Population growth, migration, and urbanization are all straining both governments’ and ecosystems’ capacity to provide people with basic services. Urbanization has steadily been increasing in Ethiopia, with two periods of significantly rapid growth.

In 1936, Italy annexed Ethiopia, building infrastructure to connect major cities, and a dam providing power and water. This along with the influx of Italians and laborers was the major cause of rapid growth during this period. The second period of growth was from 1967 to 1975 when rural populations migrated to urban centers seeking work and better living conditions.

This pattern slowed due to the 1975 Land Reform program instituted by the government, which provided incentives for people to stay in rural areas. As people moved from rural areas to the cities, there were fewer people to grow food for the population. The Land Reform Act was meant to increase agriculture since food production was not keeping up with population growth over the period of 1970–1983. This program spreaded the formation of peasant associations, large villages based on agriculture. The act did lead to an increase in food production, although there is debate over the cause; it may be related to weather conditions more than the reform act. Urban populations have continued to grow with an 8.1% increase from 1975 to 2000.

Rural and urban life  

Migration to urban areas is usually motivated by the hope of better lives. In peasant associations daily life is a struggle to survive. About 16% of the population in Ethiopia is living on less than 1 dollar per day (2008). Only 65% of rural households in Ethiopia consume the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of food per day (2,200 kilocalories), with 42% of children under 5 years old being underweight.

Most poor families (75%) share their sleeping quarters with livestock, and 40% of children sleep on the floor, where nighttime temperatures average 5 degrees Celsius in the cold season. The average family size is six or seven, living in a 30-square-meter mud and thatch hut, with less than two hectares of land to cultivate.

The peasant associations face a cycle of poverty. Since the landholdings are so small, farmers cannot allow the land to remain inactive, which reduces soil fertility. This land degradation reduces the production of fodder for livestock, which causes low milk yields. Since the community burns livestock manure as fuel, rather than plowing the nutrients back into the land, the crop production is reduced. The low productivity of agriculture leads to inadequate incomes for farmers, hunger, malnutrition and disease. These unhealthy farmers have difficulty working the land and the productivity drops further.

Although conditions are drastically better in cities, all of Ethiopia suffers from poverty and poor sanitation. However, poverty in Ethiopia fell from 44% to 29.6% during 2000–2011, according to the World Bank. In the capital city of Addis Ababa, 55% of the population used to live in slums. Now, however, a construction boom in both the private and public sector has led to a dramatic improvement in living standards in major cities, particularly in Addis Ababa. Notably, government-built condominium housing complexes have sprung up throughout the city, benefiting close to 600,000 individuals. Sanitation is the most pressing need in the city, with most of the population lacking access to waste treatment facilities. This contributes to the spread of illness through unhealthy water.

Despite the living conditions in the cities, the people of Addis Ababa are much better off than people living in the peasant associations owing to their educational opportunities. Unlike rural children, 69% of urban children are enrolled in primary school, and 35% of those are eligible to attend secondary school. Addis Ababa has its own university as well as many other secondary schools. The literacy rate is 82%.

Many NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) are working to solve this problem; however, most are far apart, uncoordinated, and working in isolation. The Sub-Saharan Africa NGO Consortium is attempting to coordinate efforts.