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Ethiopia and the climate - change or chance it

Unpredictable weather in Ethiopia is causing problems for farmers (WRENmedia)
Unpredictable weather in Ethiopia is causing problems for farmers

As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCFCC) concluded in Poznan, Poland, 5,000km south in Ethiopia, smallholder farmers in the city of Nazareth (Adama) provided their testimonies at a recent workshop on how the changing climate is impacting on their lifestyles and livelihoods.

"My father, at any given time, kept around 100 head of cattle, but today I am forced to keep only 15," explained Fitala Lemu, a livestock keeper from Ethiopia's Oromia state. Lemu is one of many millions of African farmers experiencing the effects of climate change first-hand. Rising temperatures and prolonged dry spells have resulted in shortages of grass and water, while rains between January and September have become more erratic. Sometimes the rains are too heavy, causing serious floods, which destroy crops, devastate infrastructure and sweep away livestock.

In a region where families average ten to a household, the pressure on land, water and forests is increasing and often results in tension within communities. However, according to a recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), many rural Ethiopians have yet to take any steps to adapt their farming methods to the challenges of global warming.

Restoring hope

One initiative hailed at the workshop as an example of a successful adaptation strategy was the Wichi Integrated Wetland-Watershed Management Project, 600km north of Addis Ababa, which is helping rural communities restore their natural resources so that they can better cope with climatic extremes.

The project, set in evergreen montane forest, was established in 2005 to protect the fragile wetland ecosystem, primarily by discouraging farmers from moving down the slopes in search of more productive land and encroaching on the wetlands in the valleys. The previous two decades had seen the wetlands suffer as forestland - important for the natural watershed - was cleared and replaced by maize and coffee plantations. In a vicious circle, soil erosion and decreasing fertility in deforested areas fuelled the clearance of more forestland for agriculture, while the wetlands silted up.

Project staff set about building consensus within the communities for the need for action, establishing steering committees with the overall goal of improving the economic and environmental value of the wetland and its catchment area. The project area now covers around 2,800 hectares and includes about 2,300 households.

To the root of the problem

Planting vetiver grass can help stabilise hillsides and protect against erosion (WRENmedia)
Planting vetiver grass can help stabilise hillsides and protect against erosion

The use of vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) to stabilise the hillsides and improve soil water conservation has proved to be a highly effective land management method. The deep-rooted grass, which grows to form hedgerows, has reduced soil erosion and water runoff. Survival rates of coffee tree seedlings have increased by up to 80 per cent due to improved water retention in the soil, and drinking water is now available from shallower wells. On the valley floor, where the wetland was previously dry, year-round ponds have been restored, and vetiver is providing forage for livestock.

Farmers have also been encouraged to plant multipurpose trees to provide fodder and construction materials. Contour tilling across the slopes is now widely-used to capture rainwater and further reduce soil erosion. Crop diversification and the use of compost manure have also been encouraged with the result that soil fertility is improving: yields are reported to have increased by as much as 20-40 per cent. Other measures include protecting the remaining forest by the introduction of more fuel-efficient stoves in homes.

"An integrated approach to wetland-watershed management is cost effective and productive," says Afework Hailu Gebrewold, manager of the Ethiopian Wetlands and Natural Resources Association, which initiated the project. "It also provides a basis for sustainable community development as well as creating capacity for adaptation to the climate."

The initiative has attracted worldwide attention (WIWWMP)
The initiative has attracted worldwide attention

Storm brewing?

Despite the positive example set by the initiative, the outlook across Ethiopia and other vulnerable regions in Africa remains serious unless more farmers can be encouraged to invest in similar measures. Poor infrastructure, inadequate capacity and a lack of meteorological information on climate change limit many poor farmers' ability to anticipate climatic shocks. This means that without effective support, livestock keepers like Fitala Lemu, who are already struggling to maintain their herds, are likely to face a difficult future.

With less than a year to go before governments meet to forge the next climate treaty, there will be further lengthy negotiations to hammer out agreements on slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile as storm clouds gather over the world economy, the likelihood of getting investment to help protect Africa's farmers from global warming seems remote.

Written by: Ochieng' Ogodo

Date published: January 2009


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