Friday, June 29, 2012

Similarity analysis for the Blue Nile basin

Lots of people might imagine that developing countries have very little data available. When I started working for ILRI and IWMI, I was in fact astonished by the diversity of data available also in form of geographical layers. Clearly, there is less data and less accurate data for developing countries like Ethiopia, then for developed countries like the Netherlands.
Nonetheless, when i started working in Ethiopia there was no list of the geographical layer available for the Blue Nile. My first internal report for the NBDC project gives this overview and performs a similarity analysis allowing to identify locations with similar bio-physical and socio-economic spatial patterns.
Find this report under :

Sunday, June 24, 2012

successes and failures : the Maksenit watershed (Gonder)

During my recent field trips, i got the chance to walk through a very interesting watershed : Maksenit Watershed, which outlet lies on the border of Maksenit town, South East of Gonder, Ethiopia.
approximate location of the farmers' training center of Maksenit watershed

It is a very interesting watershed, as GIZ (German development cooperation), ICARDA (international center for agricultural research in dry areas) and the Ethiopian government have been involved in water issues over the last years. It is a watershed full of success stories and failures.

Please join me on this long but interesting walk across the watershed. I started the walk near to the farmers' training center and discovered 3 of the 5 water havesting ponds. These ponds have been build by ICARDA in order to better understand on the ground under which conditions individual water pond could work. (have a look at for a study that suggest that ponds do not work in the Ethiopian context
the almost empty pond
Two basins trap the sediment before the water flows into the pond

Some farmers got a treadle pump and a drip irrigation system, other just irrigate with a simple bucket. The pond allows to irrigate a plot of 30x20m and get one crop during the dry season, mainly pepper.

ICARDA has also installed two sediment traps to measure sediments from an untreated watershed, and one from a watershed treated with terraces and bunds. Sounds like a great initiative, in a country where there is no empirical evidence that about the effectiveness of this type of technologies. Finally ICARDA also has build a monitoring station at the outlet, allowing to know all the year round how much water is following in the perenial river. 

female headed household 
But while crossing a watershed, there is nothing better than stopping and talking to farmers. The first farmer I stopped at, was a female headed household. The lady and her three kids mainly live from selling garlic which is grown near to the outlet and is irrigated thanks to a river diversion. She earns enough money to invest into a house in Maksenit town, that she plans to rent out.
Roof full of dry garlic, the source of cash for many farmers in the watershed.
Years ago, a roof water harvesting system and a cistern has been built on her farm by GIZ. Unfortunately, the cistern is leaking even after several attempt to repair and therefore is not in use anymore. She did not seem to really need the cistern as she could get water for domestic use from the near by river. 
the roof water harvesting installation with the leaking cistern 
The whole farm is surrounded by fodder trees that allow her to feed her livestock during the dry season. She also has a sort of olive tree, that does not give edible olives but is a very good timber tree. To have sufficient trees, she has a mobile tree nursery, which she can carry around, mainly to the water or to the shadow when necessary. She mainly uses the seedling for herself. A governmental tree nursery is within walking distance near to Maksenit, in case she want seedling from trees she does not have. Finally she also had modern beehives, allowing her to get income from honey. 
the mobile tree nursery 

