics produced in our country are not collected and are released into the environment. This has caused thousands of animals and birds to die every year. He pointed out that it is difficult for plants to grow, that plastic distorts aquatic life by filling water bodies, and that it is also contributing to the increase in the temperature of the environment.

“Water quality has also deteriorated due to river pollution. Similarly, biodiversity is threatened by toxic substances. They mention that river pollution affects economic activities such as tourism and agriculture,” said Professor Tsagaye Tadese, water quality and chemical expert. Professor Tadese noted that “the poor quality of water for irrigation and growing vegetables and fruits around the river had been widely noticed by farmers.” According to Mr. Bhailu Ymer, who manages the local fish fishery, “there was a high death rate of fish and a change in taste when they were used for food.”

Man jumping into polluted river
Plastic pollution in the source of Blue Nile in Lake Tana/Credit: Africa News Channel

The pollution also affects the Blue Nile and Lake Tana inhabitants’ health. Organic waste entering the river through untreated urban waste includes fecal matter and food waste. This type of waste is hazardous because it breeds pathogens that cause various diseases. Diseases associated with contaminated water include diarrhea, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and cholera. Indicators of water pollution have been widely seen in human health. Ato Mengistu Lake, a resident of the village of Cherchera, said, “Cholera and diarrhea following the pollution are still killing people like before.” I asked the reason for their illness, which is one of the health centers around the Nile. Dr. Bekalu, the internist and medical member of the hospital, told me, “The majority of patients come to the hospital because of health problems related to water pollution, which has an average annual incidence of 68%.”

Mr. Melkamu Desalene, a fish farmer, says that it is impossible to get live fish due to the pollution of the river. He said that what he used to earn in a day in recent years is now available in months of hard work because his result is disappointing. He says he is ready to migrate to another place for work. He added that the decline in fish population, combined with the siltation of the water, would threaten the survival of the river and the surrounding community.

A 2017 study by Eshete Dejen, Wassie Anteneh, and Jacobus Vijverberg The Decline of the Lake Tana (Ethiopia) Fisheries: Causes and Possible Solutions (2017) article reviews the decline of Lake.  “Tana’s fish stocks indicate that the fish caught in the Lake has declined drastically over the past two decades. In 1993, 177 kilos of fish were detected in one trip, but this number dropped to 56 kilos in 2010. In addition, the Lake Tana Resource Management Research Center says the Lake faces challenges such as plastic and solid pollution, soil erosion, environmental pollution, sand mining, and poor land use practices by farmers, especially rice farmers who line the shores of the Lake.”

According to the research, catch per unit of effort for all three taxa declined during the last two decades: total catch was 177 kg/trip in 1993, 140 kg/trip in 2001, and 56 kg/trip in 2010. But the most drastic reduction was observed for the Labeobarbus species: 63 kg/trip in 1993, 28 kg/trip in 2001, and only 6 kg/ trip in 2010. Recruitment overfishing and increased recession farming probably contributed to the decline.

The worst pollution problem is in the village of Tis Abai Falls, which is 30 km from Bahir Dar. The plastic waste moved from Bahir Dar City has affected not only the Nile River and our agricultural work, said Mr. Maregu Wale, a farmer living in Tis Nile. He said the solid and plastic waste collected from the city is dumped in the agricultural fields and pastures. He pointed out that plastic waste polluting the environment is causing death to animals because they eat it. This year alone, 21 rural village residents of the Tise Abay River have lost their animals during the summer season. The main reason for their death is related to animal feeding waste and plastic products. “The dairy cow that I bought with a loan of 25,000 Birr from the bank recently died after eating plastic, leaving behind a one-month-old calf,” Mrs. Welela says, adding that the impact has affected their personal lives. Following this, Mrs. Welela mentioned that the government foreclosed their house because they could not repay the loan.

“The ox is my eyes. It is a farm. It is the right hand.” Another resident of Kebelewa, the priest Telayneh Asaye, said that the farm bull they bought for 21 thousand birrs died after eating fallen plastic. A bull that I raised to use for farming died after eating rubber. They operated on the bull to remove the plastic accumulated in his stomach, but he could not survive.” Tourists revisiting Tis Abay Falls leave plastic around the falls, and even birds die from eating it.

People removing waster from the river
Youth initiative protecting environment Bahir Dar, Ethiopia/Credit: Ayele Addis

Dr. Yednikeh, a veterinary specialist in Tis Abay Kebele, Bahir Dar City Administration, said, “The thin plastic that is being used as a container has a salty taste, and animals eat it." He explained that plastic causes the animals to die by inflating their stomachs and reducing their appetite. He said that in the last year alone, 102 animals that used to drink water from the Nile River and feed on the grass on the river banks had died in the small rural Kebel of Tis Nile. They stated that many pets come to their facility due to health problems caused by eating plastic. “Most animals are brought to the health facility after suffering severe injuries, and they end up dead,” he said. According to the expert, plastic waste has become a significant cause of environmental pollution and the death of animals. He stated that the existing solution needs to be updated to deal with dry litter. Farmers were advised to tie up their cattle to rescue their animals from harm.

Young people clearing out plastic bottles from a river
Plastic Pollution and volunteer youth in Tisisat Fall in Bahir Dar Blue Nile/Credit: Ayele Addis

An estimated 1,750 cubic meters of solid waste is removed from the city per day, according to the Cleanliness and Beautification Report of Bahir Dar City. Mrs. Thugist Matadel, a Lake area resident said plastic waste is destroying the Lake. “We are going to lose the lake where the cattle drink water; we use it for washing clothes and various activities,” they say. Mr. Bezuayheu Fentie, employed in agriculture, also said, “Cattle are losing their health due to eating pesticides. Their meat and milk are not tasty, and our children are also getting waterborne diseases,”. “The weed is killing our cattle,” they added. 

