Ethiopia is suffering from severe drought, but there is water in Gergera. 20 years of restoring its hills and river valley has brought life back to this area of the Tigray region in the country’s far north.
The work has been painstaking, complex and multidimensional and continues to this day. But the hard-won results offer up two key lessons. We know now that landscape restoration in drylands hinges on water management. And we know, just as importantly, that restoration can create a base for better livelihoods and jobs for youth who formerly left in droves.
Government ministers visited the revitalised watershed on 31 May 2017 after signing a memo of understanding to establish a National Agroforestry Platform to support climate-resilient green growth and transformation. Over 40 prominent figures attended, including ministers of state Kaba Urgesa and Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes, Wubalem Tadesse of the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute, Fassil Kebede, adviser to the minister of agriculture, and Eleni Gabre Madhin, founder of Ethiopia’s commodity exchange and representatives of embassies, development agencies, and civil society groups such as Oxfam, Farm Africa, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and Packard.
Gergera watershed covers 1382 hectares in the kebele (Ethiopia’s smallest administrative unit) of Hayelom in Atsbi-Wonberta district in the eastern zone of Tigray. The visit began at the head of the valley where community leaders had gathered. Alighting and looking around, Ethiopia’s minister of agriculture and natural resources Eyasu Abraha was visibly moved. “I know this place. It was abandoned and untouched. This is very incredible to me,” he said.
The group stood under tall trees, bathed by bird song, with luscious grasses and pools of clean water at their feet. So that it can regenerate, this part of Gergera has long been closed to cattle. “The first thing you notice is the change of vegetation,” said World Agroforestry Centre’s director general Tony Simons, pointing out a Sclerocarya birrea, the Marula tree which has a nutritious plum-like fruit with a kernel with oil prized for cosmetics by firms such as the Body Shop.
By consent of the community, only cutting and carrying grass to livestock and beekeeping are permissible in this upper catchment. Indeed, the wooded hillsides are rife with carefully placed hives. Gabions (mesh cages filled with rocks) built by members of the community slow the rain water when it courses down the chasm, which, formerly too deep to cross, is gradually filling as earth builds up behind the structures. Critically, this earth now retains rainwater, which seeps into the ground and emerges as groundwater in the valley where 1,000 hectares of land are now under small scale irrigation. Meanwhile, more tree cover on the hills means that when surface water does reach the valley, it does so with less destructive velocity.
It was not always like this. Landscape degradation in Ethiopia is centuries old. A painting from 1951 in Ethiopia’s National Museum shows erosion devouring arable land. “During the period of the Emperor and the Derg, degradation was so severe that once we were forced to dismantle a church at risk of being swept away!” said elder Khasay Gebreselaasie, referring to the regime which ruled from 1974 for 17 years. But the fall of the Derg brought a groundswell of activity to address agricultural productivity in an area once struck by famine.
The people took the initiative to rehabilitate the environment,” explained the administrator of Hayelom, Habtom Woreta. “That is when Irish Aid came in and we became a model watershed for the region and the world. You can see how the area is transformed! Biodiversity has increased and we have hand dug wells at 1m deep because of recharge. And none of this is in vain. Now we have TVs in the houses. Before we slept on mats, now we have beds.”
Once a hot spot for the perilous out migration of youth, even that has changed. When Irish Aid representative Aileen O’Donovan asked “about job creation for the youth, who are motivated but restless”, Kebele leader Tsuruy proudly said. “We have 1,070 youngsters, of whom 506 are employed due to restoration”.
“This is music to my ears,” said Abraha, the minister of agriculture, whose government recently completed a rural job opportunity strategy.
Down in the valley, young men were building gabions to deflect a gully away from the fields that would be destroyed if the water flowed unchecked after the rains. They are paid under Ethiopia’s cash transfer scheme, the Productive Safety Net Programme, to which the UK contributes over £50m a year. They also donate 40 days of their time for free, both as a social obligation and in anticipation of receiving reclaimed land from the state. Asked why they were doing this, they shouted, “to earn daily bread and stop the loss of land. The land was going!”
There were more young men as well as women at the rural resource centre, a former government nursery now supported by the World Agroforestry Centre, which guides the restoration. They earn their living selling trees, particularly avocado, and 13 fodder grass species. They currently have tree seedlings and vegetable plantlets for sale worth altogether $11,523 as well as $10,000 saved in the bank.
As the trip wrapped up, the community served bread and honey from the recovering hills. State minister for livestock and fisheries Gebregziabher Gebreyohannes said “what has been seen today is job creation” and “cash transfers improving the lives of the poor”. And Kiros Hagdu, who leads the World Agroforestry Centre in Ethiopia, said his centre was committed to evidence-based restoration of farms and landscapes with the government and communities and that now was “the time to scale-up the successes nationally”.
The minister of agriculture had the last word. “Agroforestry is becoming the heart and the mind of the government,” said Abraha. “What we see here is really the beginning of transformation. All those youngsters who wanted to migrate will have productive land.”