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Ethiopia: Improving community livelihoods through integrated watershed management

Lenche Dima has suffered from severe land degradation and over-grazing (© Tilahun Amede)
Lenche Dima has suffered from severe land degradation and over-grazing
© Tilahun Amede

Like many parts of the Ethiopian highlands, the Lenche Dima watershed has suffered from severe land degradation and over-grazing by cattle. Increasingly erratic seasonal rains have also contributed to erosion. However, a watershed development project, which promoted improved utilisation and management of land and water resources, has helped to alleviate chronic food shortages and restore once degraded landscapes.

A collective approach

"In areas where experts do not have centralised knowledge and information, exploring community's local knowledge and information is an important approach to designing watershed activities," says Tilahun Amede, CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food Nile Basin leader. "It is also important to gain trust and build on knowledge that exists, as local extension staff cannot provide all the answers." The community prioritised potable water as their greatest challenge, and members were taken on a number of study tours to see how other watershed projects were implemented.

With full participation of over 850 households, the USAID funded AMAREW project*, in collaboration with local partners, including research institutes, NGOs, cooperatives and local government bodies, strengthened local farmers' technical capacity for agricultural production, promoted self organisation for micro-finance and promoted collective community action to implement conservation and improved farming techniques, including water harvesting and planting trees.

A farming revolution

The community prioritised potable water as their greatest challenge (© Tilahun Amede)
The community prioritised potable water as their greatest challenge
© Tilahun Amede

To improve the supply of water, 21 dome-shaped water harvesting structures were built using AMAREW's micro-credit scheme for private use on individual holdings. In addition to using water for household consumption, the owners grew cash crops including mango, papaya, avocado, orange, coffee, cabbage and onion in their home gardens during the dry season. "The project took my colleagues and me to visit a tank already in use," reflects 35 year old farmer Ato Dessalew. "For the first time in my life, I saw sweet potato, carrot, and beetroot grown in an area smaller than mine. I volunteered immediately. Now I grow everything in my own compound."

Development of livestock watering points has reduced movement of livestock in search of water from 12 to 3 km, and has also increased milk yields by about 35 per cent and reduced land degradation. Dessalew comments, "After the construction of the tank, my cattle no longer have to search for water. My neighbours are showing increasing interest in what I do. One of my neighbours has already constructed a water tank similar to mine. This is how we learn." Dessalew adds, "A farmer wants to see, not to hear."

To rehabilitate grasslands, the communities collectively decided to close degraded hillsides to human and livestock access and agreed upon their own set of regulations to enforce this measure. After just one season, farmers were able to harvest grass either for their own animals or to sell to other farmers without sufficient fodder. In the first year, farmers made 150-200 Birr (US$8-11) from selling grass and about 400 Birr (US$22) in the second year, due to increased production of grass. Rehabilitated hillsides also reduced runoff, decreasing soil erosion.

Rehabilitating gullies has reduced water run-off (© Tilahun Amede)
Rehabilitating gullies has reduced water run-off
© Tilahun Amede

Farmers were also encouraged to plant multipurpose trees, transforming gullies into productive land where they have been able to harvest fodder. Sandbag check-dams, supported with planting of trees and other crops, were also constructed to capture vast amounts of topsoil, while drought tolerant sorghum, millet and chick pea varieties were introduced through regional research institutes.

To encourage natural resource rehabilitation, the supply of food aid by the government and other donor organisations in the watershed area was linked to landscape rehabilitation activities. Increased forage production by beneficiaries allowed households to meet livestock feed requirements and enabled some to earn additional money from the sale of forage seeds.

Making an impact

"The watershed development project demonstrates the benefits of managing hills collectively to increase grass and forage to improve livelihoods," Amede says. "But if different climate-smart agricultural approaches are going to have an impact, a larger landscape approach will be necessary to ensure that wider changes take place. Moreover, because of climate variability we need to have a range of approaches such as rainwater collection, small reservoirs and conservation agriculture, which are decentralised, adaptable, inexpensive and capable of managing under scenarios of increasing or decreasing rainfall."

The supply of grass and forage has increased (© Tilahun Amede)
The supply of grass and forage has increased
© Tilahun Amede

To spread the lessons the project has learned, the area has become a learning site, hosting visitors from all over the Amhara region. Local district agricultural offices and local NGOs have also been replicating the project in surrounding areas. The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have conducted a number of impact studies on the project, while researchers have been publishing key lessons learned through journal articles, briefs and other reports.

* AMAREW: Amhara Micro-enterprise Development, Agricultural Research, Extension and Watershed Management

This article is one in a series of case studies published in the lead-up to Agriculture and Rural Development Day, on December 3, held in parallel with the upcoming climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

Date published: December 2011

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