Following the pollution of the river, Akalu Alene, who lives in Bezawit Mariam Akabebibi on the banks of the Nile, says that the damage to human and animal life is getting worse due to the pollution of the river. It causes serious health problems for the communities that depend on them. They claim that the polluted rivers are a source of disease-causing pathogens, and their waters are causing skin problems.


The Amhara National Regional Government’s Tana Lake and Other Water Bodies Conservation and Development Agency’s recommendations to help solve the problem are: “reducing the production and use of plastic products, replacing plastic with paper and biodegradable products, making products convenient for recycling and recycling, especially recycling properly.” They raise issues such as making them usable and dealing with centers that can dispose of non-recyclable plastic products.

An associate professor in the Department of Biology at Bahir Dar University Science College, Dr. Adinew Damte, said that as a solution, universities, city administrations, the community, and plastic product sellers should work together to prevent plastic waste.

The 2022 GiZ Status Scoping Report points out that Bahir Dar has been identified as a potential hotspot; setting up appropriate waste disposal facilities to complement improved waste collection will significantly mitigate plastic pollution. Modern infrastructure, such as sanitary landfills, must be constructed to reduce environmental waste leakage.

The main recommendation is that the responsible bodies consider circular economy perspectives to ensure waste-to-resource initiatives are undertaken. With an increase in population and per capita income, consumption patterns will change with an uptick in the amount of plastic consumed and disposed of. This trend should be accounted for to provide more opportunities in the waste sector, primarily for private companies, and ensure that municipalities and regulators can carry out their responsibilities efficiently.

Proper sewage treatment and adequate management of solid waste are essential to avoid the pollution of rivers. In addition, it is necessary to promote sustainable agriculture and enact strict laws to protect rivers, says Go Ato Kefyaleu Eshte, the community leader.

Aragaw Assefa, De-la-Torre Gabriel, & Teshager Alebel (2022) suggests it is necessary to implement good solid waste management plans and infrastructure where lake activities take place. Additionally, local authorities must promote and ensure sustainable tourism to maintain the ecosystems in Lake Tana.


Pollution of rivers, wells, and springs has become Bahir Dar Blue Nile River and Lake Tana’s “headache”; the city’s textile and leather industries, universities hosting more than 60,000 students, and hotels do not have sewage treatment systems. About 90% of them lay pipes and mix their sewage with the Nile River and Lake Tana. Municipal wastes and effluents from hospital laboratories also end up in the Nile River.

Zewdu Seifu is the Head of Water Technology Education and Training at the Ethiopian Water Technology Institute, a trainer and researcher. Ethiopia’s population is increasing year by year, and the growth rate is expanding and growing at the same time. This makes the security of the water supply a concern. Not only that, besides the increase in population, urban development and industrial expansion will increase the demand for water supply. They say that the amount of sludge and garbage that is added to them is causing pollution.

Water wastage and pollution are cited as causes of this threat. Chemicals and industrial effluents are the primary sources of pollution, and land use also arises in the same context.

“It is difficult to distinguish between water and land,” Zewdu said, adding that there is also an impact on water bodies due to soil damage. He also recalled that the land in Ethiopia’s Nile basin had been continuously cultivated for thousands of years and had been greatly abused. “The ownership issue also has an independent effect,” they added. Current pollution is increasing. If this continues, rivers and lakes will become polluted and unfit for human consumption. Plastic products, agricultural chemicals, untreated sewage, plastic, and nutrient-rich fish contribute to local water pollution.

According to Green Life Ethiopia, considering the types of pollution seen around the Tana and the Nile, the solutions include the following; educating people to change their consumption and lifestyle, recycling wastewater, coordinating community-based management and cooperation, developing and implementing better policies and regulations, and improving infrastructure.


In Bahir Dar City, organizing solid waste collectors on a tiny scale is one step. Many of the inner villages of the town have piles of solid waste. There is no access to toilets or solid waste disposal in hotels and public places.

More young people have job opportunities created by removing solid waste. On the other hand, no reliable waste disposal center has been organized. The collectors also burn the collected waste in a way that pollutes the environment.

“The city’s garbage collection capacity has increased in tons. However, given the lifestyle of the people and the high level of waste generation, a complete lifting system still needs to be developed. An example of this can be seen everywhere, polluting the environment from the piles of garbage that sit for days and the pool that creates a bad smell,” said Mr. Zelalem, the Bahir Dar city Sanitation Manager.

According to Mrs. Alemitu Bai, a resident of Bahr Dar City, “For countries like Ethiopia, the construction industry is only considered as a sign of development.” However, if this sector is allowed its development, it is anti-environmental development if it is managed correctly. It is easy to realize that the houses and floors built along the Lake’s shores with redevelopment work, construction of roads and homes, and following the river Nile are the opposite of cleanliness and green development. It is destroying aquatic life. Not only did they release their sewage into the Lake, but they also covered it and the river so that we could not see it,” she said.

In addition, it is necessary to adapt the management system of the vast machinery used in the construction sector to dispose of oil, grease, and various chemicals, resin, and other materials. In addition, the use of minerals for construction requires special attention. According to Decree No. 678/2002, these minerals include marble, granite, limestone, basalt, sand, gravel, ignimbrite, clay, and other non-metallic minerals.

People celebrating after a river clean up

This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in African News Channel on 5 July, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Plastic pollution in Lake Tana, source of Blue Nile Ethiopia/Credit: Ayele Addis