Ethiopian Oasis

In contrast to much of Ethiopia, one small village comes to life when residents dig a canal to divert water from a stream sand little-used spring

THERE'S hope in this village - hope that Ethiopians don't have to face one famine after another; hope that people in this country will not have to die of starvation, as so many are expected to this year. In this village, food, laughter, colorful dresses, playing children - and water - are plentiful.

The water flows from a stream and a once little-used spring whose waters are now guided to local fields by a canal the villagers built themselves. The result: three crops a year.

In this dry, rocky area, where camels wander in search of sparse green leaves and grass to munch, most other farmers get only one crop a year - if the rains come.

But for several seasons, the rains have failed, leaving some 7 million Ethiopians dependent on foreign food relief to survive.

While many have been getting food, many others in remote areas have gotten little, if anything. Some are dying. Recent months of battles, culminating in a rebel takeover of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, interrupted food shipments to many parts of the country, although rebel leaders promise to restore distribution as soon as possible.

Just before coming to this village, this correspondent spent four days visiting drought victims in this same southern region. Coming here was like coming upon an oasis in the desert.

Instead of weakness and despair, there is strength and vitality. Instead of rags, simple but clean, attractive clothing.

Yet this area was hard hit by the big 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia. Today, people as near as 60 miles away are depending on food relief from the West.

In many parts of Ethiopia there are springs and small streams that can be developed for irrigation in dry farming areas, says John Schutte, financial coordinator in Ethiopia for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), based in Geneva. LWF organized the water-source development in this village.

Four years ago, when employees of the LWF proposed the idea of diverting a stream to provide irrigation to this once-empty site, local farmers were skeptical.

```How can water pass through the rocky areas of the mountain,' they asked,'' says Tesfaye Demissie, of the LWF office in the city of Dire Dawa, about 20 miles from here.

``They didn't believe it. But later on, after a year, after our work was completed, they appreciated and admired [the project],'' he says.

Instead of coming in and building a canal, LWF offered food to farmers in the area in exchange for the work need to build the canal. Such a scheme is popularly known as ``food for work,'' a concept widely used in developing countries, with wheat and other grain, usually from North America or Europe.

The one-year construction began in 1986. As the canal passes bridge-like over deep gullies, it reminds visitors of a miniature Roman aqueduct. It runs nearly two miles from the stream.

``Somehow, without blasting anything, just using hand tools, we have done this canal,'' Mr. Demissie says, proudly. ``It works very well, since for the last four years, we've never seen any damage or a crack. So that shows the work is strong enough.''

At first, some 250 acres were irrigated. But it became apparent that, if more water were available, up to 650 acres could be irrigated. Local residents told the LWF staff about a spring some six miles up in the hills.

Like many springs in Ethiopia, it was not developed. For example, in a similar village, near Efeson, in central Ethiopia, a spring had been of little use until channeled for irrigation and drinking water. With more ``food for work,'' residents constructed a channel for the stream water to reach the village.

Many of the families who worked on the project have moved here. The population of Gerame today is around 600, about the maximum number of people who can live here, given the still-limited water supply.

Khadija Adam Wariyo's mud home is just a few feet from the canal. She and her family used to live over one of the hills behind the village. ``There was no rain over there,'' she says, pointing toward her old home. ``This is better. My family is harvesting here, and I have food for work.

``I get three crops a year,'' she continues, after adjusting to the surprise of a foreign visitor. ``Sorghum, corn, bananas, and sweet potatoes. Where I was living before, we got only one crop a year.''

Another refreshing sight here is the fruit trees around many of the homes: Bananas and papayas are favorites. They're kept alive in the harsh climate by water hauled from the canal by hand in plastic jugs.

Mohammed Beriko says his standard of living has improved since he moved here. ``When we first came down here, we were starved. We got food for work, and helped ourselves. We built better homes here and we have enough food to eat now.''

LWF has sponsored 25 other village projects like this one in the region. Mr. Schutte says others are under way elsewhere in Ethiopia. Each one costs a maximum of $75,000, he says. The costs for this village figure out to about $100 per village resident over the four-year period.

Some ``food for work'' is still paid to a few residents to water trees planted on a nearby hillside, for future firewood use, and for operating a small tree nursery to supply other projects.

Schutte says only a shortage of international donations is keeping LWF from carrying out even more village oasis projects in Ethiopia.

For additional information on the LWF development program, write:

Lutheran World Federation, 150 route de Ferney, Boite Postale 2100, Geneva 2, Switzerland.

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