Fighting Drought by Healing the Soil

Written by: Abera Shagirdi, FH Ethiopia Program Director for Sasiga, and Eryn Austin-Bergen, FH Canada

“Agriculture is the backbone of our country. The livelihoods of the communities rely upon agriculture. Drought is one of the major problems in the agriculture economy. When drought happens, almost all agriculture productivity decreases and the people starve─income is reduced and the domestic animals are subjected to drought with severe loss.” - Abera Shagirdi, Food for the Hungry (FH) Ethiopia Program Director

The Horn of Africa, home to Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan, is experiencing a severe food crisis. Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are in their fourth season of drought, the worst the region has seen in over 40 years. With more than 80 per cent of the population relying on subsistence farming, this is a life-threatening situation. To compound the strain caused by the drought, the conflict in Ukraine is choking imports and causing food shortages - nearly one-third of East Africa’s cereal supply comes from Russia and Ukraine. In addition, fertilizer supplies from Europe have been disrupted. Climate change-induced drought and increased temperatures are devastating not only agriculture, but grasslands and water resources as well, meaning tens of millions of livestock animals have perished.

The central Oromiya region of Ethiopia has been experiencing a severe drought that is lasting years, forcing people and their livelihoods to struggle for shared water sources. 

What is the answer to situations like this? Is drought inevitable as the planet continues to warm? Are subsistence farmers in vulnerable regions destined to starve?

Food for the Hungry (FH) has partnered with rural, farming communities in Ethiopia for decades, and we’re monitoring the situation closely. I’ve been surprised that our partner communities appear largely untouched by the growing state of climate emergency in the region. So, I called the FH Ethiopia Program Director for the Sasiga region to ask how they’re doing it. I wanted to know how their farmers are combatting drought, desertification, water scarcity, and other impacts of climate change.

He explained that, first of all, the Sasiga region in the south-east of the country has not been as hard-hit as the pictures we’re seeing in the news. However, because of climate change, they’re seeing and dealing with aspects of drought on a regular basis.

Their primary defense against drought is implementing sustainable agriculture practices. By increasing the biomass of the soil, planting more trees, fencing off land to protect it from overgrazing, growing animal fodder, diverting rain water into catchment areas, using a mix of drought resistant crops and short-growth crops,—and a lot of other techniques!—farmers are increasing water retention in the soil and creating a fertile environment resilient to periods of reduced rain and increased temperatures.

Farmers in Sasiga are also building their resilience by becoming independent of external supports like commercial fertilizers, chemical pesticides, and government issued seeds. By developing their own compost, making organic fertilizers and pesticides, and collecting and preserving their own seeds, these farmers have been largely unaffected by the increased prices and scarcity of food, fertilizers, and seeds triggered by the conflict in Ukraine and the growing drought.


Q: Hi Abera, thank you for meeting with me. We’re watching the news about the drought in Ethiopia and wondering what’s going on with the farmers in Sasiga? Are they okay?

A: The drought you’re seeing [in the news] is not so much affecting Sasiga, however, we do see drought in various aspects all the time now as a result of climate change. To reduce this, we have Disaster Risk Management (DRM).

Q: I’ve heard that term a lot, but to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. Can you give us an example?

A: In DRM, community leaders are selected and trained on the issues of drought, especially how to forecast if the problem is going to happen and how to mitigate it. So we focus on early warning systems. For example, during the dry season we have wildfires, so the leaders warn farmers to protect their farms by plowing firebreaks around their land, and such. When leaders see that the community is at risk of floods, they organize the families to dig trenches to divert the floodwater so it doesn’t affect crops or residences. Things like that.

Farms in the Amhara region have been hit with erratic rainfall in recent years - either too little or too much at the now unpredictable times. Irrigation trenches, built with the help of FH, is helping to manage the flow and supply of water.

Q: Thank you! That’s very helpful. You mentioned that you’re seeing drought-like effects on the land all the time, now. How do you help your farmers mitigate against those impacts?

A: With the drought cases, mostly we are encouraging our farmers to work on sustainable agriculture. So the farmers are advised to use locally available materials to work on sustainable agriculture so that conservation of moisture and the development of nutrients will occur. By working on agroforestry, conservation of moisture, crop rotation, and so on, all this increases the biomass, the organic matter, in the soil. This makes water infiltration and percolation very high. So, even if erratic rain comes to the area, the soil will be able to hold it so erosion will be reduced.

Q: What can farmers do when there is a severe lack of rainfall, like we’re seeing in the Horn of Africa over the past four years?

A: Our objective is to conserve moisture in the soil by mulching, by conservation agriculture, by using minimum tillage, etc. All this supports the conservation of moisture. Avoiding plants that need a lot of water or lead to evaporation allows more of the water under the soil to be conserved.

With this conserved moisture you may grow some types of crops, the early maturing crops, like vegetables. People may not starve if you just grow some crops to feed the people, and at the same time, forage crops for feeding the animals.

Swampy areas are those having water throughout the year so they can be farmed during the dry season. We use drought resistant crop varieties, for example, root crops like cassava and taro and yam in drought areas. So when the dry season comes or goes for a longer duration, the farmers are advised to work on these varieties. Farmers are also encouraged to plant early maturing crops. For example, some crops, like sorghum and maize, stay a long time, around six months. But if they work on vegetable crops, which is really very short time, about three months, then those early maturing crops can feed the family. The land that is irrigable is used to work on vegetable production.
 At the same time, we use water harvesting systems, watershed management, and plant in micro basins. We also have irrigation. 

