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An ancient form of water management helps farmers in Eritrea cope with water scarcity

WFP/Evelyn Hockstein-Polaris

Girls carry buckets of water from a waterhole near Kuluku, Eritrea. Some girls walk over an hour everyday to gather water.

Water is precious in Eritrea, where farmers have to cope with droughts and crop failures. With support from the government and an IFAD-funded project, farmers and herders are expanding spate irrigation, an ancient form of water management. By harnessing floodwaters and collecting run-off, farmers can provide enough water for the crop season. Now some farmers can obtain yields that are six times what they used to be. 

​Water scarcity is one of the many challenges that farmers face in Eritrea. The country has two perennial river systems, the Setit River, which forms the country’s border with Ethiopia and drains into the Nile basin, and the Gash Barka system, which collects the run-off water from the highlands. All other rivers in the country are seasonal and carry water only after rainfall, which means that they are dry most of the year. The country has limited sources of fresh surface water, and although groundwater can be tapped, it may be s quantity and quality may be poor.
The average annual rainfall is approximately 380 mm. Rainfall is usually torrential — of high intensity and short duration — and varies greatly from year to year.

The Gash Barka region in the south-west of Eritrea has a harsh climate, with rainfall that is limited and unreliable. The region shares its western border with Sudan and its southern border with Ethiopia. It has a surface area of 37,000 km2, which constitutes one-third of Eritrea's land area, and a population of 567,000. Gash Barka was severely affected by the 1998–2000 border conflict with Ethiopia. Eight years after the conflict, carcasses of tanks and other military hardware can still be found there.

Every three to five years, droughts cause partial or complete crop failure in the region. When crops fail, farmers and herders sell their livestock and other assets as a survival strategy.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project introduced improvements in grazing and farming. The project also supports infrastructure works, such as spate irrigation systems. Efforts to develop and improve the systems include harnessing run-off and diverting rivers and small streams, improving hafirs (ponds) to collect water for livestock, and water harvesting.

Spate irrigation – an ancient form of water management – is one of the most viable ways of supporting the livelihoods of economically marginalized farmers. It is different from conventional perennial irrigation and it is used in areas prone to unpredictable and destructive floods, particularly in arid and semi-arid areas.

How does spate irrigation work?

Spate irrigation is a floodwater harvesting system. It is a resource system, harnessing floodwater or ephemeral streams and diverting the water to agricultural fields through earthen or concrete canals. It is a pre-planting system, in which the crop season follows the flood season. In the Gash Barka and Debub regions, major floods occur between June and September, and the main crop season is between September  and February.

Spate irrigation systems are usually established in the plains around mountainous or hilly areas in order to collect run-off, allowing low-lying fields to store moisture for crops during the crop season.

"Farmers can start planting their crops only after irrigation has taken place," explains Efrem Tekle, crop specialist in the Ministry of Agriculture. "Since the timing, volume and number of floods are highly unpredictable, this type of agriculture is prone to risk. Farmers need to cooperate closely with one another to manage the distribution of flood flows and also to manage and maintain the spate irrigation system."

The Government of Eritrea, the Ministry of Agriculture and the IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development project have joined to finance the construction of spate irrigation systems in the Gash Barka region.

The Hashenkit River Diversion project is strategically situated to serve 14 villages and a total of 1,300 families, of which 20 per cent are households headed by women.

The region’s farmers  traditionally plant sorghum. Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop in Eritrea, after wheat, rice, maize and barley, but it is the leading crop in Gash Barka. It is used for food, feed, fodder and fuel.

"We know that improved sorghum has better quality and high production value. But, given our reality of water scarcity, we prefer to plant traditional sorghum because it needs less water," says Adam Humed, a farmer.

"Before the spate irrigation system we engaged in rainfed farming, and our yield never exceeded 5 quintals [500 kg] per hectare," Humed explains. "Spate irrigation has increased our yield up to six times, which means 20-30 quintals [2,000–3,000 kg] per hectare. As a result we are able to feed our children and buy new livestock."

Like all infrastructure, spate irrigation works need to be maintained. It is necessary for farmers' organizations to establish a good relationship with the local government so they can jointly administer and maintain the infrastructure. To administer the spate system the farmers also need to collaborate and agree on equitable water distribution.

"We will be meeting with the local government to propose that if they help us with levelling, removing the silage and improving the channels, we will take charge of maintaining the spate," says Humed.

Looming shadow of drought

"We face many challenges. One of them is drought, which has a three- to five-year cycle", says Humed. "This year we had only 10 mm of rain, which means a decrease in food production and increased vulnerability."

"The Gash Barka region has approximately 3.5 million head of livestock," Humed explains. "In this community, approximately half of the households own livestock, and on average each household has from six to seven head of livestock."

The pastoralists consider their livestock to be a valuable source of income. "Livestock is a source of money, because we can sell the animals when faced with hard times," says Humed. "We have learned to put aside 10 per cent of our income during good times, in a community saving scheme. As a result, today we have 240,000 nafka in our saving account, which we use in times of crisis."

The Ministry of Agriculture and the IFAD-funded projects are conducting capacity-building and awareness-building campaigns to demonstrate the benefits of good storage mechanisms as an alternative way of coping with crises such as droughts.

"The awareness campaign is helping pastoralists and farmers understand that the price of livestock will decrease substantially during drought because there is an over-supply," says Yordanos Tesfamarian, senior economist in the Ministry of Agriculture.

"Extension workers are imparting knowledge to the farmers about how to take advantage of a bumper year by investing in proper storage, so that when drought hits, the farmers have food and also the possibility of selling their surplus at higher prices."

"By working together with the farmers to identify their needs and aspirations and by involving them in decision-making processes, we are building their capacities and those of their institutions so they can advocate for themselves," explains Abla Benhammouche, IFAD country programme manager for Eritrea.

"This is how we are ensuring full ownership and sustainability."