As we walked upwards, we discovered an amazing landscape with mountains in the back covered with shrubs, and in the flatter areas, farmers where ploughing. 
looking upwards 
We stopped at another farmer who ended up guiding us through the watershed. He had a very similar livelihood, with garlic as major income, mobile tree nursery, traditional and modern beehives. He also affords a pump that allow him to irrigate some of his plots. He also rents out the pump. In principle he has electricity, but the distributor broke down. And despite of the continuous request of the community, the government did not give them the permission to repair the electric system. 
the tube used for irrigating with the pumps 
Near to his house, there is a non-perennial river that was dry. Nonetheless one can tab from the underground stream. ICARDA has build a pump that now allows his wife to get domestic water from very near by. 
the ICARDA water pump
A bit further down in the river bed, one can find hand dug wells, which are used for livestock as well as irrigation of near by nurseries (trees or pepper). He makes use of the pump, to get water from the well to the nursery and in some other season to irrigate nearby plots.
a hand dug well in the river bed, taping into the underground stream.
One of his neighbors tried to get groundwater by digging a well on his field, but could not find any water after 10m. So the whole was closed again. 
the unsuccessful well
Walking down the watershed towards the outlet, we stopped at a "papaya orchard" or what the locals call "home garden". Also pepper could be found next to the papaya trees. Women are usually responsible for these home gardens.
Papaya orchard
As we were crossing the main gravel road in the watershed, we found again a plot owned by the farmer who was guiding us. The plots South of the road in the flat area are mainly vertisol, that are soil that can absorb a lot of water and keep soil moisture over a long period. He would use the run-off of the road and divert the stream to flood his fields increase the number of days with sufficient soil moisture to crop (also referred as spate irrigation). He would even use electric pole from the ongoing renovation of the electric system, that has not yet been fixed to divert the water. 
furrows for diverting the water during the rainy season
In principle on these vertisol one can have 3 crops per year, first a cereal, then a legume on residual moisture and then a high value crop (pepper, onion or garlic) if there is access to irrigation water. 
Also we found the relatively big tree nursery. All the trees were dead, attacked by termites. 
the failed tree nursery
Back to the road we found another manual water pump taping water from the underground stream. It was build by the government as part of the WASH program and came with a additional concrete basin for giving water to livestock and a concrete place to wash cloth. The two latter infrastructures were broken and not in use anymore. Just the pump survived, and a micro-dam from earth has been built to capture the excess water pumped, were livestock can access water now. 
the govermental pump

the broken washing basin
the micro basin that capture excess water from the pump and is used for livestock
This is a nice example on how locals adapt and use the infrastructure differently than inially though of. Cloth are washed in the nearby perennial river.

In this watershed, some things have worked : the pumps are still in use, mobile nurseries allow women to grow their own seedling, hand-dug wells allow to tap the underground streams, women grow more diversified food (papaya) for their families. Others haven't worked, the GIZ cistern is leaking, some hand-dug wells have been closed, a tree nursery failed due to termites. Finally others will have to proof their use : the ICARDA water harvesting ponds and their lifting devices. It is definitely a watershed where a lot has happened and there is a lot to learn both for the successes and the failures. I hope you have enjoyed on my virtual tour of the Maksenit watershed and that you are convinced now, that unless we have tired, we don't really know what works and what doesn't work.

I would like to thank Baye from the Gonder Agricultural Research center for having accompanied me on this transect walk of more than 5 hours as well as the farmer who crossed have to the watershed to show his success and failures on this fields.
the farmer (left) and Baye (right)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Giving rural communities a voice : adapting the "Happy strategy" game to communities

Within the multi-scale adoption studies I am currently involved with  (, we are running focus group discussion with some key informant farmers in 4 sites in the Blue Nile. I am just back from the Oromia sites, Gorosole (near Guder, Ambo) and Laku (near Shambu) where the focus group discussion have been run in collaboration with the Oromia agricultural research institute (OARI). 
The cards of the Happy Strategy game
For the focus group discussion we have adapted the "happy strategy" game. This is a game that has initially been developed to involve stakeholder into the discussion on how rainwater management practices should be combined within a landscape. The game consist of a set of practice cards that describe single rainwater management practice, as well as innovation cards, that are empty practice cards that can be filled if a given practice is not part of the game. Finally, there are intervention cards, that are cards that allow for changes beyond farmer's decision making that could enable the adoption of a practice, such as access to credit or access to seeds or better cooperation among the community. Each participant chooses a card and joins a "landscape" that is clearly described watershed, and discusses where and why the chosen card should be adopted. If the group does not agree the person has to find another landscape or trade the card. For more details have a look at : 
Opening the focus group discussion : Gerba welcomes the participants, introduces the project, the objectives and explains how the whole happy strategy approach works.
This game has been adapted for communities and is used to identify what the best watershed management would be from the perspective of the farmers. In addition we want to identify what hampers adoption of the wished practices and identify the needed interventions allowing the adoption of those practices. Finally we also try to capture upstream downstream effect, identify winners and losers in the landscape as well as trade-off and synergies.

