Ethiopia has long struggled with food insecurity. With generous support from USAID, Mercy Corps has just completed the first year of a three-year effort to improve food security in some of Ethiopia’s most vulnerable regions.
Recently I made a trip to Jijiga, in the east of Ethiopia, to see how Mercy Corps is working with community members and the local government to address the causes — rather than just the effects — of hunger.
Our consultations with community members revealed that environmental factors can have a major impact on people’s access to food. Ironically, we learned that rains can be a hindrance as much as a help.
I visited a shallow valley outside Jijiga, where the fertile farmland in the bottom of the valley is threatened every time there is a heavy rain. Seasonal rains have carved ferocious gullies, up to a kilometer in length, into the surrounding hillside. The rain runoff spills into these gullies rather than soaking into the hillsides.
It then carries on into the valley below at great speed, taking with it pebbles and other detritus from the hills. By the time the gullies reach the bottom of the valley, the force of the water often wipes out the crops planted there and deposits detritus in their place. This situation is disastrous not only for the farmers in the valley but also for the herders in the hills above. The swift removal of the water from the hillsides prevents plant growth, making it difficult for them to graze their animals.
Mercy Corps turned to a technique that has been applied in Ethiopia’s central highlands. Using labor from the local community — including nearly 100 women — we financed the construction of a series of small dams and retention walls to break up gullies and keep more water in the hills. The retention walls are simple stone terraces, about a foot high, built in a wide U-shape (like a smile) and backed with native aloe plants to anchor them into place. These are positioned in numerous spots along the hill side. Once in place, they prevent runoff from rushing down the slope. Instead, they hold moisture back on a patch of hillside, where it can soak into the ground and foster the growth of plants for grazing.
We complemented these terrace walls with small dam structures that are placed in the path of the gullies. These dams, made of local rocks and standing 2-3 feet tall, are simple structures but do a great deal to break up and slow down the flow of water as it proceeds down the hill. By the time the water reaches the valley floor, the dams have slowed it down enough that it gently nourishes the crops rather than washing them away.
And so with this simple intervention, life improves for both farmers and herders, and both groups can reduce their reliance on food aid or other external support.