Ethiopia: Irrigated farming helps farmers produce more, even when the rain is erratic (International Institute for Environment and Development)

| October 28, 2019

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Rainfall has become increasingly erratic in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. So Shemsu Hussein has adopted irrigation. He received training from an NGO called SOS Sahel Ethiopia and he now shares a pump with four other farmers, using it on a rotating basis. With a more reliable water source, he can now grow a variety of vegetables, which he produces two or three times a year. His income has grown through selling tomatoes. His family’s nutrition has also improved. He says, “Before, we ate mainly cereals. Now we’re growing a wider variety of vegetables, so my family is eating better. I’ve even made enough money to build a house in the town.”

Over a 12-year period, as rainfall became increasingly erratic, farmer Shemsu Hussein moved from rain-fed agriculture to intensive small-scale irrigation—and dramatically increased his farm’s productivity.

Mr. Hussein lives in Meskan on the western margin of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, 140 km south of the capital Addis Ababa. In these already arid lands, temperatures are rising. Droughts are becoming more frequent and prolonged. If the rains do come, they are often excessive and in short bursts—degrading the land and wiping out crops.

SOS Sahel Ethiopia is an NGO that works with small-scale farmers and marginalized pastoralists. The NGO approached Mr. Hussein in 2006 and gave him training on irrigation, advice on which vegetables to grow, and a subsidy to buy an irrigation pump for a group of five farmers. The group has been using the water pump on a rotating basis.

Mr. Hussein says: “With more reliable water sources, I’ve been able to move from growing purely maize to onion, tomato, and cabbage. And instead of producing in only one season, I now produce two to three times a year. My overall harvest is up to six times greater.”

He says he was amazed when he started irrigated farming, especially when his income grew from growing tomatoes. He says: “I was staggered by how much more money I could make. It was almost frightening! Now I have enough money to send my children to school.”

His nutrition, and that of his family, has also improved. He explains: “Before, we ate mainly cereals. Now we’re growing a wider variety of vegetables, so my family is eating better. I’ve even made enough money to build a house in the town. With another property and money in the bank, our lives are stable in a way they weren’t 10 years ago.”

A short drive away, the Bekelcha farming co-operative is at work. The co-operative has over 100 members, including farmers Bobas Elku and Teshale Gala. They began using irrigation systems in 2015 and each farmer in the co-operative now irrigates more than a half-hectare.

With irrigation, the farmers are now busier, growing vegetables year-round since they not only rely on rainwater. Mr. Elku says: “Before irrigation, we were idle for months. The rains would come, but quickly dry up. Since our co-operative has started using irrigation methods, things have changed. We’re producing tomatoes, onions, green peppers, cabbages. … We’re busy!”

Irrigation is not without its difficulties. The method draws heavily on groundwater. So while these Ethiopian farmers are able to grow more with better water access, the strain on groundwater levels may spell problems for future generations.

But there are options. Ato Getachew Eshete is a program manager at SOS Sahel Ethiopia. He explained the possible avenues for restoring the water. He says: “It’s all about recharging the ground and river water and improving the efficiency of irrigation water use. To do this, the project plans to undertake a hydrological study in the area, rehabilitate and restore the critical watersheds, and introduce drip irrigation.”

This story was adapted from a blog post written by Teresa Corcoran for the International Institute for Environment and Development, titled “Bright spots of success: local adaptation brings answers to the global climate crisis.” To read the full story, go to: