March 7, 2017

The ingredients of integrated landscape management: exploring the benefits of watershed restoration in Aba Gerima

Courtney Smith, Cornell University

Soil erosion had been a source of conflict for the farmers of Aba Gerima. Rains would cause soil to wash downstream, from one farmer’s plot to others, each year and damage crops.

When the treatment of Aba Gerima watershed in Ethiopia began in 2012 with construction of physical and biological conservation mechanisms, such as soil bunds, the community members were not entirely convinced of the benefits of rehabilitation. The community labor that was necessary to construct the conservation mechanisms was difficult to mobilize in that first year. However, within one year of construction of the first soil bunds, soil erosion had decreased drastically, resolving the typical community conflict. According to the Water and Land Resource Center (WLRC) watershed technician, this quick win increased community support and buy-in for the watershed intervention, and mobilization of community labor has no longer been a struggle. In fact, Aba Gerima watershed has now been treated entirely with the planned conservation mechanisms ahead of schedule, allowing for the prioritization of livelihoods development.

March 6-9, 2017 leaders in integrated landscape management from across Africa are gathering in Addis Ababa for the African Landscapes Dialogue, co-organized by the Water and Land Resource Center. Leaders from the Aba Gerima landscape featured in this post will be in attendance. This post is part 2 in a series. Read part 1 here

Environmental and Livelihoods Benefits

In addition to the decreased soil erosion, the community members of Aba Gerima have experienced a number of environmental benefits from the watershed intervention. Despite being within view of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile River, the farmers of Aba Gerima were faced with water scarcity. As agriculture in Ethiopia is predominately rain-fed, this problem was not unique to the farmers of Aba Gerima. However, since the watershed intervention, community members have benefitted from increased water availability. According to community members, the rivers and streams crossing the watershed run for two-three months longer than before. At the start of the project, community members identified a need for water points for household water supply, and so WLRC constructed two water points in Aba Gerima. Farmers have also benefitted from a recharge of the groundwater, allowing many to dig shallow wells that enable them to cultivate high-value crops, such as khat, coffee and fruit trees. Elimination of open grazing has also been beneficial to the cultivation of these high-value crops, as in the past the seedlings would normally have been eaten by cattle.

Within one year of construction of the first soil bunds, soil erosion had decreased drastically, resolving the typical community conflict.

Livelihood improvements were difficult to gauge, as the change in yield of cereal crops has not been measured, and farmers reported mixed results. As the soil was severely degraded, improvements in soil productivity may be more long-term. Increased water availability, however, has enabled farmers to irrigate high-value crops year-round, which has likely improved farmers’ livelihoods. Since 2012, over 67,000 fruit seedlings have been planted in the watershed.

Certain farmers within the watershed have been targeted through a homestead development component of the WLRC project. These homesteads were virtual oases in the watershed, small plots where farmers are growing a variety of crops and using new agricultural technologies and techniques, such as vermicomposting, through collaboration with regional research institutes.  Through homestead development, 375 farmers have accessed technologies such as water points, livestock breeding improvements, fuel saving stoves and planting materials such as forage and fruit tree seedlings. Additionally, sheep and cattle fattening and improved poultry production was introduced, though with limited success. The engagement in these homestead development activities has certain criteria, including technical capacity, a cost-sharing component, and for some interventions, water potential, and is therefore not available to all community members.

Soil Bund with Sesbania Planted on top- Aba Gerima Ethiopia

A soil bund with sesbania planted on top helps to prevent soil erosion. C. Smith/Cornell

Multi-Jurisdictional Management

Watersheds do not typically follow administrative boundaries, as was the case with Aba Gerima. While many watersheds in Ethiopia are managed at the kebele level (the lowest administrative unit, similar to a neighborhood), with different governing bodies in place for each kebele, the WLRC promotes a multi-jurisdictional approach. The watershed committee that was established at the start of the intervention was identified by community members, WLRC staff and government officials as a key factor of success in Aba Gerima watershed. The committee incorporates locally elected community representatives from the three kebele that Aba Gerima watershed spans and brings them together twice per month. The committee works in collaboration with the kebele administrations to enforce locally established bylaws, which serve to protect the watershed. It is the watershed committee, the only body that deals solely with watershed management activities, that allows for holistic, community-based management of the watershed.

Looking to the Future

Aba Gerima is certainly a positive example of what can be done when multiple stakeholders come together to restore a landscape. It is also serves as a learning landscape within Ethiopia, and hosts visits by interested actors throughout the country. The community members were hopeful for the future as well, and expect to see more improvements in their environment and livelihoods as time goes on.

This post is part 2 in a series on the Aba Gerima landscape. Read part 1 here. 

Featured image by Courtney Smith/Cornell. 

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