Battling for survival along the warming source of the Blue Nile

Battling for survival along the warming source of the Blue Nile

By Dagim Terefe and Manyazewal Getachew

For years, 43-year-old Endalew Tegegn depended on the steady summer rains to grow his chilli, ‘Teff,’ tomato, and cabbage crops in Bahir Dar Zuria, Amhara regional state in northern Ethiopia. 

But in recent years, erratic rainfall and flooding led to a poor harvest. Endalew, who lives along Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, decided to make a drastic change: growing crops in the winter. And today, Endalew’s winter farming is not only enabling him to sustain his 7-member household but also supply the surplus to the market.

The winter farming system, supported by a government initiative, has helped the farmer pump water from Lake Tana through the canvas to the actual farmland and get higher yields than rain-assisted summer farming. The switch also allows him to save his energy and has cut the cost of fertilizer needed. 

Endalew Tegegn a farmer in Robit district,Bahir Dar Zuria, Amhara, Ethiopia

“When I compare the winter and summer agriculture, I found the Bega [winter in Amharic] agriculture is more than two times beneficial. I think because of heavy rain in summer, the yields are too small. We have checked and realized that by growing and shifting ‘Teff’, potato, cabbage, and tomato in both seasons. The winter yields are the highest,’’ Endalew said.

The Amhara Regional State Bureau of Agriculture has deployed agriculture extension experts throughout the region to train farmers how to grow crops in the winter through setting up irrigation systems that benefit “clusters” (groups) of farmers.

Birehan Tilahun is one of these experts, who has been working for the last 9 years in the region. The winter cluster farming is being undertaken in the Amhara region in collaboration with the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), he says. 

A cluster farming system is, according to Birehan, cultivating one similar crop type in a specific land by grouping 30-60 or 60-120 farmers together, and aims at enabling households to gain better agricultural productivity by using similar fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation systems.  

In the farmers’ program, the government along with several NGOs creates awareness, provides capacity-building training to farmers, clusters farmers in groups, and advises farmers to minimize harvest losses and use the same crop types and fertilizers in a specific plot of land.

For instance, through the SNV-Horti-Life project, farmers are getting support. 

“At the beginning, we selected potential areas for irrigation and conducted a survey in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture. Following the research, we enter implementation. We establish field universities for farmers in the implementation phase. They meet and discuss cluster farming once a week to have awareness and use better seeds for productivity,” says Belay Alebachew, project officer at SNV-Horti-Life project. 

Endalew’s farmland is now busy and he has been growing onion, tomato, and cabbage in an irrigation-assisted winter farming system.

“As long as we are living along Lake Tana, we have no water supply problem; we are supplying the water from the lake to our land by using canvas pipe,” says Endalew. He requests the government to provide the farmers with fuel and a motor pump.

There is a critical problem in supplying water pumps and pipes, constructing canals and finishing irrigation dam works. However, according to Berhan, the Amhara Regional State Bureau of Water Resources Development has designed a project to use water resources and increase productivity through irrigation-assisted farming.

The mighty Nile from the source to the river  

The Nile (or ‘Abay’ in Amharic) is the world’s longest river. It flows for 6,695 kilometres from South to North Africa before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile basin has two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, and is shared by eleven countries; namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

The White Nile originates in Lake Victoria, the Great Lakes region of southeast Africa, Uganda. It flows north through Tanzania and Kenya. The Blue Nile/Abay River originates in Ethiopia’s highlands of the Amhara region and flows through Sudan where the two tributaries meet and snake northwards to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt. Data shows that 70 percent of Ethiopia’s renewable surface water is generated through the Abay Basin and collectively provides 86 percent of the Nile’s annual flow.  

For thousands of years, the mighty River Nile (Abay), has built giant African civilizations and has been also a source of disagreements among the basin nations. World history reminds us that many ancient civilizations were formed on the banks of rivers. Like the Mesopotamians in the Fertile Crescent on the Tigris/Euphrates rivers, the Ancient Chinese on the Yellow River, and Ancient India on the Indus, giant African civilizations including those in Egypt, Aksum or Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), and Nubia (present-day Sudan) were also formed on the banks of Nile/Abay. 

This mighty River Nile/Abay has long been used as a source of irrigation to transform the arid area of Egypt and Sudan into lush agricultural land. In comparison, the rest of the 9 upper riparian nations have utilized a minimal amount (about 2%) of Nile water for irrigation development. 

