Washing Away The ‘Blue Gold’ of Ethiopia (PHOTO STORY)

By : Mekonnen Teshome Tollera

In Ethiopia, soil is everything. Living in an agrarian society, Ethiopians have a great deal of indigenous knowledge on issues of soil. Farmers in Ethiopia give the greatest attachment to their cattle and soil. They talk to their cattle like they listen to each other, and they give them names of love and attachment, especially for their ploughing oxen. They communicate with the soil on their farmland, calling it “the source of all livelihoods” – and the “last” home of everyone, as they know that everybody will be turned to soil when he/she dies. Soil is the source of life, and the circle of life. Soil is everything.

And in central Ethiopia’s Jamma River region, soil is under threat. 

My name is Mekonnen Teshome. As a senior Ethiopian Science Journalist, I usually contemplate, research and write on major development issues, but the photojournalism fellowship I received from InfoNile in 2021 has helped me to take my theoretical knowledge on photojournalism to a more practical level. 

It has paved a way for me to explore the severe soil degradation, soil erosion and deforestation around Jamma River in central Ethiopia, which is the biggest tributary of the Blue Nile. 

I made a journey to the River Jamma (about 200 km north of Addis Ababa) and captured landscapes of soil erosion, landslides, deforestation, charcoal business as well as conservation and terracing efforts in the area.

It was really touching and surprising to be an eyewitness to the desolate, arid zones around Jamma river, where people are highly worried about the ever-degrading environment and the poor fertility of the soil. Still, they are hopeful that their natural fertile soils will regenerate with their rehabilitation and tree planting efforts.

A hilly area exposed for surface runoff during the rainy season. There is no agricultural plantation on it, as it is an arid area. Wind also erodes the exposed land, moving the top soil into the Jamma River.

The Jamma River is the biggest tributary river in Ethiopia that flows into the Blue Nile. 

The Blue Nile is one of the two major tributaries of the main River Nile that flows up to Egypt. It travels through Ethiopia and Sudan, supplying about 85 percent of the total water in the Nile during the rainy season. 

The Blue Nile, or Abay River, is known as the “Blue Gold” of Ethiopia. Why? As compared to the White Nile, which flows from the Great Lakes region of central Africa, the Blue Nile water is colored blue due to the heavy silt and soil it carries that was washed away from the fertile lands in Ethiopia. Our Blue soil washed away by the Blue Nile is considered “Gold” by farmers who depend on soil and water to earn their living – thus, the origin of the “Blue Gold.”

A close-up view of an eroded piece of land by the side of river Jamma

Ethiopia is now building the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is currently under negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. The primary purpose of the dam, now about 80% complete, is to generate electricity to relieve Ethiopia’s acute energy shortage and export electricity to neighboring countries. 

A nationally funded and supported project, the success of the GERD is threatened by the worsening issue of soil sediments flowing from the highlands of Ethiopia into the new reservoir. While the GERD is designed to trap 100 years of sediment inflow, degradation of the land upstream could result in higher sediment yields that could overwhelm the dam. 

The upper Blue Nile basin has changed from natural forest to agricultural land due to rapid population growth. This resulted in speeding up the soil erosion process in the highlands and increasing sedimentation including here in the river Jamma.

Sediments are solid materials moved from one place to another, such as by the flow of a river. They can consist of rocks, minerals, and the remains of plants and animals. The movement of sediment is a natural process that – in a controlled level – provides fertile soil for downstream communities. 

But when land is eroded by over-farming, grazing and deforestation, too many sediments can end up in the river, which flow into dams downstream. They can possibly reduce the flow of the dam, damage dam infrastructure, and reduce dam storage and hydropower production – while leaving agricultural lands upstream more like deserts, devoid of fertile nutrients.  

Continued water flow along the streams of Jamma river both downward, deepening the valley, and headward, extending the valley into the hillside, creating head cuts and steep banks where a significant amount of the soil is already washed away.

As Ethiopia is a very mountainous country where huge deforestation has been going on, soil erosion and siltation  has become a major problem for Nile downstream countries – Sudan and Egypt – affecting the efficiency and lifetime of hydroelectric and irrigation dams including the Aswan Dam of Egypt and Merowe Dam of Sudan.

Scholars in their 2014 study, “Soil Erosion and Discharge in the Blue Nile Basin: Trends and Challenges,” confirm: “[Sediment] is carried downstream across the Ethiopian border. At the border with Sudan, sediment concentration as high as 12.3 g L−1 [grams per litre] has been reported.”

