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Despite Huge Potential Ethiopia is Still Under-Irrigated. Why?

The agriculture sector in Ethiopia is dominated by small holder farms that depend on rain. However, low and erratic rainfall has resulted in limited agricultural productivity and food security. To reverse this state of affairs, the government adopted the development of irrigation farms as a key strategy. But not much change has been observed in expanding irrigation. As of now, only 2.6 million hectares of land have been irrigated so far, out of 15 million hectares cultivated by small scale farmers. The use of irrigation in medium and large scale farming is also insignificant. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke to commercial and small scale farmers as well as government officials, to shed light on the issue

The appointment of Abiy Ahmed (PhD) as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia brought renewed hope to the struggling agriculture sector. During a meeting with private sector stakeholders, the Premier promised to improve the backbone of the Ethiopian economy, saying, “We will deploy a totally new approach to improve agricultural productivity. The agriculture sector has been concentrating on the wrong side, by focusing only on highland farming.”
Of course, the agricultural sector in Ethiopia does not only largely depend on small-scale farms located mostly in highland areas, but is also dependent on rain. Small scale farmers cultivate close to 15 million hectares, which is just 20Pct of the 74.8 million hectares of arable land in the country.

It is not only small holder farmers that are dependent on rain. Rather, many medium and large scale farmers, who account for less than five percent of the country’s agricultural output of around 290 million quintals annually, are also reliant on rainfall.

Since climate change is reinventing the rules of nature by reducing the amount of rainfall, rain fed agriculture can no longer feed the growing population, leading to increased dependency on imported grains. However, Ethiopia remains unwilling to change its farming system by using irrigation on a massive scale.

In Ethiopia, irrigation systems can be classified into traditional and modern, based on the nature of irrigation materials used and the management system adopted. In the first category, are many small scale farmers who use traditional schemes such as diversion weirs made from local material. However, according to data obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MoANR), only 2.6 million hectares of land cultivated by small holder farmers is irrigated, which is less than 20Pct of the total land cultivated by small scale farmers.

Bulcha Billo, 30 and a father of one, is a farmer in Dugda woreda in Eastern Shewa zone, in the state of Oromia. He used to depend on rain to cultivate tomatoes once a year on one hectare of land. However, since the El Niño-driven drought hit some parts of the country hard three years ago, Bulcha could no longer cultivate his crop.

He had to find a way to feed his family, so he decided to make use of Lake Dambal, which is located just one kilometer from his farm. “I collected money from relatives and bought a pumping generator for ETB13,000, about two and half a year ago. Then I recovered the farm with irrigation.”

In addition to small scale farmers like Bulcha who use traditional irrigation system, there are a few medium and large commercial farms that utilize modern irrigation schemes. Ethio-Agri CEFT, a private company involved in the agricultural sector, is among them.

Generating almost USD15 million from agricultural exports every year, Ethio-Agri CEFT cultivates coffee on 500 hectares in the state of Amhara, where it has built its own irrigation infrastructure. “The average coffee productivity from the irrigated farm is 1.4 tons a hectare, while the national average is 0.7 tons,” explained Esayas Kebede, general manager of Ethio-Agri CEFT, which has spent close to ETB50 million to build small dams that are able to irrigate 200 hectares of land.

In addition to the existing plots, the company has another 200 hectares of irrigated land ready for coffee cultivation. Ethio-Agri CEFT also uses sprinklers to irrigate its remaining farm plots by capturing rain water in 2,000 boreholes every summer, which it uses for tea and coffee farms.

On top of utilizing its own irrigation infrastructures, Ethio-Agri CEFT makes use of government owned irrigation facilities, for which it pays less than ETB100 a month to irrigate a hectare of land. “The payment is very small. But even that is not justified, considering its function. In principle, the government should build the main, secondary and tertiary canals in order to transport water from the dam to farmland. But the government has only built the main canal. So we are forced to build the secondary and tertiary canals on our own,” said Esayas.

The general manager also revealed the cost of the various types of irrigation technologies used by his company. “Watering a hectare of land using drill irrigation costs USD3,600 to USD4,000 while centre-pivot irrigation costs USD2,400 to USD2,600 per hectare. Employing micro sprinklers to water a hectare of land requires USD1,800 to USD2,000 whereas digging 150 meters to find underground water, which can cultivate 30-50 hectare takes three million birr.”

The cost of irrigation technologies are a heavy burden to small scale farmers like Bulcha. “There are few farmers using irrigation in my area. The main reason is they lack the money to buy water pump generators. But the government recently started to facilitate loan schemes for farmers, to cover some part of the cost on credit,” he explained.

“Almost all small scale irrigation is dependent on donor funds,” said Muse Alemayehu, Irrigation Engineer at The Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources (MoANR), which is responsible for small scale irrigation. The Ministry is currently expecting USD250 million from the World Bank and USD100 million from the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The two long time funders are expected to avail the money to improve small scale irrigation over the next seven years.

