Ethiopia: Enhancing food security through small-scale irrigation (Issue #35 - 2005)

Issue #35 - April 2005

Ethiopia's smallholder farmers struggle to make a living in an extremely testing environment. Terrain, remoteness, and climate all pose significant challenges to crop and livestock production; agricultural technologies are basic; market access is weak; and history, politics and policies add to the difficulties faced by a predominantly subsistence agricultural population. For many of Ethiopia's 70 million people, crop production is adequate for only 6-9 months of the year, and nutritional deficiencies are an important cause of death. Between 5 and 15 million Ethiopians need food aid annually.

Part of the Government of Ethiopia/IFAD strategy to address these challenges is encapsulated in the Special Country Programme (SCP). The SCP aims to increase production and farmer incomes through improvements to, and expansion of traditional small-scale irrigation schemes.

SCP Phase II aimed to directly benefit 23,600 farm families in 5,900ha of improved and expanded run-of-river (gravity supply) traditional irrigation schemes. It was designed to benefit a further 10,000 families outside of irrigation command areas, by introducing or improving soil conservation measures in the catchments feeding the irrigation schemes; 2,400 women farmers in or close to irrigation command areas would benefit directly through the development of irrigated vegetable gardens. Agricultural support services (improved extension services and seed multiplication), and institutional strengthening (of farmers' groups, woreda and Regional organisations) would further enhance programme outcomes.

Key recommendations from the evaluation of SCP II include:

  • Sustainability depends on site selection in relation to markets; establishing or strengthening sound social structures; study and design which takes account of local knowledge; and post-construction support services.

  • Not all "modern" irrigation is an improvement over "traditional" systems. In some cases, especially when farmers' views are not adequately taken into account, the construction of "modern" engineered systems can actually make matters worse for those farmers involved. Little was known about the performance, strengths and weaknesses of the traditional irrigation schemes which the programme was supposed to improve, and many assumptions were made, without a solid evidence base.

  • Soil erosion and soil degradation represent major threats to SCP II. Erosion within the catchments supplying water to the irrigation schemes, and degradation of multiple-cropped soils within the command areas are among the biggest physical threats to sustainability. Conflicts over water use are likely to continue until existing or new water allocation legislation is properly enforced.

No impact without sustainability

In IFAD, sustainability is one component of ‘impact on rural poverty'. In this evaluation however, sustainability was found to be the single most important aspect of impact. Four key aspects of sustainability were identified, linked in a chain: scheme location; social structures; study and design; and on-going support.

Numerous challenges to sustainability exist, but the evaluation highlights two in particular: the high expectations of stakeholders, and the weaknesses of Government organisations, especially in the context of decentralisation and frequent re-organisation. The aspects of sustainability identified are those which give an individual irrigation scheme the possibility to succeed. A scheme far from input and output markets or in a catchment (an area with a common outlet for its surface runoff), where there are too many competing water users, will fail. A scheme which is designed to improve traditional irrigation, but in which farmers' views are not heard, will fail. And the failure to formally recognise the need for on-going support to farming communities is likely to lead to shortages of funds for maintenance, and so to irreparable breakdowns. Sustainability is a step beyond ‘success' however. A sustainable scheme is one which having succeeded has altered the mind-set of all stakeholders, who do not wish to return to the way things were. It is this motivation which is most likely to deliver long-term sustainability, even if the outcome turns out differently to the way the scheme was designed in the first place.

Irrigation is no panacea – but it is part of the solution

Cumulative experience has shown that farmer-managed irrigation can contribute usefully to food security through enhanced crop production and farmer incomes. However, many challenges remain, some associated with Ethiopia's underlying poverty (e.g. the small markets for produce), others with the scale and terrain of the country such as the high transaction costs associated with marketing, and yet others with the natural environment (e.g. increasingly uncertain rainfall) and history and politics, for example the limited tradition of popular participation in government and in decision-making. Moreover, the duration needed to achieve full impact necessitates a long period of donor commitment in a relational partnership with Government and other stakeholders. The question is not whether to include small-scale irrigation in Ethiopia's food security strategy, but how to do so more effectively. SCP I and II provide much useful experience to answer this question.

Integrated solutions – for complex problems

For the farmer, the soils, crops, livestock, weather, water, nutrients, pests, markets, income, outgoings, shelter, transport, fuel, property, family and social networks, and much more, all form part of the integrated environment in which he or she makes a livelihood. Improving food security through irrigation affects or is affected by each of these aspects. A major challenge is to design meaningful integrated solutions to the real problems faced by farmers. Irrigation is an especially complex solution to the problem of food insecurity, and it requires a good understanding of the concepts of each others' disciplines or run the risk of being irrelevant. Provision of irrigation water without strengthening markets; encouraging crop diversification without also addressing public demand for produce; intensifying production without tackling the issue of soil nutrient management; constructing weirs without carrying out soil conservation measures upstream; or commercialising without improving physical access to markets – all these examples show how disintegrated solutions fail to tackle the full scope of the problem.


Project Data
Total cost USD32.4m
IFAD loan USD22.5m
Co-financiers Government of Ethiopia: USD6.2m
  Irish Government grant: USD1.34m
  Farming communities USD 2.36m (in kind)
Implementing agencies Ministry of Water Resources (Federal)
  Regional authorities (Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, SNNPR)
Loan effectiveness February 1999
Closing date December 2005


Further information

The evaluation, Ethiopia, Special Country Programme Phase II, Report #1643-ET, April 2005, Office of Evaluation, IFAD, Via Paolo Di Dono, 44, Rome 00124, Italy.