Saturday, 14 February 2009
An ancient form of water management helps Eritrean farmers meet their water needs
Water scarcity is one of the many challenges faced by Eritrea. The country has two perennial river systems, the Setit River, which forms the border with Ethiopia and drains into the Nile basin, and the Gash Barka system, which collects the run-off water from the highlands. All other rivers in the country are seasonal and carry water only after rainfall, which means that most of the year they are dry. The country has limited natural sources of fresh surface water and while groundwater can be tapped, often the quantity and quality leave much to be desired.
The average annual rainfall is approximately 380 millimetres. Rain is usually torrential, highly intense and falls for a short duration. It varies greatly from year to year.
The Gash Barka region, situated in the south-west of Eritrea, has a harsh climate and rainfall is limited and unreliable. The region borders Sudan to the west and Ethiopia to the south. It has a population of 567,000 and covers 37,000 km2, one third of Eritrea's surface area. Gash Barka was severely affected during the 1998-2000 border conflict with Ethiopia. Eight years after the conflict, one can still the remains of tanks and military hardware in the region.
Every three to five years, droughts cause partial or complete crop failure in Gash Barka. In years when crops fail, the survival strategy of farmers and herders is to sell their livestock and other assets.
The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project introduced improvements in grazing and farming practices. Infrastructure works were carried out under the project: developing and improving spate irrigation systems by harnessing run-offs and diverting rivers and small streams; improving hafirs or ponds to provide water for livestock; and water harvesting to improve groundwater.
Spate irrigation – an ancient form of water management – is one of the most viable ways of supporting the livelihoods of economically marginalized farmers. It is different from conventional perennial irrigation and is used in areas prone to unpredictable and destructive floods particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.
How does spate irrigation work?
Spate irrigation is a form of floodwater harvesting. It is a resource system where floodwater is harnessed or ephemeral streams diverted to agricultural fields using earthen or concrete canal structures. It is considered as a pre-planting system where the flood seasons come first followed by the crop season. In Gash Barka and Debub, major floods occur between June and September and the main crop growing season is between September and February.
Spate irrigation systems are usually built in the plains around mountainous or hilly terrain so that they can collect run-off, allowing the low-lying fields to store moisture for crops during the cropping seasons.
"Farmers can start planting their crops only after the floodwater harvesting", explains Efrem Tekle, crop specialist from the Ministry of Agriculture. "Since the timing, volume and number of floods are highly unpredictable, this type of agriculture is risk-prone. Farmers need to cooperate closely with each other in managing the distribution of flood flows and also in managing and maintaining the spate irrigation system."
The Government of Eritrea, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project financed the construction of spate irrigation systems in the Gash Barka region.
The Hashenkit River Diversion project is strategically situated to serve 14 villages and a total of 1,300 families, of which 20 per cent are headed by women.
The farmers in this region plant traditional sorghum. Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop after wheat, rice, maize and barley in Eritrea but the premier crop in Gash Barka. It is used as food, feed, fodder and fuel.
"We know that improved sorghum is better quality and has high production value, but given the water scarcity we’re faced with, we prefer to plant traditional sorghum because it needs less water", says Adam Humed, a farmer.
"Before the spate irrigation system, we were engaged in rainfed farming and our yield never exceeded 5 quintals (500 kg) per hectare", explains Humed. "Spate irrigation has increased our yield up to sixfold, which means 20-30 quintals (2,000 kg to 3,000 kg) per hectare. As a result, we are able to feed our children and buy new livestock."
Spate irrigation like any other infrastructure needs to be maintained and requires farmers' organizations to establish a good relationship with local government so that they can jointly administer and maintain the infrastructure. At the same time, the farmers need to administer the spate system by collaborating and agreeing on equitable water distribution.
"We will be meeting with local government to propose that if they help us with the levelling, silage removal and channel improvement, we will take charge of maintaining the spate", says Humed.
Looming shadow of drought
"Drought is one of the many challenges that we face, and it follows a 3 to 5 year cycle", states Humed. "This year we had only 10 millimetres of rain, which means a decrease in food production and more vulnerability."
"The Gash Barka region has approximately 3.5 million heads of livestock," explains Humed. "In this community, approximately half of the households own livestock and on average each household has six to seven heads of livestock".
The pastoralists consider their livestock as a valuable resource. "Livestock is a source of money, because we can sell them when faced with hard times", says Humed. "During good times we have learned to put aside 10 per cent of our income towards a community saving scheme. As a result, today we have 240,000 nakfa in our savings account, which we use in times of crisis".
The Ministry of Agriculture and the IFAD-funded projects are conducting capacity- and awareness-building campaigns to show the benefits of good storage mechanisms as an alternative way of coping with crises such as drought.
"The awareness campaign is helping pastoralists and farmers understand that during drought the price of livestock will decrease substantially because there is an over-supply", says Yordanos Tesfamarian, Senior Economist at the Ministry of Agriculture
"The extension workers are showing the farmers how to take advantage of a bumper year by investing in proper storage, so that when drought hits they have food and also the possibility of selling their surplus at a higher price".
"By working together with the farmers to find out their needs and aspirations and involving them in decision-making processes, we are building their capacities and those of their institutions so that they can advocate for themselves", explains Abla Benhammouche, IFAD country programme manager for Eritrea.
"This is how we are ensuring full ownership and sustainability".