Ethiopia: Small Scale Irrigation and Rural Development in Ethiopia


Ethiopia is one of the largest and highly populated countries in Africa. It has tremendous natural wealth including land and water resources. It has, however, mixed experiences with promoting irrigation and other modern agricultural technologies. Promoting small-scale irrigation (SSI) and rainwater harvesting are central to Ethiopia’s new policy and strategy on agricultural and rural development.

Seleshi Bekele (Ph.D), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy of Ethiopia, in his work entitled: Investigation of water resources aimed at multi-objective development with respect to limited data situation: the case of Abaya-Chamo Basin, pointed out the need for assessing the impacts of SSI interventions, opportunities and constraints. In some regions, there is evidence that irrigation has created some positive impacts: better opportunity for production, better income and low risks and benefits for poor rural communities.

There is a general perception in all regions of Ethiopia that the current trend of low performance of some of the small-scale irrigation schemes is related to flawed project design and lack of adequate community consultation during project planning. Since small proportion of the potential is used and most of the SSI programs are currently in the planning stages, and are yet to be implemented, these perceptions should be seen as providing a unique opportunity to learn from these drawbacks. If ignored, well-intended efforts of the government and NGOs are likely to continue falling short of their intended impacts.

Due to lack of water storage capacity and large spatial and temporal variations in rainfall, as Dr. Seleshi observed, there is not enough water for most farmers to produce more than one crop per year with frequent crop failures. In addition to droughts, there is significant erosion, reducing the productivity of farmland. The rain-fed agricultural output is negatively affected by shortage of water. There is also progressive degradation of the natural resource base, especially in highly vulnerable areas of the highlands, which aggravates the incidence of poverty and food insecurity in rural areas. To minimize this insecurity, food is imported.

The government has designed a comprehensive food security strategy that targets the chronically food insecure especially in highly vulnerable areas. These areas are the marginal and semi-arid zones that are largely “moisture deficient,” including pastoral areas, with high population pressure. If the strategy is effectively and sustainably implemented, it can make significant contributions to the welfare of the poor. The current situation in rural Ethiopia is a “vicious cycle” that includes the following dimensions: population growth, unfavorable agriculture and livestock environment, deforestation, cutting trees for fuel wood, agricultural land and water degradation leading to low productivity, food insecurity and poor health.

The failure to adopt productive small scale irrigation is one of the reasons for food insecurity in Ethiopia. The major problems associated with managing agricultural water include long dry spells, leading to crop failures; recurring droughts; huge water resources potential but with spatial and temporal variability; unutilized water due to lack of infrastructure; lack of investment capital; the trans boundary nature of the rivers; stagnation in food crop production and productivity using water resources; other problems are related to supportive institutions, water use rights, management, etc.

Rural variations: Rural Ethiopia exhibits huge social and economic variations. Some of the social variations are reflected in terms of ethnic, tribal, and religious factors. Economic variations are reflected in infrastructure development such as roads, electricity, telecom and postal services. However, investments in irrigation emerge as key factor triggering rural discrepancy. The multiplier effects of investments in agricultural intensification, such as irrigation, are considerable in some regions and “negligible” in others. For each unit of investment in agriculture, the value of economic activity in forward and backward linkages including input supply, trade, export, and processing adds more than the initial investment.

Some of these conditions are believed to be essential if SSI is to contribute to agricultural development in Ethiopia. Primarily, irrigation should improve the livelihoods and food security situation of the farmers; it should improve their household income, based on optimal plot sizes and crop choices that enhance productivity. As precondition, the cost of farm management including infrastructure, technology, and water usage must be an acceptably small proportion of the income derived from irrigation. Also, the benefits must give incentives that facilitate rational production decisions by the farmers. The SSI schemes must have a certain level of access to institutional support services, including access to inputs, output markets, credit, extension, and use rights to land and water Irrigation.

In Ethiopia Irrigation is one means by which agricultural production can be increased to meet the growing demand for food. Increasing demand can be met in several ways and these are increasing agricultural yield, increasing the area of arable land, and increasing cropping intensity or the number of crops per year. Expansion of the area under cultivation is a limited option due to the marginal and vulnerable characteristic of large parts of the available land. Awulachew reveals that increasing yields in both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture and cropping intensity in irrigated areas through various methods and technologies are viable options for achieving food security in Ethiopia.

If the problem is failure of production as a result of natural causes such as drought, agricultural production can be stabilized and increased by providing for irrigation and retention of more rainwater. The challenge that Ethiopia faces in terms of food insecurity is associated with both inadequate food production due to high growth rate of population, and natural failures due to erratic rainfall. Therefore, increasing arable land and agricultural yield alone may not contribute to food security in the country. Environmental impacts, deforestation and unpredictable climate may contribute to food insecurity.

Ethiopia has to devise a strategy of availing water for production and expansion of irrigation that can lead to food security. This helps to ensure reliable harvest as well as intensification of cropping with the intent of producing at least twice a year. This should be combined with improved partitioning, storage and soil water-retention capacity to increase availability of water. It is advisable to use rainwater for overcoming erratic rainfall especially in the relatively higher rainfall areas of highland Ethiopia. The estimates of the irrigation potential in the country vary due to lack of standard criteria.

Master plan for irrigation: One of the limiting factors of irrigation potential is water extraction. The deep and narrow gorges make water abstraction costs extremely high. However, construction of multipurpose dams for irrigation, hydropower and flood control may help reduce the cost of development. Ethiopia indeed has significant irrigation potential assessed both from available land and water resources potential. Irrespective of the lack of information on what is the accurate potential and what has been developed, the government has made efforts to expand SSI. Despite these efforts, the country has not achieved sufficient irrigated agriculture to overcome the problems of food insecurity and extreme rural poverty.

Parallel to the water sector development program, there are considerable efforts to develop master plans for the various river basins. Comprehensive master plans for five basins are already developed. With these master plans, a number of medium and large-scale irrigation projects are identified. The challenge is to transform these master plans into practice through undertaking feasibility studies, design and construction, operation and maintenance in a sustainable and profitable manner. The government needs to consider the opportunities that large and medium scale schemes provide as mechanisms of food security. Many developing countries have invested in irrigation schemes for the alleviation of poverty.

Developing countries have normally constructed small-scale modern irrigations schemes after catastrophic droughts. These are intended to to achieve food security and better livelihoods for peasants through producing cash crops. Such schemes involve dams and the diversion of streams and rivers. The constructed and completed schemes are usually “handed over” to the peasant associations for management, operation and maintenance with the support of personnel from the government. Technically speaking, they use “micro irrigation” or small-scale technologies for lifting, conveying and applying irrigation water. It includes small power pumps to lift water, and a variety of irrigation application technologies such as small bucket and drip systems, and small sprinkler systems.