How war and crises in Tigray triggered an urban agriculture boom

Published on 2 August 2023

Associate Professor, Mekelle University

Tigray in northern Ethiopia has been devastated by a brutal war since November 2020, which included a siege and blockade that stopped all communications and most essential services, along with humanitarian supplies.

A photo of a field with crops in an urban environment. There are green crops amongst the brown soil. A person walks through them with an apartment building in the background. Smoke rises from a small fire.

A typical example of urban agriculture practised in Mekelle city during the war. Credit: Kifle Woldearegay.

While a peace agreement signed in November 2022 sought to put an end to the armed conflict, in reality, there are still significant challenges regarding the supply of essential services to the population of about six million.

Due to the war, there were significant security problems and this led to a total disruption of the flow of food and agricultural supplies, cash, medicine, fuel, and more. Even though about 5 million Tigrayans faced war-induced starvation, the World Food Programme controversially suspended food aid, ostensibly due to some incidences of theft and looting. Households in the region were therefore forced to look for alternative methods of survival.

Major urban centres like Mekelle city, the capital of Tigray, have seen significant migration of people from small towns and rural areas, with an estimated 2.7 million people displaced. Moreover, people who fled to rural areas during the conflict have started to move back to the urban areas. This has put extra pressure on the overstretched city services: shops, restaurants and street vendors are yet to re-open; power shortages are commonplace, leading people to use firewood for heat and cooking; a lack of water supply means people are forced to use untreated water from streams and open wells for domestic use; a shortage of medical supplies is forcing people to use more traditional forms of treatment.

Turning to urban agriculture

In the midst of these significant challenges, research from the Towards Brown Gold project is showing that many people living in major urban centres, particularly in Mekelle, are engaging in urban agricultural practices, such as kitchen gardens, as a means of livelihood and survival.

This isn’t a new approach. Urban agriculture was on the agenda of the Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as city councils, in the Tigray region for some years before the conflict started. It has been practised on a small scale, particularly to promote small businesses and to create jobs in the region. Since the war, however, urban agriculture is being practised at unprecedented levels.

Some of the key enabling factors encouraging people to do this are:

  • Prior knowledge and practices related to urban agriculture such as vegetables, fruits;
  • Awareness-raising efforts by the Bureau of Agricultural through media (mainly radio programmes) and the provision of seeds and seedlings, though limited;
  • Temporary provision by local authorities of open land to local communities (such as roadsides, empty construction sites, spaces in schools and universities, stream/river banks, and more) for urban agriculture use. Waste dumping sites have also been converted and used for urban agriculture – a practice that also helped create a clean environment;
  • High prices for food and low availability at markets have encouraged people to be engaged in urban agriculture as people have no other alternative but to try any livelihood options including urban agriculture.

Opportunities and emerging issues

Urban agriculture is helping secure the food supply chain in Mekelle. In the face of severe food shortages from outside the city, people engaging in urban agricultural practices can have enough food for their own needs, as well as surplus to sell at markets. The main supply comes from vegetables and fruits, particularly those that are essential for cooking and nutrition such as cabbage, onion, pepper, tomato, and garlic.

Mekelle is in the arid and semi-arid region of Tigray, meaning the water supply is low. Therefore, households have accessed water from a variety of sources, including wells, streams, springs, runoff water, and more.

Some of these water sources, although not recommended for direct consumption, are being used for agricultural purposes. Evidence on the quality of water sources in Mekelle shows that water is suitable for irrigation purposes, though continuous quality monitoring is needed to ensure it remains safe to use. This is especially the case as much of the water recharge comes from the city’s septic and drainage systems.

World Health Organization (WHO) has set standards for the use of wastewater for irrigation, and several countries and cities are using these standards for promoting urban agriculture, of which Mekelle is one. Nevertheless, with the rapid emergence of the circular economy, particularly with urban agriculture, several critical questions and issues are arising for further effective interventions, research, and innovation.

  1. How can a holistic circular economy be systematically integrated into urban planning as a survival option for people and as an important component for the socio-economic development in post-conflict restoration and reconstruction?
  2. How can further new thinking be developed on how municipal liquid waste (such as human or animal waste) is perceived and used to promote circular economy approaches, especially in rapidly urbanising cities and towns of low- and middle-income countries?
  3. How can municipalities and communities design, create, and deliver integrated urban planning to promote circular economy approaches that consider the dynamic interactions (in terms of space and time) of water, waste (both solid and liquid), the environment, infrastructure, and humans?

Moving towards Brown Gold

The observed expansion and promotion of urban agriculture in the major cities of Tigray during war and crises is a strong example of how a circular economy can help people cope with severe challenges. Governments, donors, research institutions, and implementing organisations need to learn from the scale and benefits of the expansion in the circular economy in Tigray.

Full and effective implementation of a circular economy, especially urban agriculture, requires a paradigm shift in four main ways: one, in the way urban land is planned and utilised; two, in how municipal liquid waste is perceived by the community; three, in understanding the dynamic interactions of water, waste, infrastructure and humans in urban settings; and four, on the multi-dimensional benefits of circular economy as a temporary survival mechanism and as a long-term climate crisis adaptation strategy.

To successfully move towards Brown Gold, there must be systematic implementation and upscaling of circular economy development supported by appropriate policies, strategies, and regulatory frameworks integrated with capacity building, research, and innovations.

With contributions from: Lyla Mehta, Tanvi Bhatkal, and Ben O’Donovan-Iland

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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