Landscape restoration in Ethiopia brings watershed to life

Lynsey Grosfield
8 July 2017
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Photo by Cathy Watson/ICRAF

Ethiopia is suffering from severe drought. But there is water in Gergera. Twenty years of restoring its hills and valley has brought life back to this area in the state of Tigray. The work has been painstaking, complex and multidimensional, and continues to this day. But its hard-won results offer up two key lessons:  first, landscape restoration in drylands hinges on water management; second, restoration can create a base for better livelihoods and jobs for youth who formerly left in droves.

Ministers visited the watershed on 31 May 2017 after a meeting at which the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) signed a memo of understanding to establish a National Agroforestry Platform to support climate-resilient green growth and transformation. Over 40 prominent figures attended, including Ministers of State Dr. K. Urgesa and Dr. G. Gebreyohannes, Dr. W. Tadesse of the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute, Dr. F. Kebede, advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, and Dr. E. Gabre Madhin, founder of Ethiopia’s commodity exchange. Also present were the ambassadors of Australia and Ireland, M. Sawyers and P. McManus, representatives of the Finnish, US, Dutch, German and Norwegian embassies and development agencies, and leaders from civil society groups such as OXFAM, Farm Africa, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Packard.

Photo by CWatson/ICRAF

In Gergera, the visit began at the head of the valley where community leaders had gathered. Alighting and looking around, Ethiopia’s Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources was visibly moved.  “I know this place. It was abandoned and untouched. This is very incredible to me,” said Dr. Eyasu Abraha.

The group stood under tall trees, bathed by birdsong, with luscious grasses and pools of clean water at its feet. So that it can regenerate, this part of Gergera has long been closed to cattle. “The first thing you notice is the change of vegetation,” said ICRAF’s Director General Dr. Tony Simons, pointing out a Sclerocarya birrea, a tree with a nutritious plum-like fruit with an oil-rich kernel.

By consent of the community, only cutting and carrying grass to livestock and beekeeping are permissible in this upper catchment. Indeed, the wooded hillsides are rife with carefully placed hives. Gabions built by members of the community slow the rain water when it courses down the chasm, which, formerly too deep to cross, is gradually filling as earth builds up behind the structures. Critically, this earth now retains rainwater, which seeps into the ground and emerges as groundwater in the valley where 1000 ha of land are now under small-scale irrigation. It was not always like this.

“During the period of the Emperor and the Derg, degradation was so severe,” an elder said, referring to the regime which ruled from 1974 for 17 years. “Once we were forced to dismantle a church at risk of being swept away!” But the fall of the Derg brought a groundswell of activity to address agricultural productivity in an area once struck by famine.

Photo by CWatson/ICRAF

“The people took the initiative to rehabilitate the environment,” explained administrator Habtom Woreta.  “That is when Irish Aid came in and we became a model watershed for the region and the world. You can see how the area is transformed! Biodiversity has increased and we have hand-dug wells at 1 meter deep because of recharge. And none of this is in vain. Now we have TVs in the houses. Before we slept on mats, now we have beds.”

Once a hot spot for the perilous out-migration of youth, even that has changed. When Irish Aid representative Aileen O’Donovan asked, “about job creation for the youth, who are motivated but restless,” Kebele (village) leader Tsuruy proudly said: “we have 1070 youngsters, of whom 506 are employed due to restoration. “This is music to my ears,” said the Minister of Agriculture, whose government recently completed a  Rural Job Opportunity Strategy.

A painting from 1951 showing erosion in Ethiopia’s National Museum.

Down in the valley, young men were building gabions to deflect a gulley away from the fields that would be destroyed if the water were unchecked in the rains. They are paid under the Poverty Safety Net Programme, Ethiopia’s cash transfer scheme.  But they also donate 40 free days of their time, both as a social obligation and in anticipation of receiving reclaimed land from the state.

Asked why they were doing this, they shouted, “To earn daily bread and stop the loss of land. The land was going!” Placing a boulder into a square of wire mesh, the ICRAF Director General told the group that if good tree cover were kept in the watershed, the water would also come with less velocity.

Photo by CWatson/ICRAF

There were more young men as well as women at the rural resource centre, a former government nursery now supported by ICRAF, which technically guides the entire restoration. They earn their living selling trees, particularly avocado, and 13 fodder grass species. They currently have tree seedlings and vegetable plantlets worth $11,523 and $10,000 in the bank. “Our vision is how these youngsters can eventually be extension workers,” said Professor Mitiku Hailu of Mekelle University.

As the trip wrapped up, the community served bread and honey from the recovering hills. State Minister for Livestock and Fisheries Dr. Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes said “what has been seen today is job creation” and “cash transfers improving the lives of the poor”. And Dr. Kiros Hagdu, who leads ICRAF in Ethiopia, said his centre was committed to evidence-based restoration of farms and landscapes with the government and communities and that now was, “the time to scale-up the successes nationally.”

The Minister of Agriculture had the last word. “Agroforestry is becoming the heart and the mind of the government,” said Dr. Eyasu Abraha. “What we see here is really the beginning of transformation. All those youngsters who wanted to migrate will have productive land.”

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