Ecologically Sustainable Agricultural Water Management Is a Suitable Solution for Wetland Management
Most African nations have experienced significant population growth in recent years. For instance, Ethiopia, the second-most populated nation on the continent, has almost 120 million residents. The country is also renowned for its copious water resources and rainfed agriculture. However, the various consequences of climate change frequently have an impact on rainfed agriculture and lead to the conversion of the agricultural system into irrigated agriculture. Wetlands are especially important for food production and smallholder farmers’ means of subsistence in such irrigation-tuned agricultural systems.
According to reports, Ethiopia contains more than 58 types of wetlands (rivers, deltas, floodplains, swamps, marshes, etc.) dispersed throughout the country and has eight significant lakes. More than 2% of the country’s total surface area is predicted to be covered by these wetlands. These wetlands are said to have a profoundly positive social and environmental impact on millions of people. Currently, most agricultural activities take place around the wetlands. Along with providing water for agriculture, they also serve as permanent habitats for a range of plant and animal species as well as aquatic ecosystems.
Again, the wetlands play a significant role in water supply, groundwater recharge, water retention and flood management. However, when farmers use water for agriculture, they pay no attention to the damaging impacts on ecosystems and just concentrate on productivity. Additionally, the kinds of water management that have been put into place over the past few years have not adequately addressed the impact on wetlands and lack of integration. As a result, risks to production, the health of natural ecosystems and a number of socioeconomic issues — such as soil erosion, poverty, conflicts and migration — have increased.
Amare Haileselassie (Ph.D.), principal researcher, who also agrees with the above arguments says, “Ecological sustainability problems primarily stem from the excessive use of water resources. For instance, life is impossible in Mali without Lake Wegnia. This lake serves as a center for all agricultural activities. Continued unplanned and unbalanced human activity and related tradeoffs with water supplies have the potential to wipe out entire ecosystems, which in turn have the potential to wipe out entire countries. Therefore, ESAWM [ecologically sustainable agricultural water management] is a breakthrough that provides a framework for creating an ecologically sustainable water management system in which human demands for water are satisfied by storing and diverting water in a way that can be sustained while protecting the wetland ecosystem in the Sahel.”
In order to foster the balance between water demands, supply, a sustainable agricultural production system and ecological sustainability, Wetlands International, Caritas Switzerland, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Hydrsolutions GmbH launched the Safeguarding Sahelian Wetlands for Food Security (SaWeL) project in 2019. The initiative adopts an ESAWM strategy that primarily focuses on efficiency, access to water and ecological health. This astonishing story illustrates the main stumbling blocks of the project that have been put into practice in Ethiopia. Alemseged Tamiru Haile (Ph.D.), a senior researcher in hydrology, and other famous scientists gave fantastic updates on the project’s outstanding accomplishments during the SaWeL assessment interview.
“We firmly think that preparation and implementation of a holistic, integrated water allocation plan is the best way to achieve wetland sustainability. Through SaWeL, we supported the Rift Valley Lakes Basin Administration office to overcome major challenges to the preparation of a Water Allocation Plan (WAP) to protect freshwater ecosystems, and the establishment of a multistakeholder platform. The support included training and coaching the office’s staff on generating primary data, applying remote sensing tools to monitor actual water use and water allocation modelling. Our team also generated and published research evidence relevant to WAP. By doing this, we undoubtedly made a substantial contribution to both ecological sustainability and more efficient water management,” Alemseged Tamiru Halie (Ph.D.), a senior researcher in hydrology.
How did we respond to agricultural water management challenges?
Our adaptive planning and management approach seizes opportunities, motivates government and development partners to analyze the current and future conditions of wetlands, and creates coordinated strategies to address agricultural water challenges and enhance the welfare of smallholder farmers in the intervention areas. Unlike in the past, we now need to integrate the ESAWM into water management interventions that enhance food production while properly caring for the preservation of ecosystems through cooperative and inclusive action. The project’s findings were extensively publicized, which encouraged stakeholders and rural communities to adopt and create ESAWM tools and technology packages that suited their needs.
“The landscape approach employed in the SaWeL project is key to undertaking system-level analyses in order to address food insecurity and ensure ecosystem integrity. The approach facilitates meaningful participation and engagement of stakeholders during the planning and design of interventions and supports to take diverse opinions and interests into account. It also assures equity in benefit sharing among many social groups and water consumers,” Wolde Mekuria Bori (Ph.D.), senior researcher environment and development.
Likimyelesh Nigussie (IWMI-Ethiopia) is a social science research officer. She discusses the critical points about the social inclusion in the context of ESAWM: “Social inclusion in the context of SaWEL project is about the elimination of contextual barriers and enhancing improvement of incentives for the participation of women and youth from various social groups in surplus agricultural production, and nonfarm and off-farm activities. In this context, the key barriers to achieving social inclusion across the SaWEL project sites in Ethiopia and Mali include gender and intergenerational norms, poverty and insufficient institutional capacity. Addressing these challenges requires understanding how contextual social inclusion issues interact with the local environment. It also requires investing in capacity development of stakeholders at different scales to equip them with the right knowledge, concept and skill to effectively implement social inclusion programs.”
Redwan Mohammed, eco-region lead (SaWeL), describes the unique features of ESAWM and its primary accomplishments: “ESWAM is an integrated landscape approach that promotes more efficient management of agricultural water and ecosystems (via the application of technologies, inclusive planning and execution, the creation of market systems, environmentally responsible behaviour, etc.). We have substantial proof from Ethiopia, thanks to our partnership with governmental organizations and the Meki Batu Union. With the help of 6,000 water pumps and Ziway Lake, this union’s over 9,000 farmers are able to grow vegetables. Additionally, farmers have traditionally used pesticides and fertilizers that are imported. All of these have a considerable impact on the water bodies and the ecosystem. We educated numerous stakeholders and trained the union members on agronomic procedures (irrigation, fertilizer application, soil management, crop rotation and intercropping, etc.), as well as the creation of vermicompost. As a result, most farmers use organic fertilizer to increase the fertility, output and productivity of their soil. There has been a dramatic decrease in the usage of chemical sprays and strains on the environment and water resources. Most importantly, policymakers and government actors at different levels are aware of and eager to support the initiative.”
There are calls for action to place a stronger emphasis on watershed management, water protection and sustainable and integrated management of water resources. This is because the initiative, which functions on a range of interrelated dimensions and links water to landscapes, ecosystems and food production, represents a number of characteristics and objectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the most recent ESAWM report for 2023, Ethiopia has several sectoral policies in place to manage its water resources and ecosystems, grow its agriculture and ensure food security. Protecting the wetlands does have its limits, though. In this regard, ESAWM has done an outstanding job of creating the foundation for agroecological techniques that support the development of market systems and protect the integrity of Ethiopian wetlands’ ecosystems, which would help to meet the SDGs.
For details, contact: Alemseged Tamiru Haile (Ph.D.), a senior researcher in hydrology, at [email protected]; Amare Haileslassie (Ph.D.), principal researcher, at [email protected]; and Wolde Mekuria (Ph.D.), senior researcher environment and development at [email protected].