The challenge of food security has haunted nations around the globe throughout centuries. Only with the green revolution of the 1970s has the deadly threat diminished. But the demographic explosion kept food security high on the agenda of many governments and with the many of water resources depleted or polluted, the food security issue is growing in magnitude year after year. The increased food prices of the recent years are just a confirmation of who far we are from being food secured. Another factor with catalytic effect on food insecurity is the climate change. Increased temperatures are causing an accelerated water cycle with more water in the atmosphere at one given point. While the result is more overall precipitations, along comes the totally different rainfall pattern which is driving even more rain in high precipitation areas causing floods, and less rainfall in the drought prone regions leading to famines.
Unlike many other regions in the world, the Blue Nile basin countries, such as Ethiopia and Sudan have never defeated the food security challenges – partly due to unprecedented population growth and unforgiving climate changes and partly due to the eternal ethnic wars and corruption, which has the political leaders of both countries focused on something else, but not the starvation of their own people. While the political stability and political will are highly important in achieving food security goals, they are out of reach for the external scientific debate and humanitarian organizations around the world. What is not out of reach is trying to help farmers in both countries to cope with the climate changes. Given that Ethiopia has over 80% (FAO, 2005) of its population of over 90 million people and Sudan following closely with 78% (World Bank, 2013) out of 37 million people employed in agriculture, it is essential that they are introduced to new irrigation practices and adaptability techniques. Irrigation fed agriculture has its advantages and it certainly helped countries like Egypt to reach the level of food security it has today. Rain-fed agriculture on the other hand is the more sustainable approach since it does not endanger entire ecosystems, which in their turn contribute to food security. Cambodia, for example, has one of the best fed poorest populations in the world only thanks to Mekong River which has sustained large fisheries for millennia.
With less than ten percent of agricultural lands irrigated (AWM, n.d.), Ethiopia remains dependent on rain-fed agriculture and therefore highly vulnerable to droughts. In some years, due to insufficient rainfall and high evaporation rates, the entire harvest could be lost. In order to be managed it has to be measured, would say some experts, but when it comes to rainfall patterns of the recent years it is quite hard to predict anything. Thus, in order to deal with the vulnerability to rainfall, rainwater management practices which proved themselves successful in other similar regions must be adopted and adapted to the specific needs of this area This includes rainwater harvesting techniques, such as surface or underground micro dams, farm ponds and subsurface tanks along with smart recharge systems, soil moisture management and efficient crop patterns. Some of these were practiced since ancient times, but forgotten once the big scale irrigation became available and was registering tremendous success. The importance of rainwater harvesting and soil conservation methods lay in its applicability on small scale projects. Practicing supplemental irrigation, with the earlier stored rainwater, farmers could save or at least stabilize the season’s entire harvest. As International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) mentioned in the FAO’s Land and Water Days conference, the investments in rain-fed agriculture could generate up to 30% increase in yields (FAO, 2013), significantly contributing to poverty reduction. Communities could develop such projects on their own or with little external help as many of the rainwater practices are also low cost. International aid agencies should therefore cut on material aid and provide more assistance in implementing such good practices. By helping one village to do so, not only will the community be engaged in helping themselves but it will also be more sustainable. Empowering communities will also help rebuild the lost dignity of its people, men and women should both be employed in managing their water and land resources. By sharing the successful experience with the communities around them the small scale project would soon become over scaled contributing to the food security of the region as a whole, reducing the dependency on international aid. Also, the reduced vulnerability will eventually enable the investments in agriculture. Given the current level of risk, there is a decreasing tendency of initiatives at small and medium scale agricultural projects and this has to be turned around.
There must be an appropriate balance between irrigated and rain-fed agriculture. As for irrigation in the Blue Nile basin, given the existing amount of precipitation, it should be regarded as complementary and used occasionally when rainfall and rainwater harvesting are not enough in sustaining the crops. Considering the chronic food insecurity in the Blue Nile basin it is easy to conclude that the irrigation is underdeveloped. Firstly, a new agreement has to be signed which would guarantee an equitable share of water for all riparians, as Sudan and Ethiopia are in need for efficient irrigation systems in order to support, or assist the rain-fed agriculture for a further stabilization of the yields. The large scale irrigation systems are no longer appropriate with all the stakeholders, especially Egypt, constrained more and more to consider other’s water needs and environmental sustainability. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 40% of the water diverted for irrigation is lost to deep percolation or runoff (FAO, 2013). With the current levels of water scarcity no states can afford such water losses and even more so the riparians of the Nile. Also, soil degradation, erosion and salinization are a few of the consequences of poorly managed irrigation. On the other hand, irrigation has the potential to maximize the yields to the extent where there will be no need for additional fields, avoiding this way deforestation and as a result soil degradation and desertification.
And it is impossible for anyone to deny the fact that irrigation was and remains the key component which enables the production of enough food to feed the planet. For poor countries, such as Ethiopia and Sudan, with available water for irrigation, but not enough funds and, most importantly, political will and legal environment to secure investments in irrigation, rain-fed agriculture remains the primer resource. In order to address the food security crisis faced by these countries, small to medium scale modern irrigation has to be put in place mainly for reducing the vulnerability of rain-fed systems. Conserving water is another key factor for success within the basin. If the upstream countries were to use their equitable share of water from the Nile, in the same wasteful manner Egypt does, then it is the downstream Egypt which would starve. Therefore an integrated management is required of the Nile basin as a whole and optimization of irrigation practices for reducing water losses are mandatory.
There is no need and it is somewhat destructive to choose between one practice and the other as there are strengths in each case. However, if the amount of precipitation allows it, rain-fed agriculture is the more sustainable approach. The sooner people learn to take advantage of it the more secure the future is. The rivers should be allowed to flow naturally as they have their own role as an ecosystem within the environment.
Anyways, there are plenty of tools available for optimization for both, rain-fed and irrigated agriculture. If not in the region itself, given the past, poor development rates, then surely there are good practices to borrow from regions with similar natural conditions. With today’s knowledge hub, sharing successful experiences is easier than ever. Experience capitalization, the process of identifying and documenting good practices is essential for international development. In India for instance, once the centralized irrigation system failed to provide water for everyone, many villages have returned to old rain harvesting techniques. The construction of small dams and dikes enabled the groundwater recharge and once the idea spread, over 300 dying villages became self-sufficient again. In its last conference “Land and Water days” in Amman, Jordan, FAO also highlights the importance of sharing good practices. In order to progress and positively handle change, countries must always learn, from past experiences and failures and also from others.
AWM, n.d. www.iwmi.org. [Online]
Available at: http://awm-solutions.iwmi.org/ethiopia-1.aspx
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FAO, 2005. www.fao.org. [Online]
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[Accessed 29 December 2013].
FAO, 2013. Land and Water Days. Amman, Jordan, s.n.
World Bank, 2013. www.worldbak.org. [Online]
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[Accessed 29 December 2013].