Access to finance is the critical bottleneck limiting medium and large scale irrigation, according to government officials. Many irrigation dam projects started by the government have lagged behind their delivery schedules. “Up until four years ago, the critical problem was a lack of construction capacity,” Bizuneh Tolcha, director of Public Relations and Communication Directorate at the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE), explained. “But when solutions to that problem started to emerge, lack of financing became a major hurdle. Irrigation projects need a lot of money, but the government doesn’t have a sufficient budget.”

MoWIE started five irrigation dams and related projects between 2005 and 2010. One of these long overdue projects is the Tendaho irrigation dam, which was completed in 2017 but is non-functional. It has a capacity to hold 1.8 billion cubic meters of water and irrigate 60,000 hectares, intended to irrigate government sugar cane farms. The dam was expected to be finalized in three years, for ETB870 million. However, it took eight years, and five times the initial cost, reaching ETB5.6 billion.

The Ziway-Meki, Kesem and Koga irrigation dams as well as Ada’aBecho Pump Irrigation Development are the remaining projects. Combined, they cost ETB13.8 billion, can hold 2,677.3 billion cubic meters of water and benefit 73,900 farmers. But less than half of those farmers are currently benefiting.

The Ribb irrigation dam, which has been under construction since 2007, will be finalized this year, according to Bizuneh. The dam, which is expected to irrigate 20,000 hectare of land and supply drinking water for Gonder town in the state of Amhara, is behind schedule, with current costs reaching ETB4.6 billion, ETB3.4 billion higher than initial estimates.

Even worse, six more projects started between 2008 and 2013 are still under construction, including Megech Irrigation Dam, Gidibo and Ribb Irrigation Land Development, and Megech Serba Pump Irrigation project. These projects are expected to store 5,745 cubic meters of water, cultivate 165,040 hectare of land, and benefit 132,000 farmers. The combined project cost is an estimated ETB26.5 billion.

The many irrigation projects which have failed to live up to their potential are a disappointment for Ethiopia, a country endowed with abundant water resources, with 12 major river/drainage basins, about 111billion cubic meters run off, and eleven major lakes comprising a total area of 750, 000 hectare. Although modern irrigation was started in the Awash River basin in the 1950s for the production of commercial crops such as sugar cane and cotton, the contribution of irrigation to the national economy as compared to its potential is negligible.

Even though Ethiopia has policies and strategies that support irrigation development, especially small scale irrigation, the country still produces more than 90Pct of its agricultural output with green water in rain-fed agriculture.
“Expanding irrigation is a must for Ethiopia,” said Bizuneh, citing China as a success story. As the most populous country in the world, China was always challenged by food insecurity. Nonetheless, due to the expansion of irrigation, the country was able to escape the problem even though it faced a shortage of water resources.

Over the last 50 years, the total irrigated land of China grew five fold to 16 million hectares, while grain production showed a similar increase to 571.2 billion kilogrammes. Yet, Bizuneh stressed that Ethiopia tends to adopt a business as usual approach, which is the biggest reason for the underdevelopment of irrigation in the country.

“Irrigation can increase production by as much as three times,” said Muse. “The quality and productivity each farming season also improves.”

Reports reveal that the direct benefit of irrigation especially for small holder farmers is better income generation. For instance, according to a report prepared by UKAID in 2016 entitled ‘Small-scale irrigation in the Ethiopian Highlands’, irrigating households in Ethiopia reported a 20Pct increase in annual income on average since adopting irrigation while a 300Pct income increase was reported by a few farmers due to cultivation of higher value crops, intensified production and reduced losses. The additional income helped the farmers meet their day-to-day expenses.

Bulcha’s experiences are proof of this. “My tomato production increased since I started using irrigation. I now harvest three times a year. In the past, when I replied on rain, I harvested only once a year,” he explained.
Since he started using irrigation, his yearly tomato production doubled to 1,230 kilograms per hectare.

In a study entitled ‘Irrigation Impacts on Income Inequality and Poverty Alleviation’ Madhusudan Bhattarai, a postdoctoral scientist at the International Water Management Institute argued that the effects of irrigation on food production and prices, employment opportunities and rural non-farm markets are probably more important than direct benefits to farmers. Poverty reduction at scale due to irrigation has taken place in most Asian countries where irrigation areas have become ‘nuclei of growth’ and attracted investment.

As a result, experts stress that expanding irrigation is crucial for Ethiopia because the agricultural sector is already failing to sustain the livelihoods of millions who rely on food aid. On top of this, increasing populations, declining land holdings, widespread land degradation and the expectation of increased climate change in the future calls for the development of irrigation practices. Yet almost all farmers face serious roadblocks.

One constraint is the unavailability of water. “Rivers cannot be the primary option. If you divert a river here and there for irrigation, it will dry up at some point. The lasting solution is exploiting underground water,” Esayas explained.
Compounding this issue is water wastage, poor electric infrastructure and a lack of information. According to Muse, only 30Pct of irrigated water resources properly reaches crops, while the rest is wasted.

The governmental structure itself is a roadblock to effective usage of irrigation. The MoANR is responsible for small scale irrigation while the MoWIE handles medium and large scale irrigation.

Esayas underlined that it is high time to detach from rain dependency and develop irrigation as a necessity. “Ethiopia must understand agriculture is impossible without water, whether it is in highland or lowland areas.” EBR

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