Knowledge exchange catalyzes action to conserve the Lake Tana Basin

The Lake Tana watershed in the Ethiopian highlands of Amhara region is a prized jewel to the nation as the source of the Blue Nile, providing over half of the Great River Nile’s water source. Despite its ecological importance, land degradation caused by erosion, a high-density population and over grazing have diminished the fertility of soils and jeopardized the ecosystem of the watershed.

The IFAD supported Community Based Integrated Natural Resource Management Project, launched in 2010, aims to improve the livelihoods and reduce poverty of 450, 000 households in the Lake Tana watershed. The initiative will be implemented over a seven-year period, bringing about an investment of 25.4 million USD, of which IFAD contributes 13 million USD, to address land degradation in the Lake Tana watershed. The project introduces natural resource conservation and up-scales sustainable land management practices in 27 woredas (districts), within 4 administrative zones. Additionally, a 4.4 million USD contribution from the Global Environmental Facility, will pioneer new approaches, including climate change mitigation measures, to develop the nation wide sustainable Land Management Platform.

Soil and Water Conservation in Lake Tana district

A central element of the project is soil and water conservation to regenerate degraded lands and preserve forests, ensuring the management of natural resources within the Lake Tana basin. The region has a thriving ecosystem, which provides a vital source for the livelihoods of the rural poor, who primarily engage in farming, agro-pastoral and pastoralist activities. 

Project activities rely on elected watershed committees to mobilize the community to dedicate their labour and time to construct physical structures and plant the necessary forage and trees to rehabilitate watersheds, thus reducing losses created by climatic impacts and the mismanagement of water and natural resources in the region. So far, 145 watershed committees have been formed, all supported by 15 woreda (district) watershed technical teams, trained in soil and water conservation techniques.

Valuable knowledge exchange

Learning exchange visits have played a critical role to up-scale sustainable land management practices and drive community ownership of project activities. So far 7,711 farmers received national resource management training, along with 1,563 officials, strengthening community based integrated watershed management. These exchanges have been central to launch soil and water conservation practices to revive and treat 9,662 ha of communal lands and 40,824 ha of farmed land in Lake Tana watershed.

In Kernwary a kebele (ward) within Dangila district, community members elected a watershed committee in 2012, and have since developed an integrated water management action plan and launched community action to rehabilitate and protect a 120 hectare watershed central to the biodiversity of the area.

During the initial project phase, attempts to launch watershed conservation activities were short-lived, as members in the community did not respect allocated closures and were unconvinced that conservation measures would work. Although 60 acres of communal grazing land and the protected watershed was dedicated as a no grazing zone, livestock owners would often encroach into protected areas. Without the sustained participation of the community, it was difficult for the watershed committee to initiate and maintain water and soil conservation of communal lands.

Early this year, 133 people in Dangila District, including 88 farmers, traveled to Tigray, for a learning exchange session on soil and water conservation practices. Champion farmers in Tigray demonstrated how they revived severely degraded lands and shared tips on how they built and maintained physical structures, plants and foliage to protect their watershed from erosion. After attending this learning exchange and viewing how watersheds may be conserved, action and enthusiasm to sustain project activities was ignited as they gained an understanding of the importance of conserving their watershed. Importantly, officials from the Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture and extension workers up-scaled soil and water conservation efforts, guaranteeing institutional support to community efforts.

Talking to several members of the committee, gave an insight on how learning exchanges catalyzed communities to dedicating their time to reviving the biodiversity and fertility of their watershed. Watershed committee members described how they initiated community action, by mobilizing people to volunteer 40 days a year to construct trenches, bunds, waterways and plant forage to revive their watershed. Delegating sub-teams of 5 people, direct by an assigned leader, they organized trainings and guided conservation activities with the support of the Bureau of Agriculture experts in the Kebele. Additionally, the committee patrols the watershed every Sunday to monitor developments within conserved areas.

Yeshi alem Wasi, the Chairman of the watershed committee explained:

Seeing is believing, and our learning experience in Tigray, convinced us that recommended conservation measures would work. After we saw how preserving indigenous trees and plants and increasing forage maintains the ecosystem, we were inspired.

In Tigray, farmers told us that we are sleeping on a bed of gold, with the privilege of living on high yielding land, whereas, they were sleeping on a bed of rocks, on land with low potential. They managed to reap benefits off their land by undertaking conservation measures and this inspired our community to intensify watershed protection efforts. We were driven to prove that we could successfully undertake conservation activities to improved our soil and water resources. The community hopes to maintain these efforts and become role models and share their experiences and knowledge on conservation practices with others in the region.

Yeshi alem Wasi, (left) the chairperson of the Watershed Committee and a fellow committee member describe challenges and successes faced while undertaking watershed management activities in Kernwary, Dangila District, Ethiopia.
The communities’ perception of watershed conservation changed, catalyzing mass action within the kebele. Upon their return, they extended the closure of communal land and phenomenal changes have been witnessed due to conservation of the watershed. Mulugeta Dereshe, the project coordinator for activities in Dangila, explained how farm yields within Kernawary increased due to improved soil quality caused by less erosion, foliage and boosted water percolation. In fact new springs and rivers have recently formed and a rare species of Sembelet grass, has re-grown in the area after its disappearance for 42 years, within the watershed enclosement.

Ensuring that livestock does not graze in enclosed areas has enabled indigenous trees and foliage to flourish.  The watershed is solely accessed for a cut and carry system to gather grass, which now grows in abundance in the area, and is used to feed cattle, construct houses and sell on the market. A bundle of harvested grass can fetch up to 50 Bir  (2.6 USD equivalent) in the market, providing farmers with additional income or savings, particularly for women and landless members of the community, enabling households to use their limited income for other basic necessities.

Community exchanges are a persuasive platform that is dynamic and appealing to community members who may not be literate and have limited understanding of how an encroaching urban population, over grazing and cutting forage may cause erosion, and deteriorate soils and water sources in the watershed. Active communities posses key local knowledge and experiences, which will convince others in the region to increasingly take on soil and water conservation practices. 

A nun and community member of Kernwary Kebele (ward), cuts grass to feed her livestock in the protected watershed.