The used approach is the following (in gender separated groups):

1. participatory watershed mapping exercise, in order to create a map that all the participants can understand, with colored post-it they can indicate land use.
Mapping exercise with the women's group in Gorosole 
2. Identifying rainwater management practices that the farmer know of, these are selected from the happy strategy game
The happy strategy cards are ready, as farmers mention a practice , the relevant card is introduced into the game 
3. Let every participant choose her/his favorite practice, place it on the map and discuss with the group why the practice should be there, the benefits of the practices and if it is adopted what type of support they got or if it is not adopted what hamper adoption.
A participant choosing a card (Shambu)

A participant explaining his choice (Shambu)
4. Discuss synergies and trade-offs of the ideal watershed
The facilitator Zerihun, in the discussion with the farmers (Shambu)

5. presenting the work to the other group and have a more general discussion and evaluation. 

Women's group presenting their work on their final map (Shambu)
The men are carefully listening to the presentation of the women's work, after it will be the other way round (Shambu)

The whole processes in followed by at least two note takers who make sure that none of the relevant information gets lost. 
Gerba taking notes from the general discussion (Gorosole)

We have been developing feasibility maps that show where which practice should be feasible in terms of bio-physical but also socio-economic conditions. Results from these focus group will be used to validate these maps. Basing validation upon an wished watershed management instead of observed adoption on the ground might in the Ethiopian context be a smarter way to validate the maps. Indeed, due to important top down policies, practices might be adopted on an non-suitable location. Other practices might not be adopted, not because they are not suitable but because farmers crucially lack access to input, finances or knowledge (which is difficult to map and take into account in our feasibility maps).
The discussion in Oromia went very well, both women and men came up with new ideas, challenging our maps and our understanding of the landscape. Finally, in Gorosole, one of the participant has mentioned in the evaluation round, that he is very happy that he was given the chance to think about future beyond of what he has and he believes to be within his reach, in a time that is about "to be or not to be". 
Discussion from the different focus group discussions and lessons learnt will follow in up coming posts. 

Some impressions from the discussions : 
women's group presentation (Gorosole)
Men's group, defining the land use of their watershed (with colored post-it) (Gorosole)
Women's group defining land use is their watershed (Shambu) in a calm and silent way
Men's group defining land use in their watershed (Shambu) in a lively discussion
A very lively general discussion in Shambu
Find the Happy Strategies website :

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Changing livelihoods at very little costs : the tree nursery in Zefie watershed

In Zefie watershed, the NGO Tana Beles (  has instated a tree nursery based on a very interesting concept. The government has given some of the communal land to the NGO to set up a tree nursery near to the river outlet. As the river is perennial, water can be carried from the river to water the seedlings. The 3 employees are paid by the NGO. As their wage is very little, the employees are allowed to use the unused land for their own purpose. The employees plant garlic and onions. These are high value crop they can grow in the dry season by irrigating the plots. In this way the employees can improve their wages.
The tree nursery
The nursery produces grow multi-purpose tree seedling, namely Saglina, Lucerne and Sesbania. Multi-purpose trees as its name indicates fulfills different purposes such as nitrogen binding (and therefore increasing soil fertility), providing timber/fuel, providing high quality fodder for livestock. In addition, trees increase water infiltration when planted on the slope. Despite of these benefits, adoption of multi-purpose trees is low. It might be because alternative land uses such as crop production provides more immediate benefits than trees that need time to grow.
Tree seedlings

Nonetheless, there are smart option for multipurpose trees, such as planting them on the contours or to stabilize gullies or soil bunds. Multipurpose trees might also be a key in farming systems in which livestock intensity is increasing. Indeed, it can provide protein rich fodder that is crucially needed when local cow breeds are replaced by improved breeds that are more productive or to address some fodder shortages during the dry season.
Access to water for the nursery (and outlet of the watershed)
Accessing multipurpose tree seedlings is one of the biggest challenge for farmers and one of the reason why farmers do not adopt multipurpose tree. Tana Beles addresses this gap by promoting the tree nursery. It is good example on how development work can possibly change farming systems and livelihoods of smallholders without costing a lot of money. The tree nursery initiative is very recent, only time will show if it will bring the hoped benefits.