On the 130-km drive from Semera, the capital of Afar region in Ethiopia, to the research site in Chifra, the lone green patch visible along that stretch is the collaborative venture between ICRISAT, GIZ, local universities and partners.
This initiative to rebuild the livelihoods of agro-pastoral communities in the largely drought-prone region, has succeeded in rehabilitating 35 ha of abandoned land and benefited 52 households with about 360 household members, providing food for them and fodder for their livestock. It has also created a huge social movement at village, district and regional scales.
The intervention enhanced the fertility and water holding capacity of the soil in the area, which allowed local lost grasses and trees to spring back to life. The environmental impact has been huge, and the work is ongoing.
Chifra woreda (district), located near the base of the eastern escarpment of the Ethiopian highlands, is largely drought prone. Annual rainfall ranges from 200 to 500 mm per year, spreading from March to September. However, the last decades have seen the rainfall months shrinking, and the onset of rain inching towards July. The traditional ‘belg’ rains (short rains) have also been dwindling and exposing the pastoral and agro-pastoral systems to recurrent drought and famine, as happened in 2015-16. Most of these rangelands depend on the flood stemming from the highlands of Wollo and Tigray. Drought in the highlands hits this region hard! Besides, in the rainy season, channelling the flood water for agricultural use is a challenge.
ICRISAT in partnership with GIZ-Ethiopia, Woldia University and the Afar regional state started testing various rainwater management strategies. One of the interventions was using water spreading weirs (WSWs) to spread flood water out of the concentrated spillways into the degraded plains. The weirs reduced the velocity of the flood water and distributed it to the wider plains, thereby enhancing soil water infiltration. The captured water was then used for producing food and feed crops.
Following these investments, ICRISAT was tasked to convert this ‘no mans’ land’ into a productive area using dryland technologies. In partnership with local universities and research institutes, it developed WSW-specific cropping system approaches that identify, prioritize and integrate best agricultural practices that efficiently use flood water and improve the degraded land in Chifra.
At least 12 different training events were conducted for communities and district officers on topics such as land preparation, choice of crops and varieties, agronomic management, biomass management, crop-livestock integration, postharvest management and so on. But before that, extensive groundwork was done.
Digitization of land use
Land use suitability analysis was conducted at the research site. The entire area was tracked using GPS to characterize soil-water distribution and soil fertility gradients created by the physical structure (WSWs), which was effective in capturing sediment emerging from the highlands along with the flood, enriching the flat plains. The soil moisture regimes of the system were plotted and different parcels were assigned into different land use categories. Information on parameters for each plot, such as crop type, crop performance, soil moisture status and plot owners’ attributes, was generated. The information database was transferred to the GIS platform. The plots were digitized and assigned a unique plot identification number in ArcGIS platform.
Based on the analysis, 19.4 % (6.8 ha) of the total area was classified as good land and 36.3 % (12.8 ha) and 12.5% (4.4 ha) as medium and poor land, respectively. Accordingly, different food crops (maize, sorghum, teff, mung bean, cowpea, pigeonpea and sesame) and forage crops (elephant grass, napier grass and natural grass) have been recommended for the three identified categories (see map).
Crop and forage production and productivity
Among the tested crops, sorghum variety – Girana 1 performed very well, but wasn’t able to complete the lifecycle due to bird incidences. Farmers feared the fate of their harvested crops due to the free movement of livestock. Managing isolated sorghum fields too was a concern; which will be discussed with the community leaders in the coming season. Despite the odds, sorghum crops produced about 26 tons of biomass for feed and other multiple uses.
For maize, the crop stand and greenness of two early-maturing varieties (Melkassa 2 and 4) was more than what agronomists expected, even though there was lack of water during late flowering. Grain productivity, however, was low. Yield and productivity would be improved in the next season.
Regardless of season and intensity of drought, the two high-value crops teff and mung bean performed very well in the systems. Teff yield was as close as that of the highlanders, with about 1.5 tons per ha, which fetches up to 25 Birr (USD1.08)/kg. Farmers could buy about 5 kg of sorghum or maize by selling 1 kg of teff. Similarly, mung bean is one of the most demanded export crops in the country with amazingly high yield, reaching up to 2 tons per ha. There was a huge demand for seed, and this is likely to grow during the next season. The performance of pigeonpea, cowpea, sesame and lablab were very encouraging. This will be further validated in the next season using niche-specific approaches.
Contributions to food security and productivity gains
|Total biomass and grain yield (in tons) of crops produced under the water spreading weir, in Chifra, 2016.|
The way forward
As mentioned before, the Chifra project created a huge social movement at village, district and regional scales. To identify scaling-up strategies, national level workshops were organized inviting development partners and governmental institutions. Some of the suggestions made by participants were as follows:
- Integrate and expand high value horticultural crops for better incomes and enhance farmers’ interest;
- Institutionalize the approach to more communities and districts; and
- Build local capacity in constructing, managing and using WSW for productive use, addressing local labor and technology challenges.
The project PI, Dr Tilahun Amede, Principal Scientist in Systems Agronomy, ICRISAT-Ethiopia, says, “The huge interest created by this initiative has led to the approach being expanded to two other districts – Yallo and Awra. The Chifra project has become a site of learning for the Regional Government of Afar, NGOs and for development workers in agro-pastoral and pastoral systems.”