Water for food in Ethiopia

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May 2, 2011 - 7:00pm

The University of Nebraska Lincoln is hosting its annual Water for Food Conference , looking specifically at how to solve problems with having enough food and water in developing and developed nations. A group of UNL researchers is looking for solutions in the east African country of Ethiopia where many residents, especially in rural areas, live in a chronic state of food insecurity. Food is difficult to afford, and difficult to grow. Farmers in Ethiopia struggle with regular drought and an under-developed agriculture industry. Since 2008, UNL researchers have been working with colleagues at universities in Ethiopia to look at the science of that country's climate and agriculture, but also the influence of culture and politics on the situation. In this Signature Story, NET News' Grant Gerlock talks with Martha Mamo, a soil scientist at UNL and one of the lead researchers on the project.

GRANT GERLOCK: Can you describe the climate in the areas of Ethiopia where you're researching?

MARTHA MAMO: Climate specifically, it is semi-arid. You have precipitation that comes, the early precipitation would come in March to about April-June. Then late precipitation would come in July through early October. So you have essentially the first rains that would come for farmers to prepare the land and plant. Then the late season, longer rainy seasons would come in July.

I think the issue is not total amount of precipitation but distribution of the rainfall. Rainfall tends to be erratic but in terms of annual total precipitation it's sufficient. It's the distribution within those growing seasons that would make it difficult for farmers to frequently get hit by drought during the growing season.

GERLOCK: What crops are being grown there?

MAMO: Cereal crops. Corn. Barley. Teff is indigenous or pretty common for Ethiopia and it is a main staple for most Ethiopians so that's commonly grown. It tends to be more drought resistant. Sorghum is another major crop for that part of the region. In addition there are small percentages of vegetable production. Also cash crops that are not food crops, but crops that are consumed particularly in that region.

GERLOCK: When we think of farming in Nebraska we think production agriculture with all the equipment, the tractors, the center-pivot irrigation. Is there much of that kind of irrigation in that part of Ethiopia? Can you describe what everyday agriculture is like there?

MAMO: It's a bit of a different landscape. Farming is what we would call subsistence farming. Land holding is small - less than two and a half acres I would say. It's pretty intense in terms of land preparation is still manual with oxen driven land preparation. In terms of production when I said subsistence agriculture that means the production is mostly consumed for the household and some of it might be marketed. There is some level of irrigation. Actually the percentage is less than 4% in irrigation. And the irrigation is not what we're used to seeing here, a center-pivot irrigation, but gravity irrigation using bore holes and other reservoirs to irrigate the land.

GERLOCK: When it comes to water, it must be especially important for those farmers to get the most out of what they can get?

MAMO: Yes. Water is a pretty hot commodity. It is pretty crucial between deciding whether to have food aid or whether to produce enough, given the climate or weather condition for that growing season. It's a critical component of the production system. And most agriculture in Ethiopia is rain-fed agriculture so there's a high dependency on the amount of rainfall that's received in the growing season. In a lot of areas, I can't point to where it began, but there's some amount of food aid still beign available for people to supplement their consumption as well.

GERLOCK: The goal is for them to be able to grow enough food for themselves and flourish in their agriculture. What are some of the things that stand in the way, and do people misunderstand why that isn't happening now?

MAMO: Well, the production system in Ethiopia, it's complex. You have to consider the human aspect. You have to consider the cultural aspect. The policy factor. The landscape and the environment itself. So it's not just having access to water, but also having the infrastructure, the market for the farmers not only to produce for consumption but also to produce so they can grow their production system and utilize better technology and improve their efficiency in terms of production and expand the different type of crops they can grow and reduce the dependence of people from receiving food aid.

I think part of research shouldn't just involve the physical component, that is to say, providing just the water and having the right production scheme. That's one component that is important. But we also have to take in the context of the cultural component and this is where I think our research is unique in the way it integrates the human dimension component. It's looking at not just quantity of production but also looking at quality of consumption which would translate into nutrition, human nutrition. And along the way creating that infrastructure that's necessary for marketing products, policies that would encourage producers to be more efficient in production, and also integrate other crops that wouldn't usually be grown in the region. So there are different aspects. It's not just a simple matter of water and improving the production system, or fertilizers per se. There is more to it that just having those two factors in place for these farmers.

GERLOCK: That makes me think of a buzzword, and that is "sustainable." And it seems like in this case that means more than just making sure there's enough water or the right kind of farming going on.

MAMO: Absolutely. And I think in this case sustainability would be a right fit for this region. When we talk about sustainability, being less dependent on food aid - that would be one. And farmers being able to produce for their consumption, diversify their production system, but also have enough food produced that they can take that to the market. Sufficient money is gained then, subsequently, and then they can invest that on their land and improving their production system.

GERLOCK: And then they have an industry.

MAMO: Exactly. So the goal of course, eventually, is to have them sustain economically in their production system, while at the same time they conserve their land, soil, and resources.

GERLOCK: Have you learned things in Ethiopia or about farming in Ethiopia that could actually make a difference in Nebraska?

MAMO: We have extremes in terms of drought. We can learn a lot about drought and the occurrence of drought and the impact of drought in this case, particularly in the ag industry for Ethiopia which happens to be the major driver for a lot of the activities in Ethiopia. Many people depend on agriculture. So drought is risk assessment, adaptation, and mitigation. Those are things we can learn from research we are conducting in Ethiopia. Also the understanding that solutions to particular situations in these regions for example, need to have - whether we're talking about Ethiopia or rural Nebraska - understanding the people within those situations is a critical factor as well.

GERLOCK: It's called the Water for Food Conference and a lot of that is about using less to achieve more, using less water and growing more food. In the end what would having some measure of food security and some measure of water security in Ethiopia, what would that mean for that country?

MAMO: It has a big impact in terms of the overall poverty index for Ethiopia. Their agriculture can make a difference in terms of improvement in the livelihoods of people. We could foresee having improved services, improved quality education, and really agriculture being the main engine to drive the main development of Ethiopia.



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