“We need a solution to shorter rains, we want the government to transit us from rain-feed agriculture to irrigation-based farming,” says Adem Nure, 32, a farmer in Meiso woreda of West Harerge who lost his 10 oxen and two hectares of sorghum and maize crops to the current El Niño-triggered drought.
Adem also sold eight oxen to feed his family and made his young children stop education and do day labor at the Meiso-Dewale railway project that pays 30 birr a day. “I am in great fear; I have 8 children and I don’t know how to feed them. Had the rain comes on time or had there been an irrigation system, I would have harvested 17 and 13 quintals of sorghum and maize. But the absent rains poured icy water on my hope,’’ Adem expressed his barren sentiments.
Adem’s howling is an echo of many Ethiopian farmers that are hit by the drought. Many are in despair as poor irrigation practices make them easily vulnerable to El Niño and its devastating consequences which left over 10 million people to seek food aid and caused over one million cattle to die of hunger. The drought, which is the severest of similar occurrences in the last 60 years mainly for its widespread reach, disrupted the lives of over 8.2 million Ethiopians and leaves the government seeking over 12 billion birr to mitigate the havoc. Farmers resorted to the last option: selling their castles to feed their families. Ethiopia, a country known as the water tower of Africa, has an estimated generation potential of 54.4 billion meter cube of surface water that can be developed for agricultural propose. Currently, less than five percent of that potential is used. Thought it is not backed with research, an estimated 36 billion cubic letters of underground water wallows beneath its terrain, an amount that is excess to cultivate all arable land if harnessed. This vast potential of water sources is let unutilized, with a negligible amount used mostly to irrigate sugar cane projects.
Despite the ingenious policies and strategies that strongly support irrigation developments, especially the Small Scale Irrigation (SSI) through the Water Sector Development Programs (WSDP) and Ethiopian Irrigation Development Plan (IDP), very poor irrigation works management left the country prone to droughts. The Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy, that is in charge to dig up 700 dip water wells during GTP I (2010-2015), only dug 100 wells, due to lack of effective monitoring and evaluation. The ministry’s inefficiency to complete projects within the stipulated period, conjugated with escalated costs, poor designs and workmanship, poor performance and the small number of local contractors that qualify in water wells digging left a thousand dozen of farmers left out from being incorporate in irrigation schemes. Seemingly minute negligence’s in key state offices like the Ministry of Agriculture, a key partner of the Ministry of Water, Energy and Irrigation in water wells development projects, has coasted the country heavily. The Small Scale Irrigation Department of the Mystery of Agriculture lends itself for a lucent explanation of such claim. An agronomist who asked not to be identified by name, said under staffing of departments is one core reason behind the unfulfilled duties. “We have to work harder on irrigation to avoid the consequences of rain shortage. To expand irrigation projects we need professionals in Geology, Hydrology, Watershed and Irrigation Engineering, Geographical Information System, Soil Science and Agro economy. But SSI department is only staffed with agronomists and irrigation engineers.”
The current drought can be another warning bell to Ethiopian agriculture which heavily depends on rains. Ironically, regions with the largest cultivable land area are the ones with relatively lower utilization rates of created irrigation capacity. According to the agriculture ministry’s data, a mere two million hectares of land was irrigated nationwide.
From the total 15 million hectares of agricultural land, only 2.4 million hectares has been watered by irrigation projects. Over 12 million hectares of the country’s fertile land is cultivated through rain-fed agriculture. However, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, around 5.3 million hectares is suitable for irrigation farming.
From the mass of totally irrigated land, a large expanse is cultivated by converting land that is used for rain-fed agriculture or land with rainwater production potential but that is not yet in use into irrigation–based farms.
At the state level, Oromia has big irrigation potential in terms of both surface water and ground water, but the region could not irrigate any more than 900,000 hectares so far. Amahra region annexes 719, 748 hectares of land into irrigated farming system that benefits over 20,000 farmers. Commendable works by Tigray and SNNPS states integrated 221,000 and 323,395 hectares farmland into irrigation schemes. The four regions aggregately produced 243,600 quintals of main crops in the period between 2011 and 2014.
Although irrigation farming contributes to overall national main crop production that jumps from 191 million to 270 million in the first GTP period, over 90 percent of this yield was harvested by rain-fed agriculture.
The country, which produces 90 percent of its agricultural output through small scale farming, presently outputs 21 quintals on average per hectare a year, up from 13 quintals before five years. But that growth in yields is flimsy, as it can be easily washed out by bad weather conditions. Because of the drought, the annual total production of grain is estimated to decrease by 10 million quintals this year.
The above reality points to the instability of Ethiopia’s agriculture, in spite of the notable rise in agricultural production of recent years. Besides the slower infiltration of works, poor management of irrigation systems prevents the nation from enjoying the fruits of scientific methods. Seyuom Getachew, an irrigation engineer and Vice-head of Household Irrigation Department with the Agricultural Transformation Agency, mismanagement of potentials is a big challenge that curtails agricultural output.
“For any work to be productive, it must be supported with empirical information and methodology. For long years, we don’t know surely the country’s groundwater potential as there were no studies. Even existing studies didn’t recommend the right mode of utilization of surface water. The nation has vast irrigation potential but the question is how we can make good use of irrigation.’’
‘‘As a transformation agent for the agriculture sector, my organization is studying to know the real underground water potential of the country. We assisted some farmers to get efficient equipments which enable them to pump out water from the grounds. Even then, some had difficulties in choosing better irrigational techniques.”
Years of local experience has shown that farmer-managed irrigation can contribute meaningfully to food security through enhanced crop production and better incomes. However, many challenges remain to be overcome, some associated with the country’s underdeveloped systems, for instance, the small markets for produce. Other drawbacks such as the high transaction costs associated with marketing services, unpredictable natural phenomenon like increasingly uncertain rainfalls, and narrowly played politics – for example, the tradition of limited participation of the populace in government affairs and in state decision-making, are some of the challenges that need a solution to ensure continued agricultural productivity.
Moreover, achievement of durable impact necessitates a long period of donor’s commitment in the form of partnership with the government and other stakeholders. The question is not whether to include small-scale irrigation in Ethiopia’s food security strategy, but how to do so more effectively.
For the country that has registered 11 percent economic growth in the past decade, nothing is more alarming than bad weather and drought, which left millions on thick air. Agriculture accounting for half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 85 percent of employment, however, around 95 percent of smallholder farms rely solely on rainfalls.
Moreover, the exploding population which increases by 2.5 percent in 2014 is another factor to keep an eye on.