All photos by Rob Kelly.
Integrated approaches can address land degradation:
For farmers in the drylands of northern Ethiopia like Gebreselassie, producing adequate food and generating income for the family presents a year-by-year challenge. Drylands are arid or semi-arid areas with highly variable rainfall. On average, annual rainfall is less than what is lost to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration, the use of water by trees or crops. In these regions, agricultural productivity is limited by poor availability of moisture.
Drylands make up 43% of the land area in Africa and are home to about 45% of its population, approximately 325 million people. Agriculture is the mainstay in these parts but like Gebre, most farmers struggle to subsist on highly variable rainfall and on marginal soil.
Drylands are especially prone to the combined effects of climate change and human activities, which can reduce the land’s productive potential, a situation known as land degradation. In Gebre’s area, human activities, including overgrazing by livestock and over-cutting of trees for firewood, had reduced the vegetation cover on the steep hillsides. Even small amounts of rain caused soil erosion and flooding downstream, and a deep gully had formed which split the community in half.
“We were never sure that even what we planted would produce a good yield,” Gebre said.
In these areas drought is well-known, as is the case in rural Australia. For farmers who experience the phenomenon of drought, in which less than the normal rainfall is received over a prolonged period, the water balance is affected and people’s livelihoods are at risk. The current drought being experienced in the drier eastern half of Ethiopia, due to a lack of normal rain since 2015, is now transforming into an emergency as families run out of food and savings.
Governments and private sector have often neglected investing in these areas, and even in normal years, many families depend on food aid. In Gebre’s valley, almost the entire community had occasional reliance on food aid, and several families had moved away to other areas.
World Vision Australia (WVA) has been supporting the Dryland Development Programme, or DryDev, in Ethiopia and Kenya. DryDev seeks to find ways to help dryland farmers such as Gebre to transition from subsistence and food aid to sustainable rural development. The programme, which began in late 2013 with funding from the Dutch government and WVA, is working with 40,000 farmers in Ethiopia through World Vision and its partners, REST (Relief Society of Tigray) and EOC (Ethiopian Orthodox Church) to identify solutions to address land degradation.
In Gebre’s valley in Tigray, the collective actions of the community through DryDev – building stone terraces, weirs, small dams, contour bays and soakage pits, and planting trees – have allowed what little rain that fell last year to soak into the water table. Farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is widespread, minimising animal browsing and allowing trees to recover and protect the soil. Springs have returned to life, and irrigation water is now available for crops and pasture, effectively drought-proofing their valley.
Village chief, Mr Tigabu, told us the valley was well-known for its dry conditions and steep slopes. Plans to shift those living here have now been put aside. “Our efforts to protect the hillside and to slow the runoff have improved the amount of water available for irrigation downstream,” he explained. Since DryDev began, yields have doubled, the irrigation area has expanded significantly from 10 to 30 hectares, and more intensive cropping can be practiced bringing more secure and better prices.
Gully repair with grasses and trees.Green areas have emerged in the valley floor stretching over 3 km, and the community has given the valley a new nickname: the “Lemilemi Valley”. “Lemilemi” is Amharic for “evergreen”, often used metaphorically to describe something that is continually fresh or self-renewing, a reflection of the new community perspective about their future.
Through DryDev, Gebre has found a profitable enterprise: sheep-raising. Training provided by REST convinced Gebre to take a small loan which he turned into a profit of 4,200 Ethiopian birr (about AUD 250), a result of fattening 8 sheep over 3 months. He has continued the approach, now taking a third loan of 10,000 birr. “There is much change to our lives compared to before,” explained Gebre, “Our pasture area has expanded and I can easily cut grass for my sheep. I now have more time to contribute towards community activities…and I expect to take up another loan.” As part of a producer group that has learned how to engage with the market, Gebre is now following the movement of prices in the local market, selecting which week and day to sell his prized sheep. Expanding into poultry-raising has brought further benefits, allowing his wife, three kids and grandmother to broaden their diet.
Gebre’s improved situation is indicative of others in the valley. The community has found that integrating conservation activities, that restore the water balance, with downstream agriculture and linking to markets has improved and stabilised incomes.