Better than Saudi Arabia

June 1, 2017

Fig 1. A long period of over-exploitation in Tsaeda Emba, resulted in forest destruction. Without protection, precious top soil washes away exposing bedrock.

By Tony Rinaudo, Principal Natural Resources Advisor, World Vision Australia

When I first visited the Tasaeda Emba region of Northern Ethiopia, way back in 2004, a barren moonscape met my eyes. The land seemed scraped clean of all vegetation and soil. Little remained to remind me of the soil’s original fertility, the immense forests, or the wildlife that thrived at the time of the mighty Aksumite empire – despite the site-specific restoration efforts that were underway.

In northern Ethiopia, World Vision, other NGOs and the local government have mounted a massive effort over the last four decades to restore vegetation and bring the land back to a productive state.

While much progress has been made, there have been many lessons learnt – and there is still more degraded land to restore from harsh practices of over-cutting and over-grazing.

The Drylands Development program (DryDev) is working in Tsaeda Emba and 7 other Ethiopian districts, to build on the restoration efforts to date. The program draws together lessons from land restoration, agricultural production and market development interventions to accelerate change.

DryDev provides integrated support to small holder farmers in dryland areas of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia, and Kenya, to see them transition from emergency aid and subsistence to sustainable rural development. This program has been funded for 5 years by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and World Vision Australia, DryDev is led by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in partnership with World Vision Ethiopia as the country lead and two partner agencies, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), beginning in 2014.

DryDev Ethiopia has demonstrated significant results in a short period. Implementing several key interventions in timely sequence, employing skilled staff, and focussing on capacity building, empowerment and enabling of community members have contributed to its success.

The approach combines watershed rehabilitation with economic development. Watershed rehabilitation relies on physical and biological interventions. Physical measures slow and trap the runoff of rainwater through the construction of stone contour banks, soak-pits and contour ditches, and rock-filled gabions across eroded gullies.

Biological interventions include planting of trees (now over a million), grasses and legumes, and the practice of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). These measures help revegetate the hills and to encourage rainwater to soak into the ground instead of running off and causing flooding downstream. Small dams now trap rainwater where it emerges in the valley, and is passed along irrigation channels for supporting cash crops.

Economic development activities mean that communities can make economic use of the benefits generated by the recovering landscape.

In addition to damwater irrigating marketable crops, flourishing trees can support honey production, and grass production can support sheep and poultry raising. Value chain analysis, marketing group formation, and development of specific products is being pursued. Additional activities may include biogas production for lighting, cooking and fertilizer production, promoting fuel efficient stoves, roof water harvesting, collecting runoff from roads, and growing fruit trees.

One of DryDev’s operational areas is the Dimelo sub watershed in Tsaeda Emba, just 50 km from the Eritrean border. The primary focus of this intervention is to protect and rehabilitate the sub catchment and the secondary focus is on agricultural commodity production. Walking from the plateau down to the valley, one can see the extensive stone terrace work on the often-bare sandstone hills and wherever there was soil, deep contour trenches had been dug to trap water. Trees and grasses have been planted and FMNR is being practiced.

And it seems the communities’ work has ‘drought proofed’ their valley!

Although not irrigated, the entire valley was green, even though it has not rained for 8 months and it was the driest month of the year. Increased vegetation cover means that the little rain that falls can infiltrate the ground on the slopes, and surface in the root zone of pastures in the valley. Even in a normal season, rainfall only averages 300-500 mm per year, and yet there is an abundant water supply! Springs have returned and irrigation water is now available.

Fig 2. Community members have invested thousands of hours of labour to build and dig terraces, contour ditches and small dams. They have planted trees and grasses and are practicing FMNR to cover the barren slopes with vegetation.

Even at the height of the 2016 drought, communities were able to sell 813 tonnes of grass hay (271 light truck loads)!

At the head of the valley, a dam now channels water to the lower end of the valley. Previously, just two farmers harvested one poorly yielding crop per year on 3 hectares of irrigated land. Today, 132 farmers grow three crops per year using gravity irrigation on 18.5 hectares in the dry season and on 38 hectares in the rainy season


Fig 3. Community members harvested 813 tonnes of grass hay in the Dimelo valley in a severe drought year – without irrigation – which is evidence of the effectiveness of the land restoration measures being undertaken on the surrounding hills.

Fig 4. Irrigation potential has risen from just three hectares to 38 due to increased water supply.

As a young husband and father, community leader Alem Desta Gebre went to Saudi Arabia to help make ends meet. His degraded land could not support his growing family. Life was unexpectedly hard and he got by through taking labouring jobs. After realizing the many benefits from the Dry Dev project and reflecting on his earlier experiences, Alem says”

“My farm is now my Saudi Arabia. I have no need to go back there.”

Fig 5. Alem Desta Gebre: “My farm is now my Saudi Arabia. I have no need to go back there.”