A report from the frontlines of Ethiopia’s war with water
Ethiopia is at war—with water.
Sometimes there isn’t enough of it, like last year with the El Nino-caused drought. Other times it rushes down bare and treeless hill and mountainsides, sweeping away the topsoil that farmers need to grow food for their families.
Fortunately, the country has just what it needs to counter the soil-destroying water: Rocks. Lots and lots of rocks, scattered across the fields as far as one can see.
The rocks make farming hard, but they are also an important ally in controlling erosion.
In the northern part of the country, Canadian Foodgrains Bank is working through its member, Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR), and a local organization to build terraces and check dams to slow down the rushing water and halt erosion.
At the same time, it is supporting the rehabilitation of watersheds through tree planting, which also aids in the battle against erosion—and, ultimately, hunger like is being seen in some parts of east Africa now.
Terracing: An ages-old solution
In sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that land degradation due to things like erosion cost the economy about $68 billion per year. At the same time, more than 40 percent of available cropland has seen a decline in productivity in the last 20 years.
One way to battle this problem is through terracing, which prevents erosion, builds up and improves the soil, and provides more water for crops.
Terracing in Ethiopia isn’t new; it has been practiced by the people of the Konso region of the southwestern highlands for over 400 years.
But the idea of piling up rocks in rows along hillsides to hold back the soil is a relatively new practice in other parts of the country, such as the Lalibela area where CLWR is active.
“When the mountain and hillsides were covered in trees, and the population was smaller, terracing wasn’t as important,” says Sam Vander Ende, the Foodgrains Bank field representative based in Ethiopia.
“But deforestation, growth in population and the need to create more farms at higher elevations has resulted in the need for ways to prevent loss of scarce and precious arable land.”
Much of that deforestation was the result of the need for firewood for cooking, construction or to make more farmland.
Vander Ende is asked: Didn’t people realize that doing this would one day destroy the very land they depended on for survival?
“It’s hard to worry about future generations if you are so poor you don’t know if you’ll be able to eat today,” Vander Ende replies.
“Nobody intended for this to happen,” he adds. “When life is hard, people have to make difficult choices in order to survive. It’s only later that the bill has to be paid.”
And that is what happened to people living in Shumsha, a rural community located near the city of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia.
The future was bleak for the drought-prone and poor community before it was selected, in 2014, for a three-year cash for work project supported by the Foodgrains Bank through CLWR and implemented by the Ethiopian branch of Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
Through the project, which is also supported by matching funds from the Canadian government, community members have been paid in cash to build terraces and plant trees. They have also learned about conservation agriculture, a minimum tillage method that builds soil fertility, preserves moisture and improves yields.
“Life was very difficult”
Before the project, “our life was very difficult,” says Berniz Egen during a meeting of about 15 people from the community who are responsible for maintaining the project and keeping it going.
Sitting with the others in a semi-circle beside a storage shed along a dirt road, she goes on to say that “there was significant erosion, nothing was holding back the water, there was no vegetation in the hills, water was hard to find.”
Today, however there is “no comparison” to the past—now they are able to grow enough food to eat, even when there isn’t enough rain.
Assafa Mihret, agrees.
“Now we have grass for livestock, the soil is stabilizing,” he says. “People are doing much better—they are able to buy sheep, goats and other household assets.”
Adds Endalemu Meguarent: “Our crops are better, our children are learning how to maintain the soil, to protect it. We have a future for ourselves and our children now.”
Along with those benefits, their efforts have also resulted in a rise in ground water tables; two new springs have appeared in the hills, providing additional water to irrigate their 60 acres of crops.
But the biggest sign of their changing fortunes occurred last year, during the El Nino-caused drought.
Unlike during other droughts, they weren’t included in the government’s list of communities that needed food aid.
“Our harvest suffered, but we had better crops compared to other places,” Meguarent says.
The renewed vegetation has also created a new business opportunity—beekeeping.
Morges Fanta is one of eight younger people in the community who today are earning a good income selling honey.
“Last year I sold 300 kilograms of honey, much of it to the hotels that cater to tourists in Lalibela,” he says proudly.
“We are doing well, all because we are taking care of the watershed,” he adds. “Now we are able to lead a good life.”
Currently, the community is building a new small-scale water diversion, also through a cash for work program supported by the Foodgrains Bank; it almost 80 percent complete. When done, it will provide water for irrigation on year-round basis for an additional 80 hectares of crops.
At the end of this year, funding for the project from Canada ends. Then what?
“I see a bright future,” says committee member Amari Desale. “The land is coming back to life.”
When support from the Foodgrains Bank ends, “we will maintain it because it is ours,” he says, adding they plan to continue to plant more trees, and convert more acres to conservation agriculture.
For Tefera Hailu, a Natural Resource Officer with LWF who has worked with the community, the project fills him with the pride.
“Before it was bare land, but now it produces food and people are eating better,” he says. “They have access to grass for their livestock and for the roofs of their houses, they are selling their produce to local hotels.
“It makes me happy to see this, to see such good results.”
Abdelkader Ibrahim is an LWF food security officer who has spent 30 years with the organization. Of the project, he says “it was hard work, but something wonderful is happening here—so many lives have been impacted in such positive ways.”
Whenever he gets discouraged, “I think of the good work done here and many other places and it helps to keep me going.”