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Stitching land back together in drought-hit Ethiopia

Ethiopia, August 1, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The deep rift in Lacole, caused by unpredictable rains and subsequent erosion. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Zainab Hassan. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

The land in Lacole, part of the Oromo Region in southeast Ethiopia, looks like it’s literally been torn apart.

The effects of unpredictable rains and erosion — made worse by the major drought the region has been struggling with this year — have formed a deep rift that cuts across a huge swathe of the valley. And until recently it had been getting bigger every month: long periods without rain caused land to dry out and crumble, only to be swept away when brief but intense rains came and fast-running water hit the area on its way from the surrounding hillsides.

I travelled to Lacole this weekend, at the beginning of a trip that will take me to some of the parts of the Horn of Africa hardest hit by the current crisis. What I saw was a clear example of how Mercy Corps is making a real difference for a community that has been living at the mercy of the elements.

The rift’s advance had kept local people without reliable water sources and forced them to leave the land uncultivated. The condition of the land was so unstable that they couldn’t use it for grazing their livestock, or even plant crops for fear young plants would either die in extended dry periods or be swept away when rain water rushed in unchecked, taking any remaining good soil with it.

To help, Mercy Corps has ramped up a major response helping the community find ways to channel, store and use what rain does fall, make the most of the land and stop the growing rift in its tracks.

As part of this work, I saw hundreds of pits, trenches and banks of soil that have been dug across the area to catch and make the most of the water across the dry months. More than 360 cubic metres of small stone dams have been built at strategic points to keep water where it should be when it finally arrives, rather than destroying crops and causing havoc. The dams and soil banks have been reinforced by planting grasses and crops around them that not only keep soil from being washed away and store much-needed moisture after the water recedes, but can also be used to feed livestock and harvest for sale.

Even better, the wages for getting all this work done have gone straight to the community who’ll benefit from the work. Local people did all the work themselves and — as well as getting direct benefit from the changes in the long term — Mercy Corps gave them a fair wage for all the work they put in so they can use the cash to buy the things they need in the short term.

Zainab Hassan, a very vocal 60-year-old grandmother and one of the women leading her community’s involvement in the project told me:

“Before we were very worried all the time. We had all kinds of problems but now they have been fixed. The water won’t invade our farmland anymore. Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to buy the things we needed. Now the money we have earned by working on the land here has really helped: we have been able to buy food for our family to eat, I could buy these new clothes, and even save a little.”

The preparation for this work began well before the rains failed and caused the current crisis — the local community and Mercy Corps knew the risks were real and started work almost a year ago. As a result, and thanks to the enthusiasm of the community involved, the work is now nearly complete. Finally, the community face the future much better prepared for both drought and the rushing rain water that can follow, and the rift has stopped growing.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Zainab and the rest of her community have stopped calling us Mercy Corps. To them, we’re simply ‘the people who stitched our land back together.'