Initial Research Highlights Importance of Irrigation for Ethiopian Farmers During COVID-19

September 11, 2020

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Sewagegn, a local smallholder farmer, and Gebeyaw, a data collector, set up Sewagegn's solar powered pump to irrigate her backyard garden in Danghesta, Amhara region of Ethiopia
Photo Credit: Mulugeta Ayene/WLE

This post was originally posted on Agrilinks and was written by Prachi Patel.

Agriculture sustains the Ethiopian economy, and access to irrigation here is critical for food security. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, the World Food Programme estimates acute hunger will double worldwide, with concern particularly high for Africa. Farmer-led irrigation can support crop production during dry spells or in the dry season, building resilience against climate change. But can farmer-led irrigation build resilience against other shocks, like the health and economic risks associated with a global pandemic? 

In May, International Water Management Institute (IWMI) researchers contacted 32 agricultural households in Danghista, located in Dangila Woreda in the Amhara Region of Ethiopia. They gathered anecdotal evidence to find out how irrigating and non-irrigating households are coping in the time of the coronavirus and how they are affected by government measures to prevent spread. For instance, had COVID-19-related restrictions affected income from irrigation and nutrition intake? And had households changed the ways they allocate water? 

Ethiopia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. In response, the government announced a range of public health measures. The protocols, while critical for public health, affected agriculture in the country. Vegetable value chains were disrupted, for example, resulting in people in urban areas, like the capital city of Addis Ababa, consuming fewer fruits and vegetables. Trade was affected by limited travel and competition. Farmers faced low prices and reduced access to goods like fertilizer and seeds. 

Income losses for irrigating farmers — and a few unexpected gains 

This year, during the traditionally busy Lent period in April, markets remained quiet as COVID-19 mitigation measures blocked farmers from transporting and selling goods. 

Farmers with access to irrigation technologies, like solar pumps, can grow and sell crops despite limited rain during the dry season. Unlike non-irrigating households, this brings in additional income and builds resilience against climate variability. However, our study found that irrigating households who normally sell their produce during the dry season said restricted transportation, particularly before Easter, limited this source of income.  

With transportation blocked or capacity halved and costs increased, as well as fewer traders coming to rural areas to buy produce, irrigating households with produce to sell reported being more affected than non-irrigating households by restrictions on movement. 

Nonetheless, some crops became more profitable due to COVID-19. Demand for garlic grew, as it was thought by some to protect against the virus. A decrease in crops like khat entering from neighboring towns increased locally-grown sale prices.  

Greater nutrition security reported in irrigating households 

In Danghista, coronavirus mitigation measures put food security at risk and affected food intake and nutrition with increased market prices for crops, high transportation fees, feed shortages and reduced dairy. About a third of survey respondents said they are consuming less of some vegetables. Irrigating households, however, said they could consume their own irrigated vegetables to meet their food needs and reported fewer changes in the food groups they consumed.  

Across households, increases in water use for sanitation and hygiene  

Globally, coronavirus prevention measures have emphasized the need for proper hand washing. In Danghista, about one-third of respondents reported using more water for sanitation and hygiene, irrespective of whether they have participated in agriculture. Here, shallow wells are often expensive and difficult to drill, but they are an important water source. Households with these wells noticed an increase in water demand from their neighbors, underscoring how removing barriers to irrigation can build resilience to risks such as COVID-19. Notably, allocating more water to sanitation and hygiene did not appear to comprise other uses, such as sustaining livestock. Danghista experienced a good rainy season in 2019; so this year, there was sufficient water at the height of the dry season. 

What’s next? A call for research to build back better  

This initial foray into the impacts of COVID-19 mitigation measures in Dangila lays the foundations for future research. While snap-shot assessments, such as this survey, provide valuable insights regarding ongoing project interventions and earlier donor investments, we need to be aware that perceptions and impacts are contextual.  

For instance, if travel restrictions had not coincided with dry season harvests and market needs, would household perceptions of COVID-19 mitigation measures in Dangila have been different? Had the rainy season been below average in 2019, would water scarcity have influenced how households are allocating water for livestock, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and irrigation during COVID-19? And finally, how might perceptions change as COVID-19 measures are lifted or re-introduced to curb a ‘second wave’ of infection? 

These reflections raise questions for wider investigations into whether and to what extent irrigation could provide resilience against nutrition and health-related shocks when markets are disrupted. Other questions include understanding whether households show increased interest in participating in community water governance or investing in irrigation technologies that support multiple-use services (MUS), which allow households to use the same water for many purposes, such as irrigation and WASH. This is of particular importance as technologies that support MUS are preferred by women as it eases their productive and domestic water use. 

Additionally, research can examine how irrigation supports household nutrition security and shapes what people grow and eat if disruptions continue over extended periods, assess the safety of shallow-well water and risk of water-borne illness, and finally, evaluate how international aid and public investments in WASH shape water use in agriculture. 

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the world as we know it. In response, the CGIAR calls for building back better — dismantling status quo's and transforming food systems to be stronger and more resilient. Farmer-led irrigation helps achieve this. As acute hunger spikes drastically due to COVID-19, it is urgent to understand how farmer-led irrigation can be a tool to improve nutrition and food security, facilitate water access for WASH, and enhance livelihoods in Ethiopia and across the globe.  

This investigation was led by Dagmawi Melaku, Eva Ludi, Thai Thi Minh and Petra Schmitter of IWMI. The work was undertaken under the auspices of the USAID funded Innovation Lab for Small Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and Texas A&M University to accelerate farmer-led irrigation (FLI) in Ethiopia. 

Previously as part of the same project, IWMI collaborated with farmers and Bahir Dar University to introduce innovations such as solar pump irrigation to support home gardens to grow tomato, cabbage, avocado and other horticultural crops.