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Where there's water, there's hope: Tapping the potential of a river in West Arsi

By Coco McCabe
Budha Magarsa shows off some of the early ears of corn ready for harvest--thanks to irrigation.

The home of Budha Magarsa and Bati Saworo sits high on a plain far from any paved road. It's quiet here, save for the rustling of the wind, the chatter of birds and children, and a sound that's hard to peg at first—a whooshing, distant but persistent.

It's the Gurracho River, tumbling through boulders and swelling across the lowlands below, its roar muffled to a whisper-a whisper of possibility—by the brush climbing the steep banks.

In this drought-plagued corner of Ethiopia's West Arsi Zone, the river has long called out to small-scale farmers scratching a living from land fed only by rain. Without resources—money, engineering skills, heavy machinery—families in Dawe kebele had no easy way to tap the river's potential as an irrigation source even as they hungered for what it could bring them: reliable harvests, food on their tables, and desperately needed income for household essentials, like medical care and school fees.

But now, from the head works deep in the brush above where Magarsa and Saworo live with their nine children, a new network of pipes, concrete-lined canals, and earthen channels is funneling the precious Gurracho River directly to 404 farmers tilling 200 hectares of land, or 494 acres. The water is changing their lives.

With support from Oxfam America, the Rift Valley Children and Women development Organization, or RCWDO, began working on the Ejersa small-scale irrigation project in 2007 to help local families increase the income from their farms and expand their employment opportunities. Fed entirely by gravity, the new system is allowing farmers to cultivate their fields year round—whether it rains or not—and to grow food not only to eat but to sell.

"We are encouraging farmers to engage in the production of high-value crops for the market," says Hussien Dalecha, a program manager for RCWDO. "If you simply depend on traditional practices and growing maize and wheat one time a year on small plots, that's not sufficient for household consumption and expenses."

But with access to fertilizer, improved seeds, and most important of all, water, farming families can make their land highly productive—in some cases more than tripling the value of their yields. Coupled with the infrastructure, farmers have also received training in new growing techniques and the importance of diversifying their crops. At a neighborhood nursery, managed by the farmer's cooperative, neat rows of onions, peppers, kale, and tomatoes-among a variety of other edibles-serve as examples of what's possible. And farmers are taking the lessons to heart.

"We have farmland but lacked knowledge," said one farmer, Obbo Bshura. "As a result, we often couldn't feed our family on the meager yield of crops...Through the project we were taught irrigation methods and diversification techniques that were previously unpracticed in our community. Our production increased."

A new outlook

For Magarsa and Saworo, irrigation has brought their family a new sense of certainty, a feeling that, with hard work, their dreams do stand a chance of materializing.

"I have the confidence hereafter I can easily keep my children in school,"said Saworo, 45, who longed to be able to continue beyond the ninth grade himself. "I was eager to be a nurse or a doctor before. But it was a problem for me to continue my education. I didn't have any support from anywhere. If I can't achieve my ambitions, my child should go."

And one of them has. The couple's oldest son, Guta Bati, 22, graduated in July from Kuyera College with a nursing degree.

To help pay for his schooling, his parents sold a cow in December, one of the few that remained from their herd of 30. In recent years, drought has taken a toll on their livestock: Some of their animals died and they sold others when their crops failed and the family needed money to buy food.

But now, with river water promising more bountiful harvests, education for the rest of the children may not require selling valuable assets: their crops may be profitable enough to cover school fees.

The family has access to one hectare of irrigated land. By August, the corn Saworo had planted earlier was ready for harvest at a time when few other farmers around had any. In a bowl passed among visitors, a snack of roasted kernels—sweet, smoky, and a little crunchy—disappeared quickly. Saworo sold a quarter hectare (.62 acre) of corn for 7,592 birr, or about $446—a sizable sum during a season of the year when normally the family has little cash available.

"It's a good income for me," said Saworo. "This is really big money."

And he wasn't going to let it lie idle. He planned to buy improved seeds—tomatoes, beets, and cabbage—for his next crop.

Magarsa, too, has had significant success with the corn she's cultivated, seeing the yield from the half hectare (1.2 acres) she works climb from 12 quintals ( 2,645 pounds) in 2009 to 32.5 quintals (7,165 pounds) this year.

"I am totally in a different life," she said, "being able to feed my children and selling the remaining (corn) to support the children in education, planning for reinvestment."

Spreading the good

Nearby, at the home of Bushura Tasho and Jaware Aliyi, the irrigation project has helped boost income enough for the family to plan on putting a new roof on their hut. This one will be made of corrugated metal.

"Water can make a difference," said Aliyi. And not just for the farmers.

As the couple discussed the progress they were making, a woman with two donkeys wandered into their yard. She was there, she said, to purchase some of the surplus corn. Her plan was to buy about 150 birr worth (just shy of $9), load up the donkeys, port the corn to a distant community that had none, and sell it there for a slight profit of between 40 or 50 birr, or a little less than $3.

"The irrigation has already made a market here," said Dalecha, the project officer, noting how the benefits were reaching beyond farmers. Food, grown right here, was finding its way into the broader community—a community that in the past has had to depend on food aid during times of crisis.

"Relief food is aid is very expensive," said Dalecha. "Instead of feeding the people, this kind of [irrigation] scheme is very recommendable."

Oxfam America has been collaborating with communities and a variety of partners on projects like this since 1994, helping to provide families with water for their fields, for their animals, and for use in their homes. Oxfam's new long-term water program, set to run through 2020, is now focusing on three regions: Amhara, Tigray, and Oromia, of which the West Arsi Zone is a part. The program aims to strengthen the resilience of communities in the face of climate change by helping people access water and manage it sustainably for crop and livestock production.

The Ejersa small-scale irrigation project in Dawe is also part of a larger undertaking called the Global Water Initiative, or GWI. Funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, it's a coalition of seven international organizations, including Oxfam America, working on the challenges of providing clean water to some of the poorest people in the world for their homes and livelihoods.