Land restoration key to ending global hunger

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Land erosion is threatening the livelihoods of farmers in Woldiya, Ethiopia. These are farmers like (left to right) Yemataw Demeke, Asemare Aragaw, Mohammed Yimer, Tesfaye Ayele and Alemu Wondimu. (Photo: Stephanie McDonald)

By Stephanie McDonald

In Woldiya, in northern Ethiopia, a series of gullies scar the landscape. Where once there was farmland, land has eroded, opening up 10-metre-deep crevices, separating farmers from their fields and children from their schools.

In 2013, the local government estimated that five hectares of gullies are formed in the community every year, equivalent to more than seven soccer fields’ worth of land being lost. This in an area where the average household farm size is 0.3 hectares. As these gullies form, fertile topsoil washes away, making an already precarious food security situation worse. For six months of the year, from April to September, nine out of 10 in the community face serious food shortages.

Fifty-year-old Mohammed Yimer, a farmer in Woldiya, says that as gullies became deeper, ‘movement became difficult. Kids had difficulty getting to school and had to change their route. Farmers couldn’t easily get to their fields. There has been damage to farmland and settlements. Burial ceremonies were interrupted.’

The causes of this land degradation are many, but can ultimately be traced back to population growth and the resulting pressure on limited land and natural resources. As cultivation moves higher up slopes, erosion increases. Add in decades of deforestation, overgrazing, and cycles of low rainfall followed by large amounts of rain, and you have conditions ripe for the formation of gullies.

1.3 billion living on degraded land

The situation in Woldiya is not unique. The United Nations estimates that a third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded. More than 1.3 billion people are attempting to eke out a living on degraded agricultural land, and find themselves facing worsening hunger, water shortages and poverty.

Research has shown that conservation and restoration have the potential to provide up to 37 percent of the emission reductions required by 2030 to limit global temperature increase to under 2 degrees Celsius. There are other benefits as well: it’s estimated that for every dollar invested in restoring degraded land, $7-30 in economic benefits is generated. And at ground level, it means more fertile land to grow crops.

Despite the severity of the situation, the response from the international community has been muted. The World Resources Institute estimates that $50 billion a year is spent on conservation and restoration, a fraction of the $350 billion that is needed. And less than two percent of public global climate finance in 2016 – funds to help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change – was allocated to restoring land. None of Canada’s current $2.65 billion in climate finance has specifically gone to land restoration.

Sewing the land back together

Back in Woldiya, a local organization, with support from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, has been working on gully rehabilitation. Dams made from sand bags, wood, and stone have been constructed within the crevices to slow down rain water and prevent flooding further downstream. They also catch runoff, holding soil in place. Over time, the soil builds up, filling the crevice. Meanwhile, trees and elephant grass are planted along the sides of the gully, to prevent further erosion.

Within the past three years, smaller gullies have been rehabilitated, and runoff and erosion have decreased. Grass now grows on this land, which farmers can cut and feed to their livestock.

There have been unintended consequences of the work, which in some ways, may be the most important of all. An Orthodox church in the village was protected from flooding, as was a Muslim graveyard. There had been conflict in the past over the damage caused by runoff. The local administration report that its workload has been reduced as they no longer have to settle these disputes.

One woman in the community said that the gully rehabilitation work was, “mending our land like a tailor fixes clothes.” The land is being sewn back together.

Mohammed Yimer says that he is seeing a reversal in the degradation that has plagued his community’s farmland.

“We hope the land will be level once more.”