When the land dries up

Al Dutton

When the land dries up, all life dies: the plants wither; birds and animals starve; the soil turns to dust and is blown away; the sun-baked ground becomes so hard that little rain soaks in; the land becomes drier still.

In February I visited one of several valleys in northern Ethiopia where water conservation reversed this arid story of desertification.  Where there was once a dry rocky gully in all but the rainy season, now a gushing stream flows through verdant fields all year round. I saw it with my own eyes.

How is this possible? With so much talk of climate change, and increasing desertification and food crises, it’s easy to think that we’re fighting a losing battle but much can still be done to improve things dramatically.  Working with the Church about ten years ago, the Ethiopian Government built a series of low earth-dams, about 10m high at the top of the valley. 

On relatively flat plateaus, these trapped the rains and held them upstream in lakes.  Slowly this water percolated into the land and over several years created large underground reservoirs, which hold the water in the sediment all year round.

The Church then worked with the community to build irrigation ditches which follow the contours to take the water high up the sides of the valley below.  Using compost and animal manure, the villagers improved the organic content of the soil, thereby increasing the absorption and retention of water.  Similarly, putting a mulch – even a simple one of maize stalks – on the land prevents evaporation, increases absorption, and encourages ground-level insect life which breaks down the vegetation and increases the fertility further.

Where once the villagers only had one, increasingly unreliable, harvest of cereals a year, they now have three harvests and are growing many vegetables, including tomatoes, ground nuts, carrots, and cabbages to increase the variety of their diet and sell at market.  For the last two years Tigray – this region in northern Ethiopia – has been cut off by brutal civil war.  While people have under siege and no supplies could be delivered, this stream has continued to flow and these fields have fed the surrounding towns and villages.