Extaordinary Rain and Mitigating Risks

November 11, 2008 was the third straight day of sunshine in Addis Ababa. Generally, that is not outstanding news for this time of year. Most years, the rainy season passes with the Meskel holiday – an Orthodox celebration of the finding of the true cross of Jesus Christ – in mid-September.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case this year. Older people are telling me they have never seen rain like this, at this time of the year, in their entire lives.

Initially, it appeared the rainy season was passing just as it normally does. About two weeks ago however, around Monday, October 27th, the rains began. Rather than raining for only a day or two, as sometimes happens in late October and November, it continued to rain, and rain. For a country that has been plagued by droughts, even as recently as last spring when the Belg rains failed to deliver, one would think this unexpected rain to be a blessing.

Quite to the contrary. The rain started just days before the scheduled teff and wheat harvest. Teff, a staple for many Ethoipians, especially the poor, is a fragile crop. These abnormal rains have greatly damaged what appeared to be an above average harvest in many regions. One of the local papers, Fortune, reports that farmers in Adea, Welenchiti, Sheran Biban Daba and Yerer Akaki – roughly 100 Km from Addis – will all suffer from these unseasonal rains. Farmers have been forced to sit idly by as they watch their livelihoods wash away with the run-off.

Some farmers were lucky enough to have purchased insurance for their crops, through a new coverage being offered by Nyala Insurance S.C. While that is a wonderful development, I worry about the millions of farmers who live so close to the margin they can ill afford insurance. The farmers who labor long days in open fields not even their own – of the 10 hectares they farm they are lucky to own 1 hectare – praying for ‘average’ rain so they may reap the diminished yield their degraded soil produces. In an average year, they meet their family’s basic needs. In a good year, they send their kids to school. One does not like to consider the effects of a poor harvest.

To an extent, farming, and its effect on livelihoods everywhere, will always be in the hands of Mother Nature. We can never hope to, nor should we aspire to, control the wind, rain and sun. We can, however, take measures to mitigate risks by farming in an ecologically friendly manner that properly manages scarce soil and water resources. Farming in such a way as to increase yield, positively impact local ecosystems, and increase farmer’s earning potential.

As reported in the 2008 World Development Report: Agriculture for Development, issued by the World Bank, the Ethiopian Highlands suffer from heavily degraded topsoil. This is due, in large part, to deforestation and continued cultivation of hillsides, which leads to heavy topsoil erosion. As well, many farmers practice ancient cultivation techniques. Farmers must be educated in best practices in soil and water management, and then provided with the appropriate technology to implement this knowledge.

This should not be technology of the Western farming type – $300,000 combines with GPS systems – but appropriate, affordable technology that requires manual labor (readily available and willing in Ethiopia and much of the developing world), increases earning potential in a short period of time, and increases soil fertility while preserving local ecosystems for generations to come. Irrigation pumps, water catchment systems, improved plows and education in the most effective eco-agriculture techniques would have an enormous impact on the lives of rural Ethiopians.

Mother Nature is not predictable, never has been. In this time of increasingly varied weather patterns and global warming, the world would do well to invest heavily in equipping the rural, small holder farmer with the necessary tools and education to farm in an eco-effective manner that simultaneously increases his or her family’s standard of living. Rural farmers in Ethiopia should, by no measure, be as exposed to the whims of Mother Nature as they currently find themselves. Steps can, should and are being taken, even if slowly, to ensure that farmers are more educated in best practices and that they have the means by which to procure the necessary appropriate technology.

Hopefully one day, farmers and thus society throughout the developing world, will escape the risky predicament in which they now find themselves – entirely dependent upon Mother Nature, degraded soil and ever more scarce water resources. In our lifetime, worldwide food security and thus living standards, as well as the health of ecosystems and the environment will depend upon the empowerment of rural farmers and their ability to intensively cultivate and nourish their land in an ecologically friendly manner. 


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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