Small rivers bringing new hopes; sustainability remains a concern

“I still regret the year I wasted in search of a job in Addis. I was simply being naïve,” says Simachew Kefe, a farmer, in Yetnora kebele of Dejen Woreda, in East Gojjam Zone blaming himself for deciding three years ago to leave his home village for Addis Ababa in search of job. Simachew, who is now, a farmer, was once discouraged with the decline in crop yield of his rain-fed farms and as a result was forced to leave both his home village and farms. However, life in Addis was not as easy as he had anticipated. His aspiration for getting a life-changing job ended up void when the best job he could find was being a security guard in one of the private houses in the Asco area. His monthly salary was so small that he couldn’t make his basic needs met, let alone help his parents. His attempt to earn a living by being a daily laborer did little to change his livelihood.

Simachew Kefe 

As a result he had no better option than to return to his village and turn his face to the farm he once had abandoned, but this time with strong determination to turn things around in his favour by working hard on his field. The hard time he experienced in Addis gave him vigour to put a lot more effort on his farms more than what he used to do in the past. That was when the idea of producing high market value crops by harnessing the nearby river, called Mechet, came to his mind. Soon Simachew’s life started to change for the better. He has built his own house and created asset by producing tomato, potato and onion among others through irrigation, and selling them to the local market. He even remembers a time when he managed to sell up to 15,000 birr from a single harvest of onions.

However, things which looked rosy at first gradually started to change in a different direction. He is now worried that it will be only a matter of time before his days of success will be short lived and become memories of the past. And he fears that the future of small scale irrigation will one day be in jeopardy if things continue business as usual. As more and more farmers continue to move to the river side with the intention to take a fair share of the water for irrigation purposes there emerged the rapid dwindling of the water volume.

As it turned out, Simachew sowed his field with potato last year with the hope to garner more harvest as before. However, his hopes were only to vanish in the air when the river water coming to a near dry and was unable to water his field.

“That was a terrible experience,” he remembered. This year Simachew has left his field idle for fear of not repeating the same experience. Instead he is renting his motor pump for others, and waits for the time when the water level increases.

Stories of Simachew seem to be all too common in the Yetnora kebele who are using Mechet River for irrigation purposes. Similar experiences are now being faced by many other farmers as a result of the sad turn of events triggered by the rising demand for water and the resultant dwindling of the water.

Farmers who once managed to escape from the trap of poverty by producing high market value crops using irrigation are now in dilemma.

Mechet is not the only river that is being used for irrigation in Dejen Woreda. Hundreds of households are also harnessing the Muga River, a relatively bigger river in the woreda.

Hundreds of farmers in the woreda are supplementing their rain-fed agriculture with irrigation by harnessing small rivers in their areas. Some have even created assets from the sale of high market value crops.

The farmers build small pond-like dams on the rivers on their own and irrigate their fields using motor pumps. Year after year, more and more farmers are engaging in irrigation. Challenges that farmers are facing are more or less similar- i.e dwindling of water and related consequences.

Tewabe Adamu has started growing vegetables mainly tomato and onions a few years ago by harnessing water from river Mechet, which is supplying water to not less than one hundred households. For Tewabe, the returns were encouraging. However, he says he is now witnessing that the number of people utilizing the river water has increased and as a result the water has become no longer dependable. That is the reason why this year he was forced to sow chick pea, a crop which relatively needs less water compared to other crops and vegetables. He knows that in terms of making income chick pea won’t be as good as tomato or onions. “ I don’t want to take chances. I have seen crops drying due to shortage of water,” he said.

Tewabe Adamu

Farmers in various parts of the country including East Gojjam have since a couple of years ago turned their eyes to the local rivers which otherwise had for years been gushing in the middle of crop fields washing away the most valuable soil nutrients from the farms.

In a way the government’s policy to help farmers make a paradigm shift in their farming practice and focus on irrigation as much as they do on rain-fed farming, seems to be hitting targets.

On the other hand the achievement obtained in convincing farmers to make use of the nearby rivers, has not come without its own consequences. Most of the irrigation development efforts are initiated by farmers and are barely regulated.

Simachew and Tewabe, both from Yetnora Kebele, agree on one solution to avoid possible catastrophic disasters on the small rivers being harnessed and instead make the most out of them. Put in simple terms, what the farmers need is government’s support. “ If the government helps us in building small dams whose water flow can be regulated, we can benefit a lot from the rivers. And the water shortage problem will be avoided since the dams can collect a lot of water during the rainy season,” said Tewabe.

In fact dwindling of water is not the only problem the farmers utilizing small rivers for irrigation are facing. A whole lot of other issues from water abstraction to the type of crop to be planted, need professional inputs.

In most cases farmers are irrigation engineers, agronomists and researchers that almost single-handedly they deal with building of the dam and carrying out irrigation development. There is much to be done in terms of ensuring the environment friendliness of the irrigation practices.

In fact in some localities in Gozamin Woreda of East Gojjam Zone the disproportionately rising demand for a share of water from rivers harnessed for irrigation purposes and the resultant dwindling of river waters is taking a new shape. The competition for water is being a source of tension among the people sharing the river water. And if unattended there is no guarantee why the tension won’t grow into skirmishes. River Kulech, one of the rivers that has been utilized by hundreds of farmers in Gozamin Woreda, has now become under stress due to the sharp increase in the number of people who want the river water. An estimated three hundred households claim that they are the rightful beneficiaries of the river. That has left a situation which is gradually leading to tension among the neighbouring kebeles.

Zeru Ayehu, a farmer in Lomiwonz Kebele in Gozamin Woreda has for over five years been growing Potato and onions by abstracting water from the river, Now that has become almost impossible. Due to the swelling number of users over the past few years, he is now obliged to wait for two weeks to water his field. He was also obliged to plant tomatoes which according to him demands less water than potato and onion. Zeru also has concerns over the wasteful utilization of water, which according to him is a problem that calls for intervention from local authorities.

Zeru Ayehu

East Gojjam Zone is best known for being one of the biggest producers of teff and other cereal crops. The zone is also known to have a significant share in the central cereal market. At the same time the zone is vulnerable to a wide range of land degradation problems which posed a serious challenge on crop productivity. If not for the recent watershed management works undertaken by the farmers themselves the land degradation problem would have worsened. Hence the recent influx of interest in irrigation is partly driven by the question of survival. However, such efforts have in a way supplemented production through rain-fed agriculture. Some farmers describe their utilization of irrigation as ‘a new chapter’ in their lives.

The significance of small scale agriculture for improving agricultural productivity is obviously high. However, at the same time if such practices are not aided by professionals and local administrations, there is a good chance that they become sources of problems instead of being opportunities.

Solomon Alelign, Gozamin Woreda Administrator told The Ethiopian Herald that while there is a growing trend in the use of small rivers for irrigation in the woreda, there is a concern over the utilization of the water. He said that conflicts of interest between upper and lower riparians have been witnessed in some of the kebeles sharing rivers.

According to Solomon woreda administration is working to address the problem through a programme called ‘modernizing irrigation’ which will be implemented across the woreda. The programme among other things will focus on the economical utilization of water. Accordingly, watering fields through channeling instead of flooding is one way of addressing the water utilization problem. Moreover, other irrigation technologies are being explored according to the Woreda Administrator. Agricultural professionals are also receiving training on ways of modernizing irrigation so that they will closely follow up the farmers and provide professional advice.

Solomon also noted that three irrigation dams which have a capacity of developing up to 700 hectares are being constructed by the woreda.



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