European climate project breathes new life into Ethiopian communities

Wali water microshedThe drive along a dirt road to the small rural community in Ambo Woreda, a district in Central Ethiopia about 150 km west of Addis Ababa, was uneventful. Except for a brief interruption by donkeys and a herd of cattle that blocked the car for a short while - an apt illustration that agriculture is central to life in this impoverished part of the world.

And just by looking out of the car window one can quickly guess why climate change has been, and still is, a major threat to the 150 inhabitants of this settlement and many, many others in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

What looks like a lush, green, hilly terrain is a massively cultivated area with farmland everywhere the eye can see.  Once covered in forest, it now resembles a chessboard. Small squares of different shades of green represent different plots of land.  Tiny but precious, a plot of land is an essential source of life.  Agriculture means survival for 85 percent of the population of Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world.

“Everybody here wants and needs a plot of land,” says Laura Giappichelli, Programme Manager of the Global Climate Change Alliance+ (GCCA+), the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DEVCO) who visited the GCCA Ethiopia National Programme as part of her mission. “Without farming, people here have no means of living.”

But the pressures of a rapidly growing population, the high variability of rainfall patterns, and intense temperatures have put massive strain on the local environment.

Launched in 2012, the GCCA–Ethiopia project pilots climate-smart agriculture in 34 Woredas (districts), representing different agro-ecological and socio-economic zones. The project contributes to adaptation, mitigation and livelihood improvements. It has five components: promoting sustainable participatory forest management (PFM), climate-smart crop production, climate-smart livestock development, management, and ample water supply.

These techniques have helped reverse environmental degradation in areas where the project is operational, linked to the over-exploitation of land, the drying up of water points, deforestation, and soil erosion. This vast degradation led to an overall deterioration of livelihoods in an already poor part of the world.

Since its inception in 2012, the €8.8 million-worth project, which is due to run until early 2016, achieved impressive results. Its success is widely attributed to an extraordinary involvement at the local level. Progress is well documented in reports produced by GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammebnarbeit), a German enterprise, which is implementing the project.

“It is fantastic to see how nature re-generates degraded areas, if given the chance in soil and water conservation,” said Georg Deichert, Senior Advisor at the Sustainable Land Management Program with GIZ.

“I hope we can carry over this experience of ‘working with nature’ to agriculture practices as well. With healthy soils farmers will be very well equipped for many climate change impacts.” 

But it is not only EU and other donors who cite the project’s success. Local government and farmers all say the project, based on collaboration and joint effort, has more than exceeded expectations.

Sitting in a tiny hut, covered by white cotton sheets to protect from the sun, Dhangia Kawesa, the elderly community leader says his life and community life have been transformed.

“Our main problem was lack of food,” he said. “Now, thanks to some changes we have made, we have not only enough food for ourselves and to sell on the market, but we can also send our kids to school.”

“It is a great success. We would want this to be replicated in other places,” he said.

The project has involved all parties at the local level - from regional and district officials through to villagers working in the field.

“This is a project that really engages farmers to reverse damage to the local environment caused by their day-to-day activities,” says Abu Yadetta from the Rural Development and Food Security Section at the EU Delegation in Ethiopia. Changing old farming methods and attitudes is a big part of the project’s mission and also its greatest challenge

On one of the project’s site, for instance, farmers traditionally raked up and burned residues at the end of the dry season. But these residues can improve water filtration, protecting the soil from erosion during heavy rainfall. By following the recommendations of conservation agriculture, farmers increased their crop yields, improved the fertility of their soil, reduced production costs, and contributed towards zero/controlled grazing. These methods also help confront the threat of climate change and to regenerate the environments in which they live.

 “It is completely incredible. Farmers can visualise the change that is taking place. They tell you that after two years they are seeing the vegetation regenerating,” Mr Yadetta says.

District authorities have appointed a dedicated official to monitor and help implement the project. Farmers now have access to the direct support and advice of three trained experts, who work on agriculture, livestock and water management issues.

The district officials also participate eagerly in the project.

“I am extremely impressed by the level of engagement of the government in this project,” says Ms Giappichelli who visited 3 of the 34 project sites. “I met people who are very concerned and determined to address the problems of the farmers and the everyday impact that climate change has on their lives,” she said. “It is not just another project where someone comes in, does the job, and leaves. The ownership is clearly deeply rooted at the local level,” she added.

Ethiopia is already suffering from the effects of climate change, which manifest themselves for example through changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Changes to agro-ecological patterns are accelerated by heavy human pressure on natural resources. If not addressed, these conditions will seriously hamper the country’s economic growth. Key to economic development, Ethiopia’s agricultural sector is highly sensitive to climate change.

That’s why programmes, such as the GCCA Ethiopia whose list of implementation progress is very lengthy, are so critical.