The old man’s eyes grew teary when he was asked to remember what it was like before the water came.
“There was a drought,” Ahmed Sahle Ahmed said through an interpreter as he sat on a floor mat in the family’s home. “We were having problems, we had no food.”
That was in the early 1980s, a time of drought-induced famine and social unrest in Ethiopia following that country’s war with Somalia in the late 1970s.
Repatriated refugees had resorted to eating roots and the acacia scrub to survive. “We were eating with the goats,” he said.
Ahmed, now in his 80s, was among those who could see a way out of their wilderness. The Erer River, which flows south from the Ahmer Mountains passed within kilometres of the settlement. “I said if we cannot divert that river, we die here.”
Diverting it, however, required cutting through a hillside. Sahle Ahmed remembers trying to move the rocks with his bare hands.
“Then God helped us,” Sahle Ahmed said. Local government officials connected the community with Lutheran World Federation, an NGO with expertise in developing small-scale irrigation projects.
With support from the Winnipeg-based Canadian Lutheran World Relief and the fledgling Canadian Foodgrains Bank, engineers came in with a plan and dynamite, cement and food for local people who worked to divert the river into a canal that could supply the crops.
Irrigation water started to flow into the Bila kebele (a region similar to a township) in 1987. A village soon sprang in the centre of the fields of maize, sorghum, coffee, bananas, citrus, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions and chat.
One has only to drive out of the lush green valley in these foothills to get a sense of what it was like before the gravity-flow irrigation began providing water to their fields.
The landscape between Bila and the closest city Dire Dawa is barren and dry, populated by clumps of coarse grasses, scrub acacia and pastoralist herders moving through with their goats and camels.
Dust devils dance lazily across the horizon. In these last months before the region’s rainy season June through August, most of the rivers are bone dry.
Bila is an oasis, thanks to irrigation.
The original 200 households supported by this 160-ha project now number 900, farming 600 ha.
Life is good
As the community’s men gathered beneath the shade of a huge mango tree, many of them arriving with plastic bags filled with chat to chew, they said food shortages are a memory that fades with each generation.
Their diet largely consists of sorghum, fruits and vegetables, but they also use money from selling their cash crops to buy pasta and rice. “We eat meat on some occasions,” one man said.
“People are living a decent life,” said Shemshi Mohammed, a widowed mother of six. “Those who have enough land, they can produce enough.
“For those who don’t have enough irrigable land, there is a safety net,” she said, referring to the Ethiopian government’s Productive Safety Net, which offers food support to vulnerable households in exchange for labour on public works.
The community also has improved road access, electricity and potable water, local school for children to Grade 9, a vet clinic and medical services.
By these measures, there is no denying that the gift of water was a powerful and largely positive force in this community.
The investment in agricultural infrastructure provided a solid foundation for food security and poverty eradication. In fact, without it, there could be nothing.
But is providing the hard assets enough?
There are also hints that community development here is falling short of its potential and there are some difficult hurdles to overcome.
Despite the fact that farmers here are selling all they produce, there is little evidence of asset accumulation or of a cash economy.
The homes here are sparsely furnished; there was no sign of the cellphones that are a constant interruption when I meet with farmers elsewhere on the continent. Commercial activity in the village centre is limited to a scattering of small shops selling the basics.
Farmers told us they feel helpless negotiating with the traders that come to buy their crops. “Marketing is a problem for us. They come here and we can’t bargain, they just give us what they offer, and that is it,” said Yacob Alisho, the head of the local water users’ association.
When asked whether the farmers had considered organizing themselves to negotiate with the traders as a block, he said no. “We are not organized,” he said.
These farmers do work together when there are maintenance requirements for the canal system. They all contribute funds to have the work done.
But they seem content to leave planning beyond their short-term needs to someone else.
Unless something is done soon to expand the existing infrastructure once again, which will be costly and complicated because of the number of kebeles in the region competing for the same water, the number of vulnerable households here could soon rise sharply.
In Mohammed’s case, her one ha of irrigated land will be divided among her six children.
Already, water is controlled to protect the river’s flow for downstream users. Bila farmers can only draw water for 48 continuous hours per week.
The community leaders told us they are waiting for the government to fulfil a long-ago promise to address their issues.
Ethiopia has made tremendous gains reducing poverty and hunger among its 87.9 million people. But with 28 per cent of its population still living below the poverty line, there is a long list of communities where the need is greater. Bila could be waiting a long time for a government solution.
Still they wait. And while they wait, they chew chat.
Chat, also known as khat, is the biggest cash crop here, both in acreage and revenue. That’s understandable. It sells for 10 times what oranges fetch.
The mild narcotic that stimulates energy, suppresses appetite and induces euphoria is perfectly legal in this part of the world. The national government collects millions in tax revenues from its export. It is often grown intercropped within the orange and banana groves.
The World Health Organization has classified it as mildly addictive. Many countries, including Canada, have made it a controlled substance similar to marijuana.
While highly lucrative, chat also consumes a lot of water. I was left wondering how much of Bila’s intellectual capacity it also consumes.
Throughout the community young and old, men and women, carried well-worn plastic shopping bags filled with the succulent leaves. Men headed to the fields to work had a hoe in one hand and their bag of chat leaves in the other. A woman nursing her baby casually turned her head to the side and spat her chat into the corner of the family home.
It seems if you are chewing chat, life is good here — even if it’s not.
Ahmed Sahle Ahmed, who told us he now feels old and forgotten, struggled to express through an interpreter how he feels about the future. He believes it is important to ensure coming generations never forget the community’s hungry past.
He said when he talks to young people, he tells them they need to plan a future, not wait for it. “I tell them to go to school, if you learn something, you can earn a living,” he said.
“The young people are sitting under the trees, but they don’t know how to plant trees,” he said. “I tell them to plant trees.”
NEXT: The ABCs of development: Investment in hard assets creates opportunities. Investing in people helps communities make the most of them.