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. Read the rest of this entry »
When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, it shone a spotlight on the need to ease the dangerous overcrowding of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. So, after responding to the disaster with emergency programs,Oxfam shifted some of our focus to the countryside. Together with our partners, we ramped up our program to reinvigorate the rice economy of the Artibonite Valley, with the goals of reducing rural poverty, contributing to food security in Haiti, and—by making rice farming more viable—counteracting the continuous pull to migrate from the country to the city. As Oxfam’s Elizabeth Stevens reports in a series of blog posts, Haiti’s rice farmers are embracing the program and making it their own.
Oxfam and our partners have helped restore 4,700 acres of land to cultivation by clearing and repairing irrigation channels. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam
The muddy water coursing along the roadsides and through the rice fields of the Artibonite Valley plays a prominent role in the lives of rice farmers. Rivers and channels nourish the rice, the vegetables, the goats and cows, and the riot of greenery in the countryside. But when storms and hurricanes strike, it’s those same waterways that overflow and carry away livestock, drown the crops, contaminate wells, and deliver deadly cholera bacteria to rural communities.
If the water moves freely through the channels—unimpeded by sediment, weeds, and debris—the risks subside, and the benefits can transform communities, which is why we’ve focused resources on helping farmers clear more than 60 miles of irrigation canals.
Dubuisson is one of the towns where we’ve been working, and I visited there with an Oxfam team last month. Clearing channels isn’t all we’re up to in this area. We and our partner have introduced methods of improving rice yields, provided access to low-interest loans, and helped boost the vegetable harvest in the off season for rice. But here what people talked about most was what it’s meant to them to restore irrigation to fields that had gone dry.
Farmers clearing a field near Brocozele, in the Artibonite River valley in Haiti. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America
In a small town called Brocozele, you can stand at the edge of the irrigation channel running along the road and look out across the rice fields and see the problem: One part of the vast area in front of you is green with the nearly mature rice plants, and just next to it is a grey, brown expanse of land choked with weeds and little else. The local farmers just can’t get the water up and out of the irrigation channel and into these fields. And for the last 18 months they say there has not been enough rain to bother planting there. Read the rest of this entry »
To reach their fields, farmers must cross a seasonal stream in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
We had a lot of rain here in the Boston area this spring. Endless rain, it felt like. Would it ever stop?
I’m embarrassed now to have whined about it when I think what some steady rain could do for people in the Horn of Africa. Many of them are desperate for it.
The late 2010 rainy season failed completely in many parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. And in some districts of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, the March through May rains have been only about 10 percent of average. For herders and farmers who depend on every drop, the consequences could be severe: Already there are reports of hundreds of thousands of animals having died.
Climate change is leading to longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns—all of which make it harder for farmers, both experienced and just learning, to decide when to sow and cultivate their crops. Read the rest of this entry »
Galgalo Boru is a herder who also depends in rain-fed fields to feed his family. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
It’s been years since the grasses of Deed Liben grew tall, ensuring a safe haven for wildlife and abundant nutrition for the herds of cattle and goats that families in the Guji zone of southern Ethiopia depend on for food and income. In a handful of places, preservation efforts have restored some of this renowned pastureland, but for many people, including Galgalo Boru, making a living by herding alone is no longer an option here.
Late one afternoon, as sheets of rain and sunshine washed the plain, he sat by the side of the road, a few cows behind him munching shoots of green the rain had coaxed from the ground. He was alone and contemplating the five hectares of wheat and haricot beans he had planted recently on the far side of the road. Some of it had sprouted—slivers of possibility pushing through the red earth—but so much depends on what comes next: sun that scorches or clouds that cool and bring rain?
Boru could only hope.
“I am a pastoralist,” he said. “But I lost many animals and now I am farming. Now, I don’t have animals except for a pair of oxen and a donkey.”
The rain came late to this region, and the dry days, seemingly endless, put severe stress on families and their animals. In the last month alone eight of Boru’s precious herd died, including six lactating cows and an ox. Weak and hungry from drought, most of them collapsed in the cold rain.
The pattern is hardly new—though climate change may be exacerbating it—and it’s one of the realities of this hardscrabble region that is pushing herding families to find new ways of making a living. Some are now turning to farming; some, like Boru, have long combined the cultivation of small plots with the care of livestock. With rain so unpredictable, however, there is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of encouraging agriculture here, and across the sweep of southern Ethiopia’s pasturelands. Read the rest of this entry »
Garde Tilmark and Gregory Mordaly unload gravel at the Colora irrigation project. Ami Vitale/Oxfam America
“QUELQUES PHOTOS” shouted the subject line of the email.
Someone’s excited, I thought, as my brain registered the caps but stalled at the French.
It was Yves Guillame Chancy, the technical manager of PROBINA , an Oxfam Quebec partner in Haiti, and when I opened his message and clicked on the attachments I saw why. High in the hills of Colora, a farming community several hours’ drive northwest of Port-au-Prince, construction of the small irrigation system Chancy had been overseeing was now finished and he had sent pictures to show me.
“The last time in Belladere you see the men at work—and today an idea of the finished work,” said Chancy in his short, but proud message. His enthusiasm was infectious. I grinned. Watch the work here.
Down below, water would be snaking through more than 60 acres of fields bringing the promise of abundant crops to about 150 farmers. And instead of just one harvest a year, some farmers said they would be able to coax three from their fields now that they’ll have a reliable source of water.
“It means my family will have more food and a harvest to sell and our kids will go to school,” said Laventure Benad. In Haiti, where nearly 8o percent of the country’s 9.6 million people live on less than $2 a day and 38 percent of them over the age of 15 are illiterate, the new reality Benad hopes for is no small feat. And it’s the kind of step forward that will be essential to replicate if Haiti is to recover from the devastation left in the wake of January 12 earthquake. Read the rest of this entry »
Terraces around the village of Ashenge have been built to help conserve the soil. Photo by Marc Cohen/Oxfam America
Marc Cohen is Oxfam America’s senior researcher on humanitarian policy and climate change. Here’s his account of a recent visit to northern Ethiopia where famine struck a quarter century ago.
Twenty-five years ago, Michael Buerk’s dramatic BBC footage from Korem, in northern Ethiopia, brought a devastating famine to the world’s attention. Tens of thousands of people had sought refuge from war and drought in the town. Every 20 minutes, a camp resident died from hunger and related diseases. Buerk called Korem “the closest thing to hell on earth.”
Last year, I traveled to Korem while working on a research project about decentralization in Ethiopia and how that affects men and women farmers’ access to services. My colleagues and I arrived in the town just as the regional Orthodox Christian patriarch was inaugurating a large new church; hundreds of people had turned out for the colorful ceremony. This celebration was a big contrast with the grim images of 1984.
But it was a meeting with Merzeneb Firkado—her first name means “honey from heaven”—that made me realize how much has changed for people in the Korem area since that terrible period. Read the rest of this entry »
An improved irrigation system in Shasha Korke is a significant improvement for a modest investment. (Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam America)
When I visited Shasha Korke in Ethiopia a few months ago, I had what I call a good Oxfam Day. A good Oxfam day is when I get to meet people and organizations that take a little help from Oxfam and achieve something positive. It doesn’t mean that everything is perfect now, but there is a significant improvement and people feel good about what they have done. And they can show that when they work together, they can accomplish something important.
Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.
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