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In Ethiopia, irrigation brings more than water

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A channel for the Girisa-Golba irrigation project brings water from the Dadaba River to farmers. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
A channel for the Girisa-Golba irrigation project brings water from the Dadaba River to farmers. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

As I inched along the edge of the irrigation channel snaking around a steep slope of stone and scrub, I couldn’t help but admire the woman in front of me—so light on her feet.  She was a local woman clearly used to skipping over rough terrain, even in the sandals she was now wearing with low heels and no backs. How did she manage to keep them on, much less balance so effortlessly on that narrow wall?

It was just another sign of the intrepid spirit that inspired this feat of back-breaking labor: the construction of 1.5 kilometers of concrete channel that has now brought farmers in Girisa, Ethiopia, a steady supply of water. Without it, their families would go hungry.

To reach this place, we had crossed the Dadaba River on a narrow bridge impassable by car. The water beneath, churning with Ethiopia’s topsoil, plunged through the gulch on its way to the headwall of the Girisa-Golba irrigation project—a small-scale gravity-fed system implemented by Oxfam America and its local partner, the Center for Development Initiatives (CDI). Without a better bridge, families on the far side remain cut-off, even from the most basic essentials. As we approached, a small crowd of people made their way slowly over the bridge: It was an emergency brigade ferrying a sick woman to a medical clinic. Their vehicle? A flat cart hitched to a horse—the only mode of transport that could make the crossing safely.

Their passage drove the point home: To build the irrigation channel on the other side required not just untold hours of labor but ingenuity. How do you get tons of concrete across a raging river when the only bridge is a stretch of logs packed with dirt? The answer was to assemble a metal shoot on the side of the gorge and slide the construction materials down it to the river’s edge. From there, laborers—many of them local villagers hired by the construction company–did the rest of the porting on their backs.

As I sat in the shade of a tree outside Aliye Bati’s home a short hike from the end of the irrigation channel, it was clear what the hard-won and precious water meant to him.

“Because of a shortage of rain, there was not enough food,” said Bati simply. For a farmer with six children to feed, a lack of rain could be devastating. But now, the onions, cabbage, coffee beans, and papaya Bati grows have a steady supply of water, ensuring that not only can his family eat, but  that there is income to send his children to school—an opportunity he never had.

And the power of the water doesn’t stop there. Across the river, Oxfam and CDI are building a second irrigation line to bring farmers in the Arsi Negele district a supply, too.

“Even God would not like to use the same resource and only help one side,” said Abduro Bati.

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