The rise and fall of Onion Land?

Irrigation has proved profitable in Ethiopia, but unsustainable use could burst the bubble.

Irrigation has proved profitable in Ethiopia, but unsustainable use could burst the bubble.

Photo: Purple Onion by Tom Woodward
Photo: Purple Onion by Tom Woodward

The onion business in Ethiopia’s Fogera district is booming. Thanks to the introduction of motorized pumps for irrigation, food production has increased, and farmers are cashing in. But the unregulated growth of these privately owned pumps is threatening to burst the economic bubble. A new research report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said more cooperation between water users can help sustain the boom and prevent conflict over limited water supplies.

Stemming from the dissatisfaction of large-scale, public irrigation systems, private motorized pumps began to emerge in South Asia in the 1950s. The technology spread as pumps became cheaper. By the mid-2000s, the total amount of land under private irrigation surpassed the area using public systems in India.

The popularity of motorized pumps has now moved to Africa, where many countries have prioritized irrigation development as a means to reduce poverty and promote economic growth. Private pump irrigation is attractive for many developing countries, partly because it is cheaper than public irrigation schemes.

Better supply chains, maintenance services and access to credit have enabled more farmers to purchase or rent their own motorized pumps. Now they can pump as much water as they want, whenever they want it – until the water stops flowing. And that is exactly what is happening now in Fogera, Ethiopia.


In the land of onions

[pullquote type=”pullquote2″ content=”We have equally worked together to bring the water, and we all have to use it equally” quote_icon=”yes” align=”right” textcolor=”#378a33″]We have equally worked together to bring the water, and we all have to use it equally[/pullquote]
In this district in Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River Basin, 89% of the population is rural and dependent on agriculture. The area has experienced rapid irrigation growth since the turn of the century, and now almost half of cultivated land is irrigated with traditional, community-managed irrigation systems and private motorized pumps. Irrigation has enabled the farmers to grow food in the dry season, diversify crop production and reduce the risks associated with unpredictable rainfall.

Cooperation and collective action are important aspects of traditional, community-managed irrigation in Fogera. Water users continuously engage with one another to build small dams each year; they plan irrigation schedules and adjust to changing circumstances, such as river flow. ‘Water judges’ oversee the system and mediate conflict. Farmers who do not participate in group activities must pay a fine to benefit from the irrigation system.

A farmer in Alem Ber said, “We have equally worked together to bring the water, and we all have to use it equally.”

Motorized pumps were recently introduced to the area, and their popularity amongst Fogera farmers has increased significantly within the last three years. Farmers simply set up their pumps alongside rivers and use hoses to irrigate nearby plots. The boost in production has allowed farmers to sell excess grains and vegetables, including onions, tomatoes and emmer wheat (farro). Onions have proved highly profitable for the district, which has become a center of onion seeds for the greater Amhara region.

With just a quarter of a hectare of onion cultivation, farmers can earn up to USD 4,000. “Onions have changed the farmer these days,” said one community member from Kokit.

While traditional irrigation systems are considered social and cooperative, water pumps are associated with individual irrigation, without community or institutional arrangements to manage shared water sources.

Farmers in the district are beginning to notice the effects of unregulated motorized pump growth – water shortages, increased competition and crop failure. In one community, farmers can no longer grow high-value onions due to reduced water availability. Many of them blame the increase in upstream farmers using motorized pumps.

One farmer told the researchers, “[The upstream farmers] started using motor pumps after us. But, now, the number of motor pump users has increased there and the water has decreased here. Therefore, we stopped cultivating onions due to fear of crop failure.”

Some of the farmers have switched to growing emmer wheat, but they said, “If water is available, cultivating onions is more beneficial.”


Looking ahead

For IWMI researcher Mengistu Dessalegn, one of the authors of the report, solutions will come from the ground up. “Local governments can play a prominent role in encouraging the creation or adaptation of institutional solutions to share water resources sustainably and equitably while also maximizing productivity. But we caution that imposing institutional solutions is not viable.”

Instead, the researchers believe motorized pump irrigation can help pull millions of smallholder farmers out of poverty in Ethiopia, and across sub-Sahara Africa – if its development is approached as a social, cooperative undertaking. To do this, more research is needed to understand the quantity, quality, and seasonal variations of water resources in the region.

They also recommend more case studies of areas with significant motorized pump use to compare recurring issues and how they are being addressed. The formation of local water-user organizations, including farmers with motorized pumps, will help to identifying problems and developing possible solutions.

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Mengistu Dessalegn is a Social Science Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) – East Africa and Nile Basin.

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Read the research report:

Dessalegn, Mengistu; Merrey, D. J. 2014. Is ‘Social Cooperation’ for traditional irrigation, while ‘Technology’ is for motor pump irrigation? Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI) 37p. (IWMI Research Report 161) [DOI]

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This work has been undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). IWMI is a member of the CGIAR Consortium and leads this program.

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