Gedif Tadele, 53, is a farmer in Cheboch village near Merawi town, the capital of North Mecha district in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Gedif depends on his produce for a living and to sustain his family. But the structure of the land is changing, and soil is becoming increasingly infertile. Degraded land — land that has lost some degree of its natural productivity due to human activities — is threatening his livelihood.

“The landscape of this area has changed a lot,” Gedif said. “When I was a child, this place was meadow [suitable for farming]; there was no deterioration. Now, the land is eroded and the soil is being washed away when it rains.”

Farmer standing in field.
Gedif Tadele, 53, a resident of Cheboch village. Credit: WaterAid/Frehiwot Gebrewold.

More than 85% of Ethiopia’s land is now degraded. This is particularly pronounced in the country’s highlands where most farming takes place. Land degradation and associated soil loss can exacerbate food and water insecurity, poverty and biodiversity loss, and affect socio-economic development and the livelihoods of millions.

Why Are Ethiopia’s Landscapes Changing?

Several factors contribute to the degradation of landscapes and ecosystems in Ethiopia.

Inadequate land and resource management — seen through widespread deforestation, overgrazing, cultivation on steep slopes and unsuitable farming practices — is common. Climate change is also worsening aridification in many parts of Ethiopia, leading to increasingly drier conditions and aggravating rainfall variability and intensity, which drives further soil loss. In Amhara, land degradation is expanding, threatening agricultural productivity, water supplies and livelihoods.

“[My] parents tell us that the land was not like this before,” said Yezina Alemneh, 25, a young farmer and mother from the village. “Most of it was farmland before. But now, it is impossible to plough and plant crops on the land as it is not leveled. Every time it rains, so much soil is washed away that it is making the land sink.”

Yezina Alemneh, 25, of Cheboch village. Credit: WaterAid/Frehiwot Gebrewold
Yezina Alemneh, 25, of Cheboch village. Credit: WaterAid/Frehiwot Gebrewold

Meanwhile, erosion from poor land and water management strips away valuable topsoil and prevents rainwater from being absorbed into the land, making it harder to grow food while also limiting groundwater recharge and decreasing water availability and quality for households and irrigation.

The cumulative effect limits a community’s ability to be food secure and adapt to a changing climate.

Promoting Healthy Landscapes and Watersheds

Promoting healthy watersheds and restoring degraded land can mitigate the effects of erosion and natural resource loss while boosting agricultural productivity.

WRI is undertaking a three-year project (2022-2024) to help reduce water stress, increase climate resilience, and enhance sustainable and resilient water supplies in Ethiopia. The geographic focus is the Tana Subbasin and the woredas (districts) of North Mecha, Farta and Dera in Amhara Region, which overlap with the Subbasin. Partners include the Millennium Water Alliance, Abbay Basin Administration Office and WaterAid. The project aims to improve the governance of water resources, basin planning processes, and land and watershed health by strengthening water and climate-related data systems, analytical and management capacities, and collaboration and learning across sectoral actors and offices.

The project is organized around four key objectives and components: (1) provide support for better data and analysis to enhance decision-making, (2) improve governance and capacity to better manage water resources, (3) implement watershed management to improve water flow and quality and (4) a cross-cutting commitment to elevate lessons nationally and internationally.

While WRI is leading overall project management and implementation, WaterAid joined the project consortium to take on the project’s third component. WaterAid Ethiopia works with non-governmental or civil society organizations and communities to tackle the impacts of climate change and improve water availability and sanitation practices, aiming to change people’s lives.

View of the degraded Minzir 01 watershed
Taken after Ethiopia’s rainy season, this view of the degraded Minzir 01 watershed, located in the North Mecha district of Amhara Region, shows evident signs of gully formation and low stream flow. Degraded landscapes can reduce soil fertility, water availability and quality. Photo credit: WaterAid/Frehiwot Gebrewold

The third component, led in close collaboration with WRI and consortium partners, centers on activities in one micro-watershed of the project area to rehabilitate the landscape and restore degraded soil. Minzir 01, a micro-watershed of about 500 hectares, was selected by the consortium as the intervention landscape. The component rests on efforts at watershed, kebele (village) and community levels, primarily through the promotion and adoption of more sustainable natural resource use practices, including through revegetation, reforestation and soil and water conservation. In parallel, the project promotes water safety planning to better preserve water supplies and quality, with strong participation of communities and district level officials.  

Gedif is the deputy leader of the new watershed management committee that was recently established to help manage the rehabilitation of Minzir 01 and mobilize local communities in the conservation work.

To improve livelihood opportunities and reduce dependence on natural resources from the landscape, the project organized a first provision of seedlings in mid-2022 to households residing in the watershed, along with training on proper planting and management. Initial seedlings included avocado, coffee, gesho, lemon and mango, aimed at boosting and diversifying household income while revitalizing the landscape. Community members also planted additional non-invasive fruit and commercial trees to restore degraded soils.

Distributing seedlings
Seedlings of different kinds were distributed to households for landscape rehabilitation and livelihood improvement. Photo credit: WaterAid/Mulatu Adane

In parallel, WaterAid has provided support to the development of a water safety plan for the water supply scheme present in the watershed. Water safety planning, introduced by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a participatory process that aims to identify and then address potential threats to a water system through its full cycle, from source to ultimate endpoint and user. WaterAid Ethiopia is working with the local water user association, the watershed management committee, elderly leaders from surrounding kebeles and officials at the kebele- and district-levels who work in water, agriculture, forestry, environment and health.

WaterAid assists the community in developing a water safety plan for the water supply scheme in the Minzir 01 watershed
WaterAid assists the community in developing a water safety plan for the water supply scheme in the Minzir 01 watershed. Photo credit: WaterAid/Mulatu Adane

Ambaye Ewnetu, 27, a farmer and resident of Cheboch, recently took on the role of finance coordinator for the Minzir 01 watershed committee.

“People with a big plot of land grow teff in this area,” he said. “But now, it is becoming very difficult for people to grow teff. Even some of the houses are now at risk because if the degradation continues like this, their lands may be destroyed and washed away by running water.”

Ambaye Ewnetu, 27-year-old farmer and resident of Cheboch village
Ambaye Ewnetu, 27-year-old farmer and resident of Cheboch village. Credit: WaterAid/Frehiwot Gebrewold

More activities on landscape rehabilitation and promoting water safety will take place in 2023.

Water and Land Are Life

There are strong links between food and water security and watershed health. Protecting source waters, restoring degraded land and promoting climate-resilient water supply systems are vital to maintaining or improving soil productivity and the flow of water to people. Landscape restoration coupled with community-based sustainable watershed management can increase availability of water supplies and enhance water quality for household and productive uses.

The project approach can be scaled to other nearby landscapes and watersheds, and eventually, the goal is to expand this work to other districts and watersheds in the Tana Subbasin.

Only by revitalizing degraded landscapes and promoting sound land and water management can rural communities see improved opportunities, reduced vulnerability to food and water insecurity, and resilience to climate change.

*Frehiwot Gebrewold is a Voices from the Field Communications Specialist, WaterAid Ethiopia