Watershed management has become a key entry point for converting degraded land into viable farms and giving hope to rural communities caught in the poverty trap.
However watershed management of degraded lands will not make farming a viable business unless the rest of the agricultural value chain is also tackled. So a holistic approach must be taken. It is this approach that has made the Yewol watershed initiative different.
In the highlands of northern Ethiopia, farming families often live a very basic subsistence lifestyle. In the drought years, which are common, food and water is scarce. Severe soil erosion plagues the Yewol watershed highlands and there are extreme dry periods each year. When the long rains do arrive, the water rushes down the mountains leaving little water or top soil behind. The soil loss was estimated to be about 150 tonnes per hectare.
Help had not come to the Yewol watershed until one passionate scientist kept visiting the area in his own time and building partnership “I am from Ethiopia and want to see my country prosper. Watershed management is a very complex agenda and you cannot do it alone. It requires multiple players and multiple skills. So I talked to as many people as possible, finding others who also had a vision and cared about the people and the environment,” said Dr Tilahun Amede, from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
Our ‘approach’ was just as critical as the technical solutions. It was essential that ICRISAT take a catalyst role and provide any technical back up needed Any efforts had to be both community driven and led by the local authorities and specialist
It is apt that this work is truly community driven given that the mountains are called Yewol, which means ‘for all of us’
“We used to live in a small one room house with many gaps in the wall. The rain and cold came through but we had no choice. Very slowly I have been able to build a good 2 story house. The animals live downstairs and we live upstairs. Our old house is now our kitchen for cooking.”
The solution to stop the soil erosion was to terrace the steep land with rock hedges. This was not an easy solution to put in place, as the mountains covered vast land areas and landscaping was hugely time consuming, labor intensive and physically tough. The project team capitalized on the government’s Safety Net Program where it supports young and unemployed people to undertake community work. Terracing, which otherwise would have not been affordable or possible, was achieved through this program, with almost the entire 7,500 hectares of the watershed terraced.
Although the terracing has been successful in reducing soil erosion, it will still take significant time for the soils to be revitalized. Some activities have been put in place to accelerate the process, including fertilizers and legumes.Legumes provide a triple win for the system: they release nitrogen to the soil, thus acting as natural fertilizer, are highly nutritious and provide a potential income source.
There is very little use of groundwater for agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands. Groundwater can radically turn subsistence agriculture into profitable prosperous businesses, however, it must be used sustainably. Eleven wells have now been dug for this watershed.
"I had seen carrots in the markets but never tasted them. We could just afford to eat what we grow. Now with the watershed work we have grown carrots and potatoes and now are trialing cherry trees. I have now eaten carrot and so many more foods.”
We work with rural communities to intensify their production but still
look after the environment. Crop diversification, preserving soil fertility through proper crop and nutrient management and watershed management to increase water availability
play an important role in combating degradation of the environment.
Terraced mountainsides growing a range of crops – cereals, forage and vegetables like carrot and garlic that the people had never seen before; and a wide variety of trees (even apples!) – are a common sight in Yewol today.....
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Channeled rainwater drains into a well in Kothapally village in Telangana State, India. Photo, ICRISAT
Recycling farm waste through vermicomposting to enrich the farm soils at Kothapally model watershed, Talangana State, India. Photo, ICRISAT
Well at Kothapally village in Telangana State, India as part of the integrated watershed management. Photo, ICRISAT
A Farmers Field School, part of the African Market Garden
Diversification is the key in African Market Gardens
Laying the foundation of vermicomposting pits
A dryland farmer preparing his land
To improve nutrition and supplement livelihoods, fruit trees have been provided to RameshwariDevi and other women. “These trees will not only provide nutrition but if there is a good harvest we can also sell in the market,” she says. Photo: Prashant Panji