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When water is scarce...

News Section Icon Published 31/08/2012


Research officer Vicky Bond's recent trip to Ethiopia highlighted how important water is to small-scale farmers. In an area prone to drought, water harvesters have revolutionised their ability to grow crops and increased their household income tenfold. The livestock that is essential to their farming no longer has to be sold during the dry season, when food becomes scarce. Farming is now a viable livelihood, where once food-handouts or migration were the only options.

Setting off down the mountain

I had travelled to Ethiopia to write a case study on the importance of small-scale farming for the livelihoods of farmers. The country itself is a beautiful mix of highlands and lowlands, with stark extremes between too much water and too little. Yet the public perception by many who know little of the country is that it is drought-ridden. I arrived in Addis Ababa to mild flooding! In the highlands, crops fail due to heavy rainfall. However, the next day I set off down the mountain, upon which the capital sits, and as the temperature steadily soared, the landscape went from green to a sandy brown giving the expected, more arid appearance. The kabele (their term for a community or village) was more than 400km away, and as we took twists and turns up and down mountains I was transfixed by the birds soaring overhead and slightly scared by all the livestock that merrily walked down the middle of the road, happily shepherded by their owner.

The community of Azgo

The kabele I was visiting is called Azgo and the 300 households that are situated there have transformed their lives. If I had arrived 10 years ago, it is very likely there would have been far fewer people and those who remained would be receiving government food hand-outs during the dry season. However, just over five years ago, the government started a scheme that gave free water harvesters to farmers, and today, all but a few own such a structure. This scheme has been piloted in other areas, but no community has been as proactive as this one. In 1984, this region was at the heart of the famine that caused suffering to millions. Today, its people are able to invest and have a future here. The necessity of water is something that we all know, but the reality of it is never more pronounced than in areas such as Azgo.


View over part of Azgo, showing all the water harvesters dotted on the landscape.

You can re-sow plants, but you will never get the same animal back

The farmers here typically support not only their own immediate family, but often extended family members, too. They own a small amount of inherited land, which they farm to grow cash crops and for their own subsistence, and they normally have a couple of cattle, goats, a donkey and some chickens. Those who have more money may own a camel. These animals are not just seen as food, but as a currency. They are an investment, and they provide for the family in many more ways than just food. They use the larger animal’s dung for fertiliser that they spread on their crops. This is incredibly important for maintaining the fertility of the soil. A farmer told me that the land feeds the animals and the animals feed the land, without both neither can exist. They may also use it to plaster their houses and as fuel for cooking. The ox plough the fields at harvest time and the donkeys carry products to and from the market, as well as water from the springs. Yet, in the dry season, when there is no rain for around 6 months, farmers often had to sell their livestock as they could not afford to feed them. As one farmer said: “you can re-sow plants but you will never get the same animal back”. But in hard times, when they could not even afford to feed themselves, the animals gave a little money that could keep them going until the first small rains of March, when crops start to grow again.

Getting the right price

Since the water harvesters were first introduced to the community, people’s lives have been transformed. A water harvester is a large, deep hole dug into the soil which is lined with a geo-membrane to stop leakage. It stores rainwater for reuse that would have otherwise been lost as run-off, allowing farmers to irrigate their crops at times of need. Previously, farmers could only sell their crops when prices were low, as they would harvest all at the same time following the end of the rainy season. Now they are able to irrigate their crops when they choose, and many now get two harvests. One water harvester tends to increase the farmer’s income tenfold, due to increased yield from crops and the ability to get a good price.


Water-harvesting structure slightly filled following the beginnings of the rainy season.

Scaling up

Farmers are able to feed their livestock throughout the dry period and most have also invested in new roofing for their houses, going from thatched to corrugated iron. After one or two years, the majority of farmers buy a second and then a third structure. Those with multiple water harvesters often have camels, which are vastly more expensive than other livestock, but are an investment and help with larger draft work. They are also able to loan the animals to others. The community saw the benefits from the water harvesters almost immediately, and the first farmers encouraged others to invest. It does require hard labour to dig the hole, but they all come together to help each other build it and now no longer need to rely on government hand-outs during the dry season.

The future

The community of farmers that I met spoke of their livelihoods with ambition and pride at being able to have an income from their land where once they struggled. They all said they felt the effects of climate change and that the first part of the rains was getting noticeably smaller, but they hoped that with these water-harvesting structures, the effect will not nearly be so great.


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