The Nile Basin, with ups and downs in the grace of eternity, is a source of livelihood for over 272 million people residing within the basin boundary. The latest World Bank (2020) data indicates that the current total population of Nile Basin countries is estimated at 539.2 million people: Ethiopia with the highest population at 115 million people, followed by Egypt with 102.3 million people. 

Winter irrigation-assisted cluster farming as a means to climate adaptation  

A strong woman in a long dress, wearing a necklace that is a symbol of Christianity, with a tattooed cultural cross on her chin and forehead, Semasch Alamer is making her farmland ready for the next harvest. She grows maize, wheat and tomatoes in her small farmland located in Bahir Dar Zuria.

The 48-year-old Semasch has five family members. She reminisces about the 2007 floods which affected 239,5862 people, of whom 73,746 were displaced, in six regions including Amhara, Gambella, Afar, SNNP, Tigray, and Somali during the rainy season.  

“I remember that our relatives’ homes were damaged; crops were destroyed and washed away in 2007. As a result, they were displaced, could not feed themselves, and became dependent on food aid,” says Semasch. 

Semasch Alamera farmer in Bahir Dar Zuria

Ethiopia’s economy is based mainly on agriculture, including crop and livestock production, which contributes 45 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), more than 80 percent of employment, and over 90 percent of the foreign exchange earnings. However, the Ethiopian economy, particularly agricultural development, is extremely vulnerable to external shocks such as climate change and global price fluctuations of exports and imports, a 2020 GIZ study shows.  

“My crops were washed away by floods during summer. We have seen the worst damage, especially where no retention wall and terraces are in place. We have also noticed our land was sliding, washing away, and becoming gorged,” says Endalew.

Heavy floods have occurred in the last three consecutive years in Fogera and Libo Kemkem districts of Lake Tana basins, which, according to OCHA, affected 25,000 people, killed 2 people, flooded 6,653 houses, damaged 18 schools, and destroyed 3,428 hectares of crop areas in 2019 alone.   

According to Ewnete Takele, a plant science lecturer at Bahir Dar University, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, climate change is a major obstacle to the country’s efforts to ensure food security. He expressed that climate change is limiting the traditional agricultural practices in the country.

Excessive heavy rains in Ethiopia that started in April and peaked in May have led to flooding, displacement, loss of lives and livelihoods, as well as damage to infrastructures in various regions. According to OCHA (2020), flooding affected more than 470,000 people, of whom more than 300,000 people were displaced – nearly 80 percent in the Somali region.

The BBC report (2020) shows that the number of people affected by flooding in East Africa has gone from 1.1 million in 2016 to four million in 2019, to close to six million. 

A deadly wetter-than-usual rainy season devastated communities across Sudan in 2020, as the Nile River and some of its tributaries reached their highest levels in 100 years. Widespread flooding has claimed at least 100 lives and damaged or destroyed more than 110,000 homes since mid-July 2020.  

A press release published on April 2022 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) indicates that Eastern Africa is facing the very real prospect that the rains will fail for a fourth consecutive season, placing Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia into a drought of a length not experienced in the last 40 years. The WMO estimates that more than 29 million people are facing high levels of food insecurity across the IGAD region.

A 2022 IPCC report shows that climate change has caused substantial damages, and increasingly irreversible losses, in terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal and open ocean marine ecosystems. According to the African Development Bank (AfD), Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts. More specifically, the upper Nile Basin of western Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda is at high risk of agricultural disruption due to climate extremes. 

Ethiopia has endured 10 major droughts for the last four decades since 1980 and the average annual temperature has been increasing by 0.37 degrees per decade, with the majority of warming occurring during the second half of the 1990s.  

Data from USAID’s Sustainable Water Partnership shows that the recent 2015-16 El Niño episode caused drought across large parts of eastern, southern, and central Ethiopia with precipitation being 65 percent below average in the northeastern and central regions. Over 10 million people required emergency assistance, as one million livestock and 75 percent of croplands were lost in the most affected areas. Research findings from this year also indicate a 2.1- 4.1 percent reduction in rain-fed crop yield that caused a 2.4 to 9.7 percent drop in Ethiopia’s GDP. 

The current population of Ethiopia is estimated at about 115 million and is expected to surpass 200 million by 2050. When the world population is estimated to surpass 9.1 billion by 2050, most of the world’s population growth in the next 40-50 years is expected to come from Africa, and Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa as of today, will be a large part of the growth.  

“If there is no possibility to transform our agriculture from traditional small-scale to medium or large-scale irrigation-assisted winter mechanized agricultural practices, we can’t ensure food security, because, due to high population growth, we are facing land scarcity,” the agricultural extension officer Birehan says.

