Water management is key to helping farming communities

Experts all over the world are working to find sustainable solutions to the most pressing water challenges facing the world today.

Water is a constant challenge in crop production and managing water supplies sustainably can make a huge difference to farming communities at a local level.

International development charity Farm Africa has been assisting farmers in eastern Africa for over 30 years, and water management has always been a central part of the work. This includes drilling boreholes in Katine, Uganda, setting up local water management committees in Kenya, and installing tap-stands and cattle troughs for pastoralists in Bale, Ethiopia to keep communities and their herds healthy.

One ongoing project in Ethiopia focuses on climate-smart agriculture. Working with farmers in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), Farm Africa is introducing techniques that aim to boost food production while using water more sustainably. The SNNP region is still reeling from the recent drought that swept the country – the worst for fifty years. And with temperatures set to rise as a result of climate change, it’s vital that farmers adapt their practices to use water wisely.

Climate-smart farming doesn’t involve a complete overhaul of traditional farming methods, but small changes that can make all the difference to a farmer’s production. For example, using terracing and intercropping to maintain soil fertility and conserve moisture by selecting the best companion crops, or planting drought-tolerant crops that need less water and have a shorter production cycle.

We also help farmers harvest and store water in reservoirs or rainwater harvesting pools. Hamid Heramo, one farmer we’re working with in Halaba, used to watch his crops wither and die when the rains failed. Now, he’s grouped together with fellow farmers to build reservoirs to store water.
“Farm Africa is helping us by providing improved seeds like maize, haricot beans, and chickpeas. They are teaching us how to manage our soil and water more efficiently. We are now more aware of what we can do to better protect our environment, protecting what we have.

“We farmers in this village want to store water. We are working hard to build small water reservoirs despite the fact we are economically poor to buy plastic covers. Farm Africa has identified eight farmers to support in building storages.”

Supplementary irrigation that draws on groundwater supplies is another way to boost crop production. Most Ethiopian agriculture is rain fed, but a recent IFPRI report suggests that irrigation could boost productivity in Africa by 50%, as farmers can access the water that their crops need when they need it, rather than relying on erratic rainfall.

Bihon Ondaye, aged 30, another farmer from SNNPR, has seen the benefits that irrigation can have. He lost most of his crops to disease and drought in 2015, and was left in debt, unable to cover his household expenses.
In 2001, the local government had built a water channel to enable farmers like Bihon to irrigate their crops, but without the right training and advice, Bihon was unwilling to deviate from rain-fed farming. With support from Farm Africa staff, Bihon began to change his farming practices, using irrigation to grow vegetables that he could then sell at the local market.

“You yourself would witness, the crops have started to mature. The organisation is helping us to utilise what we have at hand – irrigation. The villagers used to wait for the rain to come for farming. Our awareness towards irrigation was poor.

“Seventy farmers in the village are making plans to begin saving so that we can buy more pumps, maintain those we have received from Farm Africa, and cover fuel expense for pumps. This would help us effectively adopt this farming practice [irrigation] we have learnt. There are around 15 young farmers who want to extend the passage to their farm.”

Simple water management techniques like these can make a huge difference to farmers growing crops in drought-affected areas. And while we don’t know exactly how climate change will affect Ethiopian weather patterns, what we do know is that sustainable management of water supplies can help farmers to grow more and earn more, and prepare for an uncertain