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Problems of the solution: intervention into small-scale irrigation for drought proofing in the Mekele Plateau of northern Ethiopia

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The Mekele Plateau, located in the semi-arid northern highland region of Ethiopia, is a drought-prone, highly degraded area. It has long been neglected by policymakers and thus recurring famine, widespread poverty, armed conflicts and mass outmigration have contributed to the near collapse of the farming systems and the livelihoods of the population. Traditional stream diversion irrigation has been practised in this area for several centuries. The systems of water management in particular may be considered inappropriate owing to the need for thriftiness in water use imposed by the local environment. The systems of headworks and canals are crude and wasteful on water. Recent interventions to improve the small-scale irrigation systems of the area have not been successful. Most interventions have preferred to introduce rainwater harvesting systems using micro-dams rather than trying to upgrade the traditional diversion schemes. Evaluation of irrigation structures in the field, interviews with key informants in government, analysis of documents and discussions with irrigators indicate that both the Ministry of Agriculture and SAERT-Commission's rainwater harvesting programmes have generally failed. The case of the most recent intervention by SAERT has failed because of myopic project planning, inadequate engineering studies, unsound designs, too short a time for implementation, and lack of full farmer involvement at different levels of project planning and implementation.

Keywords: Mekele Plateau; SAERT; drought-prone areas; rainwater harvesting; small-scale irrigation; traditional irrigation methods

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, Email:

Publication date: September 1, 2004

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