Disproportionate irrigation development systems in the Nile Basins 

The NBI’s Technical report, Scenarios for Water Saving in Irrigated Agriculture (2020), indicates that 98 percent of the existing irrigation systems in the Nile Basin are in Egypt (58 percent) and Sudan (30 percent) whereas irrigation in the rest of 9 upper riparian countries amounts to only about 2 percent of the total irrigated area in the Nile Basin. 

About 10 percent of the arable land in Ethiopia is irrigable land, however, less than 6 percent of the irrigation potential is utilized. The country’s reliance on rain-fed agriculture limits productivity and increases the vulnerability of farmers to droughts and the effects of climate change. GIZ and other development partners indicate that irrigation is one of the key pathways to building resilience towards climate change, eventually leading to poverty reduction and key development goals in Ethiopia.  

A climate change-resilient agricultural system is a must, not a choice, for Ethiopian farmers like Semachsh, who have no access to modern agricultural technology and inputs. 

“Our farmlands and fertilizers are washed away and wasted by floods during summer; in comparison, our crops are not affected by floods and snow if we are able to farm in the winter season. That can also make us sure about productivity without worrying about flooding damage,” says Semachsh.  

Winter farming has been expanding starting in 2021 in the area where Endalew and Semachsh are living.

“We were not growing tomatoes in winter, but I got support from an NGOs project, produced tomatoes, and earned 35,000 Birr. I am a beneficiary and have now gotten out of economic dependency; even others are following my footstep and entering winter farming,” says Semachsh.

“Even though we get water from God during summer, we can’t predict the amount, but we just need water and also human power and motor pumps during winter,” she adds.

Semachsh and the other farmers request the government for additional help in providing fuel, fertilizer, irrigation pumps, pipes and ‘Koga’-like dam to support winter farming.

“If the government would give us a loan to buy water pumps, modified plastic pipes, and fuel, we could produce even more. Even though the agriculture extension experts are advising us and giving direction, we need also support from the government in establishing a market centre in our area to avoid brokers’ market abuse,” Endalew says. He is also advising other farmers now during coffee times to follow his footstep.  

coffee farm
A coffee farm in Robit district,Bahir Dar Zuria,Amhara, Ethiopia

Constructing medium and large-scale irrigation dams can also help farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change, Alehegn says.

He says the current irrigation dams have not been functional.

“Even though the ‘Rib’ medium-scale irrigation dam was inaugurated by the higher officials including the late Ambachew Mekonnen, president of Amhara Regional State, the structural works of canals have not been finalized yet due to lack of budget from the federal government. Even ‘Megech’ and ‘Serba’ dams are half functional,” says Alehegn, criticizing the initiative as more of political propaganda than actual work.

Alehegn Kinde works at the Amhara Regional State Bureau of Agriculture as an expert in fruit, vegetables, and crop protection. He says if the government could help the farmers with advanced agricultural technologies, there is “huge potential” for successful winter farming in the Amhara region, due to the stable water supply.  

“In summer, the rains may occur before or post-harvesting. Heavy rain and flood may also occur and wash away the seeds during harvesting,” he says.

But according to Ewnete, the plant sciences expert, during winter cluster farming “soil and fertilizers are less washed away and wasted,” and more nutrients are retained in the soil.

“We have gained higher wheat production from this year’s irrigation-assisted cluster farming in Zenzelima, Bahir Dar Zuria area,” Ewnete says. There is potential to expand the model to Robit district, where a mechanized farming system has not yet been practised, he adds. 

Data from NBI on irrigation development projection in the Nile countries as compiled from different sources since 1989 shows that the average annual rate of irrigation growth for the upper riparian countries is 18 percent every year.  Though this is much higher compared to the downstream countries Sudan and Egypt, they start from a much lower base and as such the rapidity of their trend is to be expected. 

The trend indicates the growth of irrigation areas such as Egypt: from about 3 million hectares in 1989 to 6.5 million hectares in 2018, a 2 percent annual growth, and Ethiopia, from 23,160 hectares in 1989 to 455,421 hectares in 2018, a 35 percent growth per year.  

A recent research finding, Trend, Status, and Challenges of Irrigation Development in Ethiopia (2021) shows that even though small-scale irrigation development in Ethiopia has a long history which probably pre-dates the Axum empire more than 2,000 years ago, it has been only two decades ago since a well-planned irrigation development targeting medium and large-scale schemes has started.

The area under small-scale irrigation has increased from 176,105 hectares in 1991 to 2.5 million hectares at the end of 2019. During the first Growth and Transformation Plan from 2010/11 – 2014/15, small-scale irrigation expansion increased by 15.2 percent per year. The second Plan from 2015/16 – 2019/20 has not yet been fully evaluated.   

