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Ethiopian Drought Can't Touch Irrigated Oasis

By David Snyder
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In his seventies, Mussie Sala moves with ease among the lush green fruit trees and broad-leafed cornstalks of his farm. It is a plot, really—just six-tenths of an acre—but a plot that is flourishing amid the rapidly browning landscape of Ethiopia. It's a godsend garden for a farmer who has seen enough lean years in his seven decades to know how special this oasis of green really is.

Mussie Sala

At his small farm in eastern Ethiopia, Mussie Sala stands amid healthy cornstalks irrigated through a CRS-supported water project. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"My other land does not have irrigation," Mussie says. "If you have even a small plot that is irrigated, you can get far more production than you can on a large piece of land that is not irrigated."

If water is life, Mussie's plot of land near the village of Ija Aneni, not far from the eastern city of Dira Dawa, is a visual reminder of what that really means.

The reassuring sound of running water sifts through fruit trees that edge his property. A water catchment was built in 2003 as part of a small-scale irrigation project supported by Catholic Relief Services through Hararghe Catholic Secretariat, our partner. The idea behind the project was simple: Build a concrete catchment to collect water flowing naturally from a nearby spring. Use the water both as a fish pond to provide an alternative source of income for local farmers and to irrigate cash crops such as tomatoes, peppers, oranges, papayas and other fruits and vegetables.

'The Better Side'

The water is plentiful. The 80 farmers who access it can grow year round, a rare and valuable gift in this increasingly rain-starved region. Mussie raises sorghum on the small, nonirrigated plot of land closer to his home. That allows him to plant his irrigated plot almost exclusively with cash crops.

"My family prefers sorghum, so from this farm I sell almost all of the produce to raise money," Mussie says. "This land produces twice a year, so the first is for vegetables; the second is for corn and sorghum."

The project is one of many being carried out by CRS in eastern Ethiopia to help temper the effects of droughts like the one currently gripping the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, the short rains on which most depend for up to 20 percent of their annual food supply failed completely this year. The longer rains, which usually begin in May, did not appear until late July, leaving many to face drought.

The government of Ethiopia estimates that more than 12 million* people need food aid just to see them through to the next possible harvest in November 2011.

Mussie Sala says his corn and other crops are doing well

Unlike many farmers who are suffering from the drought in Ethiopia, Mussie Sala says his corn and other crops are doing well because of his easy access to water, thanks to an irrigation project supported by CRS. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Mussie sees suffering among his own friends and relatives. "I'm expecting that many will fall into trouble now because of the drought," he says. "But when compared to farmers who don't have irrigation, I am on the better side."

More Food, More Money

A lifelong farmer, Mussie's love for the land is evident. Although the walk to his plot is a long one from his village, he comes daily to weed and prune. Just a few feet from the large catchment pond, he easily collects all of the water he needs. His farm bursts with fruit trees and vegetables.

It is a far cry from his days cutting firewood to earn enough money to get his family through the lean months each year. Resting briefly in the shade of his towering papaya trees, Mussie says those days are over now.

"Our other coping mechanism used to be to cut trees to make firewood to sell in Dira Dawa, but we don't do that anymore," Mussie says. "The money we make from this farm is much more. You cannot even compare."

*This figure includes more than 7.5 million people the government identified as chronically hungry and more than 4.5 million recently identified as newly affected by the drought.

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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