Throughout sub-Saharan Africa wetlands provide ecosystem services that are critical to the development needs of many people. Local wetland use, however, is often at odds with broader national policy goals in which narratives of conservation and protection dominate, hence a recurring challenge is how to reconcile these tensions through the development of policies and field practice that deliver sustainable development. In this paper we examine the extent to which this challenge has been achieved in Ethiopia, charting the changes in wetlands policy and discourse over the last twenty years while reviewing the contribution of the multidisciplinary Ethiopian Wetlands Research Programme (EWRP) (1997–2000). Our analysis suggests that despite EWRP having a significant legacy in developing national interest in wetlands among research, government and non-governmental organisations, its more holistic social-ecological interpretation of wetland management remains neglected within a policy arena dominated by specific sectoral interests and little recognition of the needs of local people. In exploring the impacts at the local level, recent investigations with communities in Ilu Aba Bora Zone highlight adjustments in wetland use that famers attribute to environmental, economic and social change, but which also evidence the adaptive nature of wetland-based livelihoods.