Increasing salinity remains a challenge to sustainability of irrigated agriculture in Ethiopia and South Sudan as it reduces natural biodiversity as well as farm and livestock productivity. Agriculture sector in Ethiopia supports 85 percent of the work force. About 85 percent of the population living in rural areas is directly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. There are 7 million smallholder farmers, which produces more than 95 percent of the total agricultural outputs including food crops, cereals, oil seed and pulses. Cotton and sugar are produced on state-owned large-scale enterprises. Ethiopia also has large livestock resources including cattle, sheep, goats and camels. Despite this high biodiversity and distinctive ecosystems, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries of the world and known as a country of famine. Food shortages are widespread and since 1970s there have been severe famines almost once per decade.
Land degradation is considered one of the major causes of low and in many places declining agricultural productivity and continuing food insecurity and rural poverty in Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopia stands first in Africa in the extent of area of salt-affected soils due to human-induced and natural causes. Current estimates suggest that about 11 million ha (Mha) land in Ethiopia is exposed to salinity and sodicity, out of which 8 Mha have combined salinity and alkalinity problems whereas the rest 3 Mha have alkalinity problems. About 9 percent of the population lives in the salt-affected areas. The saline areas in Ethiopia are in the Tigray region, and Awash River basin and the situation is expected to exacerbate in future due to climate change induced factors.
In South Sudan, agriculture accounts for 36 percent of the non-oil GDP with 80 percent of the population living in rural areas largely dependent on subsistence farming, and 75 percent of the households consuming cereals as a main part of their daily diet. Despite abundant water supplies, only 5 percent of total 30 million ha arable land is cultivated. Crop yields are low, which negatively affect incomes and livelihood of poor farmers. Lack of agricultural inputs such as seed and fertilizer, poor advisory services and inefficient irrigation management are considered as the major barriers. Although South Sudan has highest livestock per capita in the world, with 23 million head of cattle, sheep, and goats, there is little use of improved varieties of seed or breeds of livestock. For increasing livestock productivity, there is a need to introduce improved forage varieties that are resistant to common diseases. The salt-affected lands in South Sudan are in the White Nile irrigation schemes. These areas have hardly been utilized for agricultural production despite having great potential due to freshwater availability from Nile. Therefore, bringing back these degraded lands into acceptable production levels is essential to ensure food security and social stability.
With a 3 percent average population growth in these countries, future food security as well as the livelihood source for a considerable portion of the population remains a challenge to the governments. Increasing the productivity of existing salt-affected lands and protecting newly developed areas from the spread of salinity is therefore of paramount importance. The smallholder farmers in both countries have the potential to increase their agricultural productivity and farm incomes if their technical and financial capacity is enhanced. They need guidance on the improved irrigation and salinity management strategies and access to modified salt-tolerant seeds for crops and forages.
The areas of low to moderate salinity levels can be restored by improving irrigation and crop management practices. However, in areas where increased salinity levels have restricted the growth of normal field crops, use of Biosaline Approach could be a potential solution. This approach is based on adaptable technology packages composed of salt-tolerant fodders and halophytes integrated with livestock and appropriate management systems. These integrated crop and forage-livestock feeding systems have the capacity to increase resilience of crop-livestock farms, particularly in Ethiopia and South Sudan where livelihood of smallholder farmers is largely dependent on the development of livestock sector.
This project will devise a strategy to improve productivity of saline soils to an economically feasible level and to minimize future salinity development in these areas. The project will draw on the successful experiences of past work to identify most productive alternative crop and forage production systems, test them for local conditions and devise a strategy for scaling up these production packages to improve livelihood of rural communities especially women in the target areas of both countries. Through improved crop yields and reduced loss of land to degradation, the project will improve the resilience of farmers thereby reducing both migration to cities and health problems due to stress on families suffering from the impact of salinity on their livelihoods.