With irrigation, herders in southern Ethiopia turn to farming

By Selome Kebede
Hussein Gufar says the irrigation has also helped to provide fodder for local livestock.

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Driving south from Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa toward the Kenyan border, the lush green fields that stretch to the horizon make it hard to believe there are about 4.5 million Ethiopians who need food assistance. But things change drastically as you approach Yabello. About 300 miles south of Addis, the vibrant green vegetation is replaced by bare red soil, dried corn field,s and emaciated cattle roaming listlessly in search of grass and water. The effects of the recent drought are visible everywhere.

It did not have to be this way.

About 190 miles east of Yabello in the Liben District of the Guji Zone, a group of people have managed to escape this horrible fate through a project that helped them create a new means of earning a living while maintaining their pastoralist way of life. A small-scale irrigation initiative, supported by Oxfam America and its partners, has allowed the dream of some of the people of Melka Guba and to become a reality: They are now growing enough food to ensure their families can eat.

Here, in late August, things look much different from the surrounding areas. Smiles brighten the faces of men, women and children, and healthy cattle graze on the dried corn stalks and leaves strewn across the fields from the recent harvest.

In response to a 2008 drought that hit this region hard, Oxfam America worked with a local partner and the regional government on an emergency and recovery project that helped link disaster relief to longer-term development. The first phase focused on saving lives and livelihoods. This was followed by steps that helped villagers analyze their situation and reorganize themselves with a goal of building their assets and strengthening their means of making a living. That is when the people of Melka Guba decided to diversify their livelihoods: In the face of a changing climate they determined to try farming with the help of the new small-scale irrigation network along the nearby Dawa River.

In spite of the fact that this herding community had little prior experience with irrigation, the 64 hectares of irrigated land have now become a life line for more than 201 households in the area.

Mero Abdo, a 30-year-old mother of three, said, “I thank the day I joined this irrigation project. We see how others are suffering everywhere, but my children go to sleep full. I feel really happy I can even help others who are not part of the irrigation community and are having a problem feeding their children.”

More than just food

Revered by her community, Abdo is a strong woman and one of the first 101 women selected to participate in the irrigation project.

“I was excited from the beginning since I used to hear about irrigation on the radio and I knew it would change our lives,” she said. Abdo not only serves as a member of the irrigation management committee as well as its treasurer, but she is one of the few women to take on all farming activity on her own.

For most of the participants, this third harvest was their best yet. Abdo managed to produce 14 quintals of corn on a quarter hectare of land (about .6 acres), more than from either of the previous two harvests.

“I used the line-sowing technique this year and produced more,” she said. “I plan to use seven quintals to feed my family and sell the rest to pay for my children’s school, buy cattle, or start a small trading business.”

Abdub Bora, a 40-year-old farmer and father of eight, proudly showed us his traditional storage silo filled to the brim with corn from his last harvest.

“This time I produced 15 quintals of corn on my quarter hectare of land,” said Bora. He told us he is planning to use eight quintals and sell the remaining seven quintals to meet the other needs of his family. “I have eight children and four are still in school. I will use the money to buy books and use some of it in case my family gets sick,” added Bora.

Bora’s wife lives in Melka Guba, about 10.5 miles from the irrigation site, where their children can attend school.

“We don’t mind the separation. The main thing is to have enough to eat and allow our children to finish school,” said Bora. “My wife brings me food I can easily cook here and she even comes and works with me during the busiest farming season.”

The reach of this irrigation project spans further than the community itself. Thanks to the river-fed harvest, the households participating in this project are one of the few sources of corn seed in the Liben District.

Double blessings

When the project started, each of the 201 households were allotted a quarter hectare of irrigable land in accordance with government regulations. But not everyone was convinced the irrigation would work and some abandoned their plots. To avoid wasting water, the irrigation management committee offered those plots to neighboring farmers who would be capable of using them.

Hussein Gufar, a 44-year-old father of six, was one of the lucky ones who received one of the adjacent parcels. During the most recent harvest, he produced 25 quintals of corn on a half hectare of land (about 1.2 acres).

“We said this could change our fate,” said Gufar, who is a member of a task force that ensures the daily operation of the irrigation system. “We were not sure at first but now we have more confidence and plan to work even harder.” A pile of corn sacks in the middle of his field is proof of his commitment and hard work.

Beyond the families the project has helped, it has also blessed the community’s most valuable asset—the cattle, which now feed on the stalks and leaves left after the harvest.

“We are not only able to feed our animals but we sell the rest of the maize residue to the surrounding community for additional income,” added Gufar. The price of that fodder has increased four times in one year which reflects the desperate situation most of the surrounding community is in.

Ensuring sustainability and ownership

The irrigation effort is not without challenges and does not address all of the community’s needs. Community members are aware they will have to work together to reap the maximum benefit of this investment. Some of the concerns they have expressed include the high cost of transportation, which limits farmers to growing only longer-lasting produce, such as onions; the rising cost of generator fuel; and minimal support from the government in terms of providing training and helping connect farmers with markets.

“We are now only producing onions and tomatoes for home consumption. If we could reach the right market and access reasonable transportation, we could earn more money and increase our income,” said Gufar.

During the last harvest, the irrigation participants contributed 10,700 birr ($629) of which 10,000 ($588) was used for generator fuel and to pay for the seeds some had borrowed.

Many efforts are underway to improve the quality of life in the area. Among other things, this project fostered the construction of a three-room school that is managed by the pastoralist commission. In addition, a health post is also being planned for the site.

Food insecure no more

Melka Guba farmers are eager to start the next planting season. To use the irrigation system efficiently, all their plots need to be ready for sowing at the same time—so water isn’t wasted. Farmers are now working on that coordination.

And along with the irrigation has come something else: peace of mind. Project participants can now have access to food all year round. They will no longer suffer the harsh consequences of drought nor be dependent on others to feed their families.