Ethiopia is considered the biological and cultural home of coffee and its production provides an income for over 15 million people across the country. With severe water shortages affecting many communities, we speak to Gash, a farmer in Ethiopia’s north-west, about the challenges of irrigating his farmland and accessing clean drinking water
Gash, a coffee farmer from Agomamit village, Ethiopia | Photo credit: Behailu Shiferaw/WaterAid
For centuries, the communities living in the Woinima, Agomamit and Guay Wubishet villages of the Jabi Tehnan district have been renowned for producing high-quality coffee. However, over time water has become increasingly scarce and local coffee farms have dwindled in size. Today it is nearly impossible to adequately irrigate a large coffee farm using the small local irrigation system.
The water shortage doesn’t just impact farming; most of the village communities are also unable to access drinking water close to home. Residents of the Addis Amba sub-village have to walk at least 15 minutes to reach the nearest water pump, where they have to queue up for several hours as more than 500 households rely on the pump for their drinking water needs.
Thanks to funds raised through the coffee industry, Project Waterfall, in partnership with WaterAid, will be able to intervene with a life changing project that will improve access to clean water, decent toilets and sanitation for coffee-growing communities.
Interview with Gash
Before Project Waterfall’s work began, they spoke with Gash – a farmer who was born and raised in the Addis Amba sub-village of the Agomamit village – about how his access to water has changed in recent years.
Where did you used to get your water from?
There is a river called Guisa. That supplied all of our water – drinking, bathing, and washing clothes – everything. We were somehow fine. I think the water was clean back then. All we had to do was collect the water, put it in a big clay pot and leave it alone for the sediment to settle overnight.
We also made a small wreath from a plant called Zhercho, which has thorny rose-like stems and we believed helped purify the water. As time went by the river water became dirtier and we started getting sick.
"I have five people in this house and 40 litres [of water] is barely enough, but that is all we get, and we have to manage it"
Where do you get your water now?
We collect it from a pump at a nearby village. It is 15-20 minutes’ away from here in the summer. But in winter, you will have to walk through the mud, which can be knee-high. Then it can take as long as 40 minutes to get there because you have to watch each step. The problem is not the 15-minute walking distance, it is waiting in line. If you go to collect water, then you had better not have any other plans for the day.
There are regular opening hours as the security guard manages the pump and he can’t be there all day and all night. There are times when our wives or children stood in line for the whole day, and they won’t have made it to the pump because the guard has to leave. So, they leave the jerry can behind and go there the next morning and collect water. It’s a struggle.
How many people does that pump serve?
Five-hundred-and-three households from four sub-villages depend on it. Each household brings two jerry cans, so that is over a thousand jerry cans in line. Whoever is collecting water stands there in line for several hours for the whole family. I have five people in this house and 40 litres is barely enough, but that is all we get, and we have to manage it.
Crossing the Guisa river | Photo credit: Behailu Shiferaw/WaterAid
Could you dig a hand-dug well?
There isn’t a household that hasn’t tried that. We always hit bedrock. That is why we needed outside help. To penetrate beneath the bedrock. That is how that pump was built.
Is there a general shortage of water or is it just drinking water?
There is general shortage of water unless it is the rainy season. If we had enough water, I could have planted coffee across all the land I have. But now I have to farm only those crops that can grow with seasonal winter rain such as green pepper and wheat.
How much land do you have and how much of it is covered by coffee?
I have 1.25 hectares of land and only 0.125 hectares of that is covered by coffee. That is all I can grow from the little irrigation water I get once a month or every six weeks. The irrigation water is released from upstream areas, then each farmer gets to use the water for four hours before the next farmer will guide it to his own farm and waters his farm for four hours. And it goes on like that.
"A small cupful of coffee is worth as much as a kilo of wheat"
There are 600 farmers who use this irrigation. So, I only get to water my coffee plantation for four hours every four to six weeks. I can’t cover more than a quarter of a hectare in four hours. So, I saved only that much land for coffee and the rest is now covered with seasonal crops such as green pepper and wheat that only need the winter rain.
If you had all the water you need, would you cover all your land with coffee?
Of course, if I had enough water, I would cover all of my land with coffee because of its commercial value to me. A small cupful of coffee is worth as much as a kilo of wheat.
How important is water to coffee?
You cannot think of coffee without water – from farming it to washing it to brewing it. For us farmers, a good coffee harvesting season has always been the one in which we had rain in March. If the coffee has water in March that water will sustain it until the rainy season in June. If it hasn’t had enough water in March it will be shocked by the heavy winter rain.
Good rain in March means a good produce that year. So that is why we irrigate our coffee farm during the summer. But all we get is four hours of irrigation water in four to six weeks. That is why we cannot cover more of our land with coffee.
Interview first published in issue 2 of 5THWAVE magazine - available to read online here.