In drought mitigation strategies we can also use deep well water. After we trained farmers on vegetable production, those who did not have irrigable lands started preparing their own hand-dug wells to water their vegetable crops. The vegetables started feeding them, their children became very healthy, and they developed income as a result of the sale of these vegetables in the local market. So that’s very nice, actually.

Q: That’s a lot of tools in their toolbox to fight drought! How do these practices differ from what farmers were doing before FH started working with them?

A: The practices we had been using before—conventional agriculture—does not go along with these drought mitigation strategies. External input is high in conventional agriculture. With sustainable agriculture, we are usually using locally available materials—farmyard manure, residual plants, etc.

Q: What are some benefits the farmers have seen switching from conventional agriculture to sustainable agriculture?

A: In addition to improving the land and the production, they are becoming independent. For example, this year commercial fertilizers became very much expensive because of the Russia / Ukraine war. Almost all the local industrial materials became very expensive.

But for many years, we have been teaching and telling our farmers not to use commercial fertilizers because it kills the microorganisms. We ask them the question, have you been working throughout your life on agriculture? Yes. In the earlier times, when you were ploughing the land, have you ever seen some microorganisms like earthworms going here and there in the soil surface? Yes. How about nowadays? Are there microorganisms and other insects in the soil surfaces? No. What killed it? Overuse of commercial fertilizers. And also the chemicals they used to eradicate weeds. But, gradually, farmers came to use the principles of our training so that most of them are with no problems today; even though the commercial fertilizers are very expensive, still they are working on agriculture.

They are also now using pure seeds, not hybrid seeds, because they have collected and stored the pure seeds in their own stock. This year, the government is not able to provide the chemical fertilizers or seeds because they have some scarcities. But in our project area, farmers are out of this problem.

Q: That’s amazing! Especially when you think how much farmers in industrialized and developed countries are struggling because of the shortages and price inflation. But what about the impacts of natural events, like this drought, and the broader, ongoing issue of climate change? Are there additional ways your communities are combatting climate change that we could implement here in Canada?

A: When we are planting trees, we are fighting also the problem of climate change. The carbon emission will be reduced, the production of oxygen will be increased. When we use agroforestry the farmland will become fertile and productive.

If you saw the Sasiga Mid-Highlands when we first came there, you would know that the land had been affected by the overuse of chemical fertilizers and the soil had become very acidic and infested with termites. The land had been compacted and become really unproductive. So we started working on environmental protection, including planting trees.

We trained farmers to prepare their own plant nurseries, sow seeds, manage the seedlings for four or five months, and then transplant them onto their own lands. When they transplant, they fence the area to keep the livestock out. We provided the seeds to the farmers in the beginning. Later, we advised them to collect the local tree varieties because these indigenous trees are very beneficial—they are adaptable to this climate, they are mutually beneficial to the land, they grow very simply, etc.

Agro-forestry principles and practices are being accepted and implemented in Sasiga Mid-Highlands, leading to soil and water conversation.

At the same time, we work on area closure. The land that is very bare without any vegetation, if it is protected and no humans or animals are allowed in the fenced area, then after a year, those lands will start producing varieties of trees that grew here 20 to 30 years ago. That’s what we call biological cessation. We don’t even know the types of trees that are coming out of the soil! So we go to the older farmers and ask the names of the trees.

We train farmers on land use management—which land is for forestation, crop production, fruit tree orchards, vegetable crops, grazing or preparing silage or hay—we told the farmers to group the land they had into these different plots. When they were told about land use management they became very much interested. Now no one is allowed to let their animals on their neighbours’ plots!

Q: FH Ethiopia has been working in the Mid-Highlands for close to eight years now. When you look across the landscape of the communities, does it look different to you now than it did at the beginning?

A: Definitely the land is different! In areas where FH is working and where FH is not working is completely different now.

But even more than that, the psychology of the individual farmers is totally different. You know, FH is working on life-giving sciences. We are just telling them how to develop their lives. In the past, people were just wandering here and there. There was no knowledge or experience on how to come out of poverty, how to develop an income.

When FH intervened in the communities, we started sponsoring the children—providing school uniforms, stationary materials, and medical help. At the same time, these farmers are always advised how to come out of poverty. With what? With the resources they have! The resources are there. The land is there. But the management is poor. For example, they have coffee plantations that have been there for more than a hundred years, but they are not producing. So we tell them the plants have to be pruned. Things like that.

In the Mid-Highlands area, individuals working with FH are very different. Even people are asking us why don’t you come to us because they see the changes. People who were not able to consume food are now consuming food. People who were just going here and there as daily labourers have now settled and are working on their own plots of land and are harvesting their vegetable crops and are really supporting their children. So FH is a lifeforce in our communities.

God really is with FH and we are very grateful to God. And you are with us. FH as an organization is a life-giving organization. This is what people are saying these days.

After providing vegetable seeds to the local communities, one old man told us “I have never seen coin during the rainy season. This is my first time I counted daily coins.





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Food for the Hungry: Fighting Drought by Healing the Soil
Fighting Drought by Healing the Soil
Millions are in danger because of a severe drought in the Horn of Africa. Here's what farmers in Ethiopia are doing to stop drought before it starts.
Food for the Hungry
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