Fresh water, the reward of land restoration, flows in Ethiopia’s dry zone

Success stories of how land restoration has transformed landscapes and livelihoods in four watersheds of Tigray, Northern Ethiopia

Fresh water — its availability or lack thereof— is a powerful signal of the health of an ecosystem.

On a whirlwind tour of four watersheds in Tigray province, located on the northernmost tip of Ethiopia, we found large and small dams full of clean water, productive boreholes and even waterfalls. People were busy harvesting heavy crops of teff and wheat, and the cows and goats around the trees looked healthy and well fed.

Land restoration has brought back water and vibrant colour to a previously bleak and desolate landscape just south of the Sahara.

The visit was arranged as part of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) inaugural conference, held from 11-12 October 2016 in Addis Ababa. After discussing plans for restoring 100 million hectares of the continent’s degraded landscapes, 50 international participants were taken to Tigray see what land restoration can do for landscapes and people.

In two days (13 and 14 October) [1], we went to Abreha we Atsbeha, Kihen, Geregera and Mossa watersheds.

Professor Mitiku of Mek’ele University and Chris Reij of the World Resources Institute (WRI) served as facilitators and the tour’s interpreters (Mitiku from the local Tigrinya language to English, and Reij from English to French). Both men have a deep knowledge of the transformation that has taken place in the area, having been there from the 1990s when a grassroots land restoration movement started.

Through interacting with local community leaders and farmers, we discovered what it took to achieve the astonishing land restoration success: leadership, community buy-in, people’s hard labour and support from government and partners.

Abreha we Atsbeha

Aba Hawi next to a dam in Tigray

Aba Hawi next to a dam in Tigray

Aba Hawi, community chairperson of Abreha we Atsbeha, described the sustainable land and water management that led to the restoration. As Aba Hawi told his story—his voice booming into a microphone connected to a loud-speaker and trees, crops and water forming his backdrop—it was hard to imagine that 15 years ago this land was bare and unproductive, the people relying on food aid for sustenance.

The energetic leader, whose moniker means ‘Man of Fire’ (His real name is Gebremichael Gidey) speaks in metaphors:
“We confuse the enemy,” he said, to describe how the sophisticated soil and water conservation structures built on the hillsides control the every-present threat of soil erosion.

“These structures, together with our regenerated trees and shrubs, ensure that we can make use of every raindrop that falls during our two-month rainy season.”

Crop ready for harvest under a Faidherbia albida tree

Crop ready for harvest under a Faidherbia albida tree

Restoration has brought back healthy soils too, and Abreha we Atsbeha’s farming community has moved from barely surviving to having surplus produce to sell. New economic activities, such as beekeeping and growing fruit trees for sale, have also sprung up in the restored landscape.

“This…, said Aba Hawi pointing to a large Faidherbia albida, “…this is the professor of trees.”

Aba Hawi was referring to Faidherbia albida’s reverse phenology—the tree sheds its leaves in the wet season (when the crop is in the field) and it regains them in the dry season, when fodder is scarce. And its flowers are excellent bee forage for the community’s 50-odd beehives.

“The valleys with trees and shrubs are where we make investments, and the dams and groundwater is the ATM where we make withdrawals!” continued Aba Hawi, grinning widely.

And the handsome rewards of theses investments were clear for all to see.

In the very near future, the once-condemned Abreha we Atsbeha will start to supply drinking water to Wukro, the urban centre in Tigray where Wukro Chirkos, the 4th Century monolithic church built during the reign of two brother kings named Abreha and Asbeha, still stands.

The valleys with trees and shrubs are where we make investments, and the dams and groundwater is the ATM for withdrawals

Borehole, Tigray

Borehole, Tigray


Geregera, in Atsbi-Womberta Woreda, once had a 12.5m deep, 17.5 m wide gulley, but in its place today is large dam full of water. The community created the dam with a clever series of gabions (wire cages filled with rocks) and vegetation, together with smaller checkdams.

Over a thousand hectares of land have been restored here, and naturally regenerated native tree species such as podo (Podocarpus falcatus); African juniper Juniperus procera and Cordia africana are to be found alongside planted exotic species like the nutritionally and economically important avocado.
The restoration of Geregera catchment focused on soil and water conservation measures. Thanks to the improved ground water recharge, Geregera’s water is today servicing communities living up to 30 km downstream.


Chris Riej, WRI, Professor Mitiku, and Aba Hawi in Tigray, Ethiopia

Chris Riej, WRI, Professor Mitiku, and Aba Hawi in Tigray, Ethiopia

In Mossa, which borders the lowland Rift Valley plains, a permanent waterfall greets you. Just eight years ago, the waterfall was dry rock. According to Zebedee, a village elder, along with water, landscape regeneration has brought back numerous natural grasses and native tree species that had disappeared from Mossa. Trees like the sand olive, Dodonaea angustifolia, and bush guarri, Euclea schimperi, are back on the landscape.

