From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Year-round farming in arid Ethiopian lowlands assured

Date 01 Oct 1998 11:05:44

 by taming mountain streams
LWF World Service on the job for 25 years

GENEVA, 28 September 1998 (lwi) - Three years ago Hassan was still roaming
the Afar semi-desert with his goats and a camel, in search of food and
drinking water. Today, like many other families in the area, the
slightly-built former goatherd is cultivating his own vegetable garden and
orchard. The nomads of the Issa clan, a sub-group of the Ethiopian Somali,
have become settled farmers, irrigating their gardens with water brought by
canals from the mountains many kilometers away.

Like Hassan, who lives in the modest hamlet of Midigun northeast of
Diredua, many thousands of nomadic Issa and Oromo families in dozens of
other places have changed their entire way of life during the last twelve
years. Much as they had suffered from drought as herders of livestock, they
were very skeptical when they first saw irrigation farming in their arid
Afar lowlands. They have since acknowledged the change for the better which
their fellow tribespeople have achieved in their nutrition and in their way
of life overall, owing to this foreign technology. More and more families
now want to follow their example and are asking their local clan chiefs for
plots of irrigable land.

These changes have been made possible by a long-term development program,
the Soil and Water Conservation Project, run since 1985 in various regions
of Ethiopia by the Department for World Service of the Lutheran World
Federation (LWF/WS). The LWF/WS cooperates closely with the LWF's local
partner, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), which has
2.2 million members.

LWF World Service registered as an official NGO since March

The LWF/WS maintains an office for its 40 staff members in a modest
one-family house in Addis Ababa. There, local professionals plan and direct
its activities throughout the country. Since 1986 the office's director has
been Paavo Farm from Finland. The Soil and Water Conservation Project, with
its multiple ecological ramifications, and an agricultural rehabilitation
program are both run by Technical Director Gebreyes Haile, an Ethiopian
with decades of experience in this field. His entire staff also are

After 25 years of operations in Ethiopia and following protracted
negotiations with the country's government, the LWF/WS in Ethiopia was
finally allowed to officially register there, in March 1998, as an
international non-governmental organization.

The LWF/WS first became involved in Ethiopia in 1973, helping deliver food
aid in famine-stricken Wollo Province after a drought. An even greater
challenge was the catastrophic drought of 1984-85 in the north, which
killed some half million people.

It was then that the LWF/WS and EECMY, together with the Ethiopian Orthodox
Church and the Catholic Church, formed a Joint Relief Partnership. This
partnership remained active into the 1990's through repeated droughts and
failed harvests, and was able to help up to 900,000 starving people by
providing food, medicine and seeds.

^From relief work to ecological rehabilitation

Chief among the causes of climate change and failed harvests in Ethiopia
are the continual clear-cutting of forests and widespread land erosion in
the mountain areas. Every year the country loses over a billion metric tons
of topsoil. Washed down to the Sudan and Egypt by the Nile, it has been the
foundation of Egyptian agriculture for thousands of years. In the densely
populated mountain regions of Tigray and Wollo today, often nothing is left
but bare rocks and scree.

In the 1980's, the socialist regime under Mengistu forced the tens of
thousands of farmers' associations to participate in the reforestation of
vast areas, but without explaining to them the project's purpose. As soon
as the hated government fell, the farmers cut down most of the trees and
rebuilt their terraces. This was a painful setback for ecological

In 1985, to help prevent further loss of topsoil, the LWF/WS in Ethiopia
converted its operations from straightforward relief efforts to ecological
rehabilitation. Instead of food being merely handed out to starving people,
it was given as wages to motivate them to work in environmental programs,
and to raise their awareness about these programs.

Numerous plans for terracing, reforestation, road-building, river
diversion, small check dams, rural water supply and irrigation were put
into action in various regions simultaneously. Over several months,
sometimes as many as 3,000 men and women were involved in each of the
projects, helping to secure their own future in the region.

In this way, as Technical Director Gebreyes Haile proudly emphasized, 64
such food-for-work projects have been completed over the last twelve years.
Some 30,000 hectares have been reclaimed for agricultural irrigation by
small farmers. This amounts to a fifth of all land under irrigation by
small farmers in Ethiopia - an impressive accomplishment, which has still
not been fully acknowledged by the government. However, it should be noted
that so far only five percent of potentially irrigable land has been opened
to farming.

During the current two-year program for 1997-98, the four regional LWF
coordinating offices are planning to complete 19 projects in their
provinces. Of these, 16 involve diversion of rivers. Only in three projects
in southern Ethiopia were earth dams built for rainwater collection in
reservoirs, for there are no regularly flowing rivers there.

According to Gebreyes, planning has already been completed for the next
four years. In all, 40 project locations have been investigated and agreed
upon with the Mekane Yesus Church and the regional authorities. He hopes
that, in spite of the general reduction in funding from aid organizations,
these important projects can be assured of financing, since they have
long-term, sustainable value both for humans and for nature. Up to now no
less than 25,000 families, comprising around 170,000 persons, have been
able to improve their living conditions at least somewhat through LWF/WS

Sustainable grass-roots development

As agreed with the Ethiopian government, the Soil and Water Conservation
Project concentrated on technical infrastructure improvements during its
first ten years. These included the building of diversion and irrigation
canals, terracing, reforestation, and training in irrigation, water
management and maintenance of installations. The farmers were supplied with
tools and improved seed to help them get started. The job of advising the
farmers was then taken over, as far as possible, by employees of the
regional Ministry of Agriculture.

In view of the complex socio-economic problems of this mostly agro-pastoral
population and in order to assure the durability of the improvements that
have been brought about, the aid organizations and the LWF/WS wanted to
assess their efforts. After careful inspection and questioning of the local
people, a complementary community development program was devised, to be
integrated into the existing program in order to underpin the projects'
long-term benefits.

This called for additional funding and an additional agreement with the
Ethiopian government, which came about only last year. That, of course,
meant a delay in implementation. Women are especially targeted by this
program, which covers areas like health education, home economics, improved
storage methods, house construction, training in various income-producing
skills and small business, marketing of their products, and small savings
and credit programs for women.

Evaluation confirms positive effects

A thorough evaluation of the Soil and Water Conservation Project was
carried out by international and local experts, who agreed that the
technical hydraulic engineering improvements were professionally done and
would function for a long time to come. After completion of the river
diversions, the follow-up and accompanying programs undertaken in
collaboration with the local people will reinforce the durability of the

These programs include training for farmers in irrigation management,
careful management of water by the trained water committees in the
villages, promotion of vegetable growing (which had been unknown in many
places), and purchase on credit of draft oxen, tools and seeds. New
agricultural techniques such as raising fruit and nut trees to plant as
windbreaks and for firewood and reforestation are also important long-term
follow-up measures.

The direct effects of the total program on the people in the affected areas
are noticeable, in increased household income through the sale of surplus
produce, more reliable nutrition, better social services and good drinking
water supplies, as well as the easing of the work load and improvement of
the status of women in their families and communities.

However, the evaluation also made a series of recommendations for future
work: offering more advice in raising more valuable crops, intensifying
cultivation to three harvests a year, enlarging the irrigated area, more
efficient water management and promotion of sharing of experience among the

(Editors' acknowledgment: Heinz Berger is an expert on Africa for the
Protestant Association for Cooperation in Development (EZE) in Bonn, who
has been assigned to Ethiopia, among other countries, in the course of the
past 20 years. He recently visited the LWF/WS program in Ethiopia, and this
article is based upon his report. Additional photos are available.)

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Lutheran World Information
Editorial Assistant: Janet Bond-Nash

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