Reducing Risks of Pesticides to Ecosystem Health in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia
Written by Yonas Tafesse and Girma Ayele, IWMI-Ethiopia
Promoting sustainability in agricultural production requires the critical consideration of agricultural technologies to identify best practices. Pesticides are a classic example: they are often important inputs that enable farmers to control pests and weeds, but unsafe handling and disposal of these agrochemicals can damage human health and environmental well-being.
Indeed, an alarming environmental problem has been evolving in the Central Rift Valley of Ethiopia where pesticides’ intensive and unregulated application is widely practiced for cultivating vegetables.
Evidence indicates that many smallholder farmers here apply pesticides in violation of the recommendations defined by Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority (EEPA). They use unsafe storage facilities; apply banned pesticides; ignore risks, safety instructions and recommended protective devices; and dispose of containers unsafely.
The low awareness of farming communities of the safe use, handling and management of pesticides has had serious consequences. Throughout the Central Rift Valley area, applications of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides have polluted surface water systems and affected aquatic animals and plants with different levels of risks. Particularly, Lake Ziway has borne much of the worst of this pollution.
Investigating the Pollution and the Solution
A consortium of five non-governmental organizations — Farm Africa (lead partner), SOS Sahel Ethiopia, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the Population Health and Environment Ethiopia Consortium, and Sustainable Environment and Development Action (SEDA) — are intervening to redress this challenge under their Growth for the Future (G4F) project, funded since 2017 by the Swedish International Development Agency. The initiative aims to support rural economic development, resilience building and biodiversity conservation in the Central Rift Valley.
The project initially investigated the levels of pesticide-related pollution risks to the aquatic ecosystem. Using the research findings, capacity building was undertaken and best practices were identified in a participatory manner. Following this, the project very quickly mobilized resources and provided awareness-raising training to farmers, encouraging them to utilize environmentally friendly pesticides and organic fertilizers such as vermicompost (natural fertilizer made by worms) to reverse the negative impacts of agrochemicals.
This was done with diverse farming communities multiple times and in different districts of the Central Rift Valley through face-to-face and mass media communication. Slowly, farmers started showing tangible signs of change.
After closely following developments with the farmers, the partners decided that it would be very productive to organize interested young farmers and further formalize the functions of the project. Working with the EEPA, IWMI and Farm Africa established four youth-led pesticide and herbicide spraying groups in the districts of Adami Tulu, Jido Kombolcha and Mesqan. The groups were provided practical training, protective clothing, boots, eyeglasses, knapsacks and plastic containers for handling water and agrochemicals.
Motivated by the training and job opportunities created, the youth groups started serving vegetable farmers in the three districts. They charged 120 Ethiopian Birr ($2.20) for spraying agrochemicals on a hectare of land. After the first year and a half, more farmers began requesting their services.
More Concerted Actions to Save the Environment
The growing demand for spraying agrochemicals by trained people led IWMI and SEDA to consider effective strategies for expanding the practice. A breakthrough came when they decided to involve the Water User Associations (WUAs) in the new districts of Heben Arsi and Munesa. These WUAs were initially established by the G4F project to manage the efficient utilization of the Central Rift Valley’s water resources and performed very well.
Dedicated members of the WUAs were quickly selected and provided with hands-on training and safety protection gear. These members further promoted the service and practice of paid spraying of agrochemicals in the two districts. The results have been far-reaching.
“These collective and coordinated actions have resulted in the growth of the safe application of agrochemicals by smallholder farmers from 30 percent to 52 percent,” reported Dr. Amare Haileslassie, Principal Researcher at IWMI.
This means that farmlands are less affected by agrochemicals. Above all, the practice of discharging hazardous chemicals to Lake Ziway by different actors has significantly declined, thanks to the collaborative awareness campaigns rolled out by consortium members and district agricultural offices.
Abraham Walelign, Natural Resources Conservation Expert with Heben Arsi District says, “We will not stop our collaborative work until we fully control bad practices of pesticides in the Central Rift Valley and beyond, and ensure the safety of farmlands and Lake Ziway from pollution.”