Bench terraces with stone stabilization and deep trenches, along with regulated grazing, were used to control land degradation and surface runoff of water in Mossa. These measures helped improve ground water recharge. Today, the native pastoralists have fodder and water for their livestock, thanks to the grasses, shrubs, waterfall and numerous natural springs found in their restored landscape. And the farmers living on the shoulders of the valley have irrigation water.


Terraces to control soil erosion. Tigray, Ethiopia

Terraces to control soil erosion. Tigray, Ethiopia

The Kihen watershed in Klite-Awulaelo woreda has numerous springs of water, which support the community’s thriving and profitable livestock and bee-keeping activities.

Kihen’s productive, restored environment is testament to people’s individual and collective commitment; for over a decade, each farmer has contributed 60 hours of free labour each year towards the various soil and water conservation activities, we heard.

Lessons Learnt

The main ingredients that enabled land restoration in Tigray were political support, community ownership and collective action, the use of by-laws, and partnership.

Political support

Ethiopia committed to the restoration of 50 million hectares of its land in the late 1990s. And the country’s administrative hierarchy [State- Zone-Woreda] ensures that there is coordination from the state, to the Woreda (district), to the Kebele (village) level. Professor Mitiku said the political commitment to land rehabilitation has been crucial for the success of land restoration of Tigray’s watersheds.

Community ownership/collective action

According to the village elders, the communities where restoration has worked have been fully committed to restoring their land, in word and deed. They were involved right from the beginning in the design, planning and implementation of restoration interventions. The farmers were also empowered with skills for soil and water conservation with low-cost techniques using local, inexpensive raw materials. And with each farmer offering between 40 and 60 days of voluntary labour each year towards towards soil and water conservation, progress could be initiated and sustained for decades.

By-laws to regulate access to and use of resources

Restored, tree-dotted landscape in Tigray, Ethiopia

Restored, tree-dotted landscape in Tigray, Ethiopia

The use of community exclosures (closing off sections of land to allow natural regeneration); controlling free-grazing of livestock; and building terraces, gabions and dams, were key to the restoration of Tigray’s watersheds.

In each woreda the local council determines and sets rules, and informs the communities about them. Overall, these rules are respected by the people, but there are by-laws in place to punish violators. Unauthorised open grazing of livestock or harvesting firewood in exclosures, for instance, can attract a fine of 10,000 Birr (500 USD), or a jail term of 2 years. Worse, a community member violating the land restoration by-laws will often experience social exclusion from their peers.

Dr Ibiru, a forester at Mek’ele university, explained that Ethiopia’s judicial system recognizes by-laws and sanctions set by communities, and upholds them.

Combining local and global scientific knowledge

All across the sites, farmers said their land restoration success was helped by closely working with research and development partners. They named Mek’ele University, the Ministry of Agriculture-Ethiopia, Tigray Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), Tigray Bureau of Agriculture, World Agroforestry Cente (ICRAF), GIZ-Germany, World Vision, Relief Society of Tigray (REST), Irish AID, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and Ministry of Foreign affairs of the Netherlands, among others.

And the partnerships continue to date.

Under an IrishAID-funded project, ICRAF, TARI and other institutions are currently testing four types of land restoration technologies in Tigray, which they hope will further enhance the ecological and livelihood resilience of the dryland region.

Niguse Hagazi of ICRAF-Ethiopia

Niguse Hagazi of ICRAF-Ethiopia

“We are also supporting farmers with choosing tree species to diversify their farms with and training them in rainwater harvesting,” says Niguse Hagazi, a Forestry Scientist with ICRAF-Ethiopia.

Niguse and colleagues have also trained local youth in tree-nursery establishment and business operation, and and a handful have started their private nursery businesses. Tigray is also one of the sites of an IFAD-funded project led by ICRAF, which is implementing a ‘Research in Development’ approach to work with NGOs and partners to accerate the impact of land restoration technologies in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali and Niger. It is also one of the sites for the ICRAF-led Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)-funded Trees for Food Security Project.

The AFR100 initiative, with a goal to restore 100 million hectares of land on the continent by 2030, would be looking to replicating the land restoration successes seen in Tigray across Ethiopia and throughout the continent of Africa.

Blog written by Anne Kuria, Leigh Winowiecki, and Daisy Ouya
Photos by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Anne Kuria is a PhD Student at Bangor University and Research Fellow at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF)
Leigh Winowiecki is a Soil Systems Scientist at ICRAF.
Daisy Ouya is a Science Writer and Communications Specialist at ICRAF

For more information, contact Leigh Winowiecki:

[1] The two-day field trip to Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, 13 and 14 October 2016, was organized by Mek’ele University and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). The over 50 participants were drawn from African countries including Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Niger, Malawi, Mozambique and Cameroon, and the World Resources Institute (WRI), International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Bank; Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany; Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Germany, among other organisations.

Learn More:

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