North and South Gonder - Food security assessment in parts of the Tekeze River watershed
Assessment Mission: May 26-June 7, 1999
By Yves Guinand, UN-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia
Objectives of mission and methodology used
The objective of the UN-EUE mission to North and South Gonder was to assess the food security situation in weredas bordering or being part of the Tekeze River watershed. Furthermore, the mission tried to understand a variety of historical aspects concerning agricultural and other development activities as well as food aid and relief activities in these areas. Please refer to the map annexed to this report for itinerary and places visited.
The information and results presented in this report were collected during the field mission using Rapid Rural Assessment (RRA) and the more adequate field-level Participatory Rural Assessment (PRA) techniques. Apart from having met most of the principal governmental and non-governmental actors at regional, zonal, wereda and kebele level, the mission conducted a number of group discussions with farmers as well as discussions with experienced and knowledgeable key informants in the target areas. In two places (Qualissa, Ibnat wereda and Hamusit, Belessa wereda) resource ranking games were conducted with representatives of two ‘Gots’1. Resource ranking gives indications concerning the stratification of the population living in the area. Furthermore it gives indications about available resources and their respective importance for households of each defined category2. In addition spontaneous farmer interviews at markets, in the field, along the road etc. were conducted.
Also available secondary literature and data were consulted in order to compare the current situation with previous years as well as to review the work and achievements of other institutions and organisations involved in development and humanitarian activities in the visited areas.
The Tekeze River watershed is considered as one of the most remote areas in Ethiopia. The climate is hot; the land is rocky and arid. The sandy soils are of poor quality and were long considered unsuitable for farming. Original settlers used the Tekeze River lowlands more for their livestock as pastureland than for agriculture. The area was also neglected for many years and there were few if any development activities. The two major reasons for its neglect were its remoteness and the fact that the area became a TPLF (Tigrean People’s Liberation Front) stronghold during the former socialist government.
Looking at the demography of the area, the population density today is well above the sustainability margin of the area’s fragile ecological system. Increased population pressures, especially in the highland areas, put more and more pressure on available land and parts of the formerly rich highlands are currently changing into food deficiency areas. Many poor farm families were forced to leave the highlands and to open vulnerable areas such as escarpment areas and steep slopes for cultivation. Eventually, the Tekeze River watershed was the only place left to open new land for cultivation. In some of the Tekeze River lowland areas people began to settle as far as forty years ago. Then there were only few. But nowadays the persistent search for cultivable croplands, for example on steep slopes, has resulted in massive deforestation which in turn has led to significant soil erosion, decreasing soil fertility and even marginalisation and complete depletion of land (see picture in annex).
The area is meher dependent with only one harvest per year. The main crop planted is sorghum. For the last ten to twenty years rains are said to have become erratic, with poor kiremt rain seasons becoming the norm rather than the exception. Erratic rainfall patterns and periodic rain shortages have become a fact of life for farmers in and around the Tekeze River lowlands with long dry periods being followed by heavy rains and hail storms, which damage crops. These heavy rains cause flooding and substantial erosion while on the degraded surface water run-off rate are high and water infiltration low. Nowadays less water flows from permanent springs and some of the seasonal springs provide water for only a short period of time or have dried out for good. The causes and the remedy are unknown or at least vague to farmers who say ‘only god knows’.
Nevertheless, with the new government in place since 1991, some basic development efforts have been undertaken in selected weredas bordering or being part of the Tekeze River watershed. Especially Ibnat wereda of South Gonder zone and its neighbouring Belessa wereda of North Gonder zone received considerable attention and benefited from road construction programs, terracing and small scale irrigation projects mostly carried out under food-for-work (FFW) development activities and employment generation scheme (EGS) relief activities. Many farm families are gaining income and are receiving food aid through these channels. But apart from creating temporary employment opportunities for farm households, some of these projects are of questionable effectiveness and their sustainability.
About the difficulty to restore lost household assets and resources after famine
All weredas the mission focused on are included among the 47 weredas (out of 105 in Amhara Region) defined as “food insecure” by the region. All food insecure weredas are situated in the east of Amhara Region, i.e. in the belg belt and its adjacent areas of both Gonder zones around the Tekeze River watershed.
Since the last serious drought in 1984, farm households tried to accumulate assets such as cattle, plough oxen, ‘shoats’ (sheep and goats) and cash. But only few managed to gain back what they lost. Nowadays the majority of the population is left more impoverished than before 1984. The cycle of natural and especially man-made disasters is becoming shorter to a point where reestablishment of pre-disaster conditions becomes impossible without massive inputs and help from outside. Reestablishment of pre-disaster conditions has become virtually impossible due to high population growth rates, high rates of natural resource degradation, poor health and sanitation conditions, low levels of farm technology, limited off-farm employment opportunities, none or very limited market access, high levels of illiteracy and school non-attendance, other government priorities leading to the diversion of needed and already scarce resources and many more such factors indicating and defining severe underdevelopment.
As a matter of fact, subsistence farming is now wishful thinking for the majority of farm households in the visited areas. Furthermore, in 1997 the government, for the first time since 1975, undertook yet another land distribution, leaving quite a number of people landless and many more with an insufficient amount of land.
While realising that targeting the poorest is a primary necessity, food has to be supplied in sufficient amount even to the better-off segment of the population to prevent a general erosion of assets in chronicle food shortage areas. The way food aid still is targeted towards the poorest strata of a population in an already very poor, underdeveloped and impoverished environment represents an important obstacle to the restoration of lost household assets.