“Of the water entering Lake Nasser at Aswan dam, 85% originates from the Ethiopian Highlands. Consequently, there is a growing anxiety about changes in discharge and sediment load due to planned dams, climate-induced, and landscape-induced changes upstream.”

The Photographer, Mekonnen Teshome, observing and moving around the highly eroded arid zone of the Jamma river. 

As a photographer and a journalist, it was really breathtaking to see the wonderful hilly and very arid geography of the landscape, though I was puzzled by the extent of the degradation.

As I usually do in my professional field trips, I also took my pictures of myself in the isolated and arid area of the Jamma riverside. My good friend Tibebesilase helped photograph me in this professional mission. It was a great memory to keep, for the place is very difficult to reach and has a harsh climate.

The photographer took hours to explore the extent of the soil erosion and degradation around Jamma river.

Trees being burned for charcoal.

Around River Jamma, charcoal is produced for commercial and domestic purposes like cooking and supplying energy. Production starts with cutting down trees, cutting them into trunk parts and then burning them to produce charcoal. This in turn contributes to deforestation and finally soil erosion. 

In Ethiopia, about 90 percent of households’ primary energy use, especially for cooking, comes from traditional biomass, such as fuelwood, charcoal, dung and crop residue, as compared to electricity.

From 2000 to 2013, charcoal demand in the country increased by more than 85 times, from 48,581 to 4,132,873 tons a year. This has huge implications on the rate of forest degradation and deforestation, concluded a 2020 study by the Ethiopian Environment and Forest Research Institute. 

I met Mr. Mulatu Taye, a charcoal trader in the Mera-Bete Woreda, North Showa Area of the Amhara Regional State, on the banks of Jamma River. He told me he used to be a farmer.

“Our soil was very fertile and productive in the early times of our forefathers,” Taye said. “But now it is washed away and not productive. Now we also grow some crops here, but my father was growing all kinds of crops as the soil was fertile. Agriculture was enough to earn a living for my father, but not for me. That is why I become now a charcoal trader.”

These trunks of trees are a sign of the heavy cutting of trees that traditionally anchor the soil with their roots. Their deforestation causes widespread erosion around river Jamma, where the soil is washed away.
Eucalyptus trees cut for housing construction purposes. There are more than 14 different types of tree, plant and shrub species native to the Jamma and Jara river valleys, with the dominant vegetation being Acacia woodland, but the non-native eucalyptus trees are also sometimes planted for timber purposes. 

The photographer, Mekonnen Teshome, by the side of the Jamma river, which has been affected by high sediment loss and soil erosion.

A retaining wall built by the community around Jamma river to protect bare soil on a slope from being carried off downhill. Otherwise, the area is highly exposed for erosion.

As soil and water are crucial for agriculture, animal husbandry and other development efforts, along with operation of dams, the major challenge remains to decrease the landscape erosion. 

Currently, many soil and water conservation practices are being installed by farmers to decrease erosion. The government of Ethiopia has also launched an annual tree planting campaign to realize a goal of planting 22 billion tree seedlings in four years. This rainy season, seven billion trees are planned to be planted in Ethiopia.  

The community members around Jamma river build terraces like this to protect agricultural landscapes from erosion. This has been one of the remarkable feats of the local farmers’ engineering and social organization, enabling the conservation of soil and water and the cultivation of food.

The deforestation in the Jamma River has sped up the soil erosion process in the highlands. The community is trying to plant seedlings around the river bank, though it does not seem that their effort has yet borne fruits.

Tree planting efforts such as this one help to prevent soil erosion by reducing the impact of rain onto the ground. The amount of soil that is washed away with the rain is decreased when the water drains down the tree’s leaves and branches and soaks into the soil slowly, rather than forcefully hitting the ground. These trees were planted by local administrators every rainy season. 

Shrubs planted to hold the soil in place and protect it from erosion. Some of the shrub plants native to the Jamma river valley include combretum, or bushwillows, the false brandy bush (grewia bicolor), and maytenus, a flowering plant.

After spending 3 days in the arid region between Oromiya and Amhara regions, the photographer, Mekonnen Teshome, starts the 200 kilometer journey home to Addis Ababa. It will take him 7 hours to reach the city due to the poor road conditions.

My journey to the Jamma river was a great experience that started in the struggle of the harsh and arid environment with despair due to the eroded and degraded land. I ended my journey with great hope and optimism because of the noticeable tree planting and rehabilitation efforts led by the surrounding community. We hope that investment in such efforts will protect the “Blue Gold” of Ethiopia from being washed away. 

Despite the harsh weather and heavy soil erosion around Jamma River, the farming community in this area are optimistic that things will change for the better due to their continuous conservation and significant tree planting efforts.

This EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development.