The early 1991 medium and large-scale irrigation development was entirely initiated by joint concession with foreign commercial companies, specifically irrigated sugarcane farms mainly in Awash Basins of Wonji (5,000 hectares) and Metahara (11,000 hectares) which commenced operation in 1954 and 1965 respectively through a bilateral agreement between a government and a Dutch company, Hangler Vondr Amsterdam (HVA).  

Merti and Jeju (1638 ha), a cotton irrigation project, developed in 1961/62 by an Italian named Seignior Tiliota Santo later nationalized, merged, and formed a horticultural crops farm called the Metri fruit processing plant in 1975. The Amibara irrigated farm, a state-owned agriculture enterprise, comprising Melka Sedi and Mekla Werer(10,000 ha), and also the Nura Hira horticulture farm and Merti agro-industry started operation in 1980 and 1983 respectively. 

The worst 1984/85 famine was a major stimulus for the development of the government-sponsored small-scale irrigation program in areas where producer cooperatives had been established by the government. The targets of the plan were to develop 57,000 hectares of land; however, the success of this target was not evaluated due to regime change in 1991.  

Following the regime change, greater attention has been given to irrigation development in various national development programs, including the Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program from 2002-2005, the Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty from 2005-2010; and the GTP I&II from 2010 – 2020.

Annual reports of the Amhara Regional State Bureau of Agriculture on amounts of agricultural productions under small-scale irrigation show a decrease from about 110 million quintals under 932,743.27 hectares of irrigated land in the year 2018/19 to about 31 million quintals under 220,612.2 hectares of irrigated land in 2019/20. However, it has shown a slight increase in 2020/21, when 38 million quintals of productions under 325,811.17 hectares of irrigated land was registered. 

Officials could not be reached to explain the decrease in irrigated land and production from 2018/19 to 2019/20.

farm for irrigation
One of the farms in Robit district, Bahir Dar Zuria,Amhara, Ethiopia using winter farming

In May 2019, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) removed taxes for imports of agricultural mechanization, irrigation and animal feed technologies and equipment.  

“The Agricultural Transformation Council provided direction to facilitate farmers’ access to agricultural technologies which will ensure food security at the household level and national nutrition development,” the ATA website states.  

Medium and large-scale irrigation schemes are developed by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation (ESC) for sugarcane production and processing, private investors for the production of commercial crops, and smallholder farms. Currently, the ESC is managing some 160,921 hectares of irrigated land for sugarcane production distributed over eight projects located in different areas of Ethiopia.

In total, some 300,000-hectare irrigation command area is operated by the ESC, which is more than 50 percent of the total irrigated area under medium and large-scale projects in the country

However, reports indicate that currently only about 50% of the irrigation schemes are considered proven functional services, the remaining 34% of the implemented schemes are not utilized with full capacity, and 16% are non-functional. 

Conjunctive water management in glimpse of cooperation  

According to the Nile Basin Initiative, the use of both surface water and groundwater will be an essential strategy for Basin countries to adapt to climate change while ensuring water security. 

There is a large amount of water released into Basin lakes and rivers due to high rainfall and extreme weather in the upper riparian countries, which could be stored and released during the winter. For the Blue Nile, on average, 82 percent of the annual flow occurs in just four months from July to October, whereas for the Setit river, 80 percent of the flow occurs in just three months, according to the NBI synthesis report.

A large amount of water from the Nile is lost due to evaporation. This is higher in downstream Egypt and Sudan than in Ethiopia, where a significant amount of water can be stored during the summer in a series of reservoirs in the cool highlands, according to NBI. From these man-made reservoirs, water would be able to be pumped to farmers’ fields to grow crops at any time of the year which could help farmers in the Amhara region and elsewhere in the basin to adapt to climate change effects.

In Egypt and Sudan, where water evaporates at a much higher rate, underground water is recommended to facilitate a large share of irrigation. Egypt and Sudan share the largest non-renewable groundwater aquifer in the world with Libya and Chad. It is estimated that of the more than 500,000 cubic kilometres of water stored in the aquifers, about 14,818 cubic kilometres is recoverable, including about 5,525 cubic kilometres in Egypt and 4,787 cubic kilometres in Sudan, according to NBI.

Along with extracting groundwater, improving storage capacity by increasing the size or number of dams and reservoirs, desalination of seawater, expansion of rainwater storage and water transfer are also noted as effective measures of climate change adaptation. 

This story was supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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