Irrigation eases Ethiopia’s crop crisis

Irrigated fields allow Ethiopians like Teklu Madgu to withstand droughts, giving them a source of food and income even if rain-fed crops fail. Credits: Debbie DeVoe/CRS

Irrigated fields allow Ethiopians like Teklu Madgu to withstand droughts, giving them a source of food and income even if rain-fed crops fail.
Credits: Debbie DeVoe/CRS

As we crest the mountain top, a sweeping view of emerald fields, soaring mesas and scattered farms spreads in front of us. It’s difficult to believe that the farmers in the distance are facing a critical food shortage.

As we wind down the hill though, we get a closer look at the fields and what Ethiopians call “green hunger.”

Corn stalks are one half the height they should be, and under the green tops are drooping brown leaves. Rip open an ear, and the inside rows of anaemic kernels grin up like ghastly smiles of broken teeth spaced much too far apart.

Fields look green, but plants are withering from the bottom up. Failed rains in Ethiopia have led to a sharp rise in malnutrition rates. Caritas Internationalis is appealing for US$1.3 million to provide food, drinking water and medicines for 26,500 mothers and children for five months.

Caritas is working through its national Caritas member on the ground, the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, with the support of Caritas members from Europe and North America.

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“Complete crop failure,” Alem Brhane says, shaking his head in dismay. A program coordinator with the Adigrat Catholic Secretariat for development projects supported by Caritas members, including one of the Caritas members in the USA, Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Brhane knows that these spindly sprouts mean the farmer will harvest absolutely nothing—not even feed for his livestock.

Drought in Ethiopia comes every few years. But in early 2008, a poor rainy season took many farmers by surprise, occurring in pockets where families are usually able to grow enough food. By May, thousands of children were showing signs of malnutrition as farming families were left with little or nothing to eat.

Resulting delays in planting long-cycle crops coupled with continued poor rains are now exacerbating the situation. Millions more farmers are facing potential crop failures during the upcoming October and November harvest—drastically reducing expected food stores for the coming year.

“The food shortage in Ethiopia could get much worse,” explains Lane Bunkers, CRS’ country representative in Ethiopia.

“Already, the government of Ethiopia and aid agencies have exhausted local supplies feeding those most in need. More food is needed as soon as possible to distribute to growing numbers of people facing empty cupboards and—more concerning—empty grain stores.”

Shipments of sorghum, wheat, legumes, corn-soy blend and vegetable oil are already on their way, expected to begin arriving in late October. The consortium will transport and distribute the U.S.-donated food to people identified as being most in need.

Not all communities in drought-affected regions are facing hunger, however. Some have received precious bursts of rain that have kept their crops alive. Others have undertaken development projects to break out of the cycle of drought and despair.

“Though my rain-fed field crops will suffer, compared to others I won’t be as affected as much by the drought because of this irrigation,” says Leteyohanes Yohanes, a farmer in the village of Kokeb-Tsibah.

For the past two years, Leteyohanes and her neighbours have been growing vegetables on small plots of land irrigated by a water system constructed with CRS’ support. Her family now supplements their standard fare of barley, peas and beans with vegetables from their garden. She is also able to buy additional food and care for her parents using the income she earns selling any excess vegetables.

Teklu Madgu—a spry 67-year-old father of eight—practically jumps up and down when he explains the benefits irrigation has brought to his life. Running to show off his large garden, he explains how he now harvests vegetables three times a year. This last harvest alone despite the drought, Teklu earned about $155 selling tomatoes, green peppers, garlic, onions, beans, oranges and more—in a country where the average annual income is estimated to be less than $125 per person. He used his most recent earnings to buy corn for his family to eat and to put down a down payment on a beehive to earn additional income.

In another village nearby, Yihdega Tesfay may be mute, but the smile that spreads across her face says it all. As she shows me her large hand-dug well and irrigated garden plot, Brhane explains that she cares for her three children alone. Due to the high premium she earns selling vegetables instead of more common grains, Yihdega can now afford to send her children to school. When she calls her eldest son over, her pride is palpable.

The government of Ethiopia and aid agencies must take every measure to help those facing hunger. But tomorrow can’t be ignored.

“Communities where we have implemented long-term agricultural and irrigation projects over the years are withstanding the drought significantly better than their neighbours,” CRS’ Bunkers notes. “We will continue to do everything we can to provide emergency relief, and we also urge donors to fund long-term development projects to prevent future crises.”

Debbie DeVoe is Catholic Relief Services’ regional information officer for East Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya. She recently visited agricultural and irrigation project sites in eastern and northern Ethiopia.


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