Ethiopia: Prevention better than cure

Humanitarian officer Dominic Parker spends three days at an emergency programme in the drought-hit region of Tigray, northern Ethiopia, managed by CAFOD partners the Adigrat Diocese Catholic Secretariat (ADCS)

Day One:

We began by meeting the ADCS Secretary General, Abba Tesfay Lemlem, and project staff in their offices on the outskirts of the city of Adigrat. We then climbed into several white pick-ups and drove off in convoy to visit project sites.

The first thing that struck us was the barren nature of the region - one of the most drought-prone and poorest areas in the country. Untimely and insufficient rainfall in the east had characterised 2004, with total crop failure and severe livestock deterioration. As a result, people and livestock had already started migrating to neighbouring regions in search of water and food.

To help those affected, ADCS has set up a programme of cash-for-work, and began building local infrastructure such as roads. It has also developed hillside terraces, check-dams (which help prevent soil erosion by sudden rains) and household water reservoirs.

The first project we saw was a road constructed up a hillside which led to the building site of a new catholic church. Despite our surprise at this choice of route, we were told how all the roads being constructed had been given priority by the local government, according to its bigger strategic plan.

The road construction was still underway, but generally seemed to be of good quality - however a debate started about the usefulness of creating a new road in this location, considering the apparent absence of vehicles and vehicle owners.

What and where were the products that could be taken to market or the cash incomes that could be used to pay for transport here? Abba Tesfay Lemlem responded that the beneficiaries identified the construction of a road as their primary interest, and that opening the road will create market opportunities -- for example, small wayside shops had been built further down the valley along the same roadside, and close to the town centre.

We then had lunch at a restaurant in the nearby town of Dowhan, where we were offered a selection of cactus dishes. All the products were the result of a project funded by Helvetas, which develops production methods so locals can harvest a wide variety of cactus for their own consumption. It was impressive to realise to what extent cactus was edible!

In the afternoon we visited Alitena, a town on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border which was largely destroyed during Eritrean occupation in the 1998-2000 war. We saw the tents for displaced people who were still living in camps on the outskirts of the town. Some shops had been rebuilt on the main road but, behind this, buildings remained in ruins.

A few hundred metres northwards outside the town was the last checkpoint in Ethiopia, where there was a relaxed atmosphere among the soldiers. The UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) observation post was visible in the distance and, beyond that, the Eritrean border. The situation appeared quiet, and farmers could walk unchallenged beyond the checkpoint to their fields on the border.

At the end of the afternoon we joined the sisters at a nearby convent in Alitena for a cup of tea and slice of cake, before returning to Adigrat and watching the sun set over the Ethiopian Highlands on the journey home.

Day Two:

The first visit in the morning was to Hadish Hiwot tabia (a peasant association), to see work underway in creating stone bunds (embankments or dykes) on sloping land. Local men and women are paid seven Birr per day (about 55p) for this work, and the aim is that the cash they earn can provide them with sufficient income to avoid selling off assets such as livestock, grains for seed planting, hand tools, or utensils, and so protect essential livelihood assets.

The bunds act as barriers, as they follow the contour of the land and control erosion by capturing soil normally washed away by heavy rains. After several years the level of surface soiI will have built up sufficiently to allow grass to grow again and turn it into productive grazing land.

Later, we visited Marwa tabia, and saw check dam construction in a lush and fertile, though narrow valley. A series of 12 dams are under construction to prevent the river bed cutting deeper into the fertile valley and washing the soil away downstream during heavy rainfall when the river is in spate.

The check dam builds up sediment, and soil behind it, until the dam itself is totally underground, while maintaining or increasing the overall level of the land. Check dams are constructed from loose rocks brought from neighbouring hillsides, held together with interlocking wirework or "gabions".

In the afternoon we saw road construction in an area previously inaccessible by any vehicle (four-wheel drive or not). The community was evidently happy to see the first vehicles arrive, and cheered us along the way. The stonewall work which supported the road on the valley side seemed to be of good quality, especially the steps made to give access to a footpath splitting off from the main route.

A villager invited us to his home to drink traditional coffee and taste high-quality white honey, reserved only for visitors. He was pleased because this project provides an important source of income to his people in the absence of crops, and one of the benefits of the road is to provide the opportunity for villagers in the valley far below to bring fruit to market in season.

Day Three:

In the afternoon of our last day we visited Kokeb-tsibah tabia. Here, the programme built on earlier work funded by Catholic Relief Services, which had protected a spring, plus constructed a water point and drinking trough for livestock.

The work funded by CAFOD created terraces in the narrow valley immediately downstream of this spring, which are then fed with the overflow water. These terraces are used for vegetable gardens, growing a variety of crops such as Swiss chard, cabbages, maize, tomatoes, peas, beans, and potatoes.

Previously, only eucalyptus trees had been grown in this area and the landholders were reluctant to cut these down, fearing their "unused" land could be turned over to other villages -- this is a widespread fear in Ethiopia, stemming from strict laws regulating land use.

But the vegetable gardens were very productive, and one farmer we spoke to said he had constructed a shelter in his terraced garden, where he spent the night, as the main pest his crops suffered from was porcupines!

The field trip ended that night with a visit to the Bishop, and dinner with him and his clergy. He thanked us for the work and support CAFOD provides to the people of his diocese, and warmly invited us to come back again whenever we could spend some time.