February 21, 2017

For all of us – the Yewol Mountains of Ethiopia

Joanna Kane-Potaka, ICRISAT

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. There was little water management in the past and so water is often scarce. When the long rains do arrive, the water rushes down the mountains leaving little water or top soil behind.

It is apt that this work is truly community driven given that the mountains are called Yewol, which means ‘for all of us’.


Dr. Tilahun Amede of ICRISAT, the subject of this post, will be presenting this work as part of the African Landscapes Dialogue in Addis Ababa, March 6-9, 2017. The post originally appeared on the Water, Land and Ecosystems website.

Help had not come to the Yewol watershed until one passionate scientist kept visiting the area in his own time and building partnerships. “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).

“Once we were able to access funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystem, all our efforts could then be focused first on saving the soil. The farmers also had recognized the soil loss as their biggest problem and wanted to find solutions,” said Dr Amede.

The soil loss was estimated to be about 150 tonnes per hectare.

“But our ‘approach’ was just as critical as the technical solutions. Any efforts had to be both community driven and led by the local authorities and specialists. It was essential that ICRISAT take a catalyst role and provide any technical back up needed.”

It’s a tough life in the Yewol mountains. J.Kane-Potaka/ICRISAT.

Saving the soils

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.

Revitalizing the soils

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.

Capturing the water

Once the solutions were in place to save and revitalize the soils, the farmers’ next biggest need was reliable access to water. The stone terraces helped capture the rainwater, but more was needed, especially in dry season.

Tapping the groundwater

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.

Every morning a swarm of people is out on the roads, walking, of course, with their water containers to collect their water needs for the day at a communal water pump or down by the river. J.Kane-Potaka/ICRISAT.

Read more

Continue reading on the Water, Land and Ecosystems website.

Featured image by Joanna Kane-Potaka/ICRISAT.

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