Despite being a country with significant ground and surface water, Ethiopia’s farmers depend heavily on rainwater. This makes them extremely vulnerable to frequent dry spells and the uneven distribution of rains. The recent severe drought in the Horn of Africa and the late and erratic rains in 2012 have further adversely affected crop production leaving the country struggling to feed its population.

Water systems in Ethiopia
Photo credit: Soumya Balasubramanya

As so often, poor and marginalized rural communities are usually the ones that are hit the hardest by such events. Improving the access of farmers to water for production and decreasing their dependence on rainwater is an important step to enhance the livelihoods of these rural communities. Oxfam America has started a program to address this. It aims to  provide financial support to local grassroots organizations to  install irrigation devices, help farmers set up water user associations, provide technical expertise on how to cultivate crops ,manage and use water  efficiently and sustainably and also support  farmers to purchase inputs like seeds, fertilizer and equipment.

Before Oxfam started its intervention in 2009, farmers in the project areas were only able to grow one rainy season crop per year, mostly maize or tef. But with the help of the program they are now additionally able to irrigate horticultural crops year round.

Many similar projects to help poor farmers have been undertaken by NGOs in recent years, but a number of socioeconomic and institutional factors could affect the success of such interventions. So Oxfam invited the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to examine the systems for communal water management that had been put in place to see if the model might be sustainable and to make recommendations for improving future similar investments.


Challenges undermining the sustainability of water systems

The researchers conducted interviews with key government officials, representatives of non-governmental organizations and water user associations and identified four primary challenges that could undermine the sustainability of the water systems. The results were presented to Oxfam in October 2012.

“One challenge that we identified was groundwater extraction”, says IWMI researcher Soumya Balasubramanya. “Farmers were usually relying on a single pump and well for obtaining irrigation water. A breakdown during the peak irrigation period could cause substantial crop losses. We found that water user associations didn’t have adequate resources or strategies to obtain timely service. Repairs are often inadequate and major repairs often require days or weeks depending on the availability of spare parts in local towns.”

The researchers also identified an increasing pressure on regional water resources. Private investors and government are implementing new irrigation projects in many areas which are competing for water with smallholder famers. A further challenge was that farmers lack cold storage for fresh produce. This makes them largely dependent on the mercy of middlemen for fast market access, who often offer low prices that may not even cover the production costs.  Increasing prices for farm inputs also undermined farm incomes, as most farmers have no access to affordable credit to buy inputs at the start of each season.


Investments and cooperatives

HARO IWMI Sustainability Evaluation 2012
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Based on their findings, the IWMI researchers developed a set of recommendations for Oxfam and its partners to address these challenges. Investment in stand -by water pumping systems that are shared between various water user associations might make water extraction and delivery more reliable. Developing cold storage facilities would also bring benefits, allowing famers greater flexibility in choosing when it is most profitable to take produce to market. The researchers also suggested advocating for legislation that would prevent brokers and middlemen from manipulating markets.

“Oxfam might also wish to conduct research into business models for establishing new input markets and support the development of more accessible credit markets”, says Balasubramanya. “This should help to make production loans available for smallholder households. Supporting the formation of cooperatives between partner NGOs and famers should also be key. For instance, the cooperatives could purchase inputs in large amounts and make them available to farmers at affordable prices.”

“We have   already started to implement some of the recommendations”, says Oxfam water program coordinator Tibebu Koji. “But we want to continue our collaboration with IWMI further to reach the root causes of the identified problems. Irrigation is a business that generates profit and it also increases the income at household and group level. With the help of research we would like to address the root causes in the areas of institutions and irrigation facility management.”


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About the author:

Anna Deinhard is a Communications Fellow at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). She has an MSc in Environmental Sciences with a specialization in water and development.