Soil erosion affecting farm productivity in Rwanda

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Over the years local residents of Rebero in Gicumbi District north of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, watched as their soil was washed away by rain. They also had to contend with landslides. Until a local group, the Rebero Emergency Response and Mitigation (ERDM) committee, started to reclaim the land in 2004, mainly through terracing. 'After being trained in risk management we came up with a community disaster preparedness plan,' Eugene Habyarimana, the committee chairman, told IRIN. Working with the NGO World Vision, ERDM's activities aim to reduce the risk of disaster and increase agricultural productivity among the predominantly farming population of Rebero.

Formed in partnership with the government, the ERDM represents the administrative unit known as a sector - part of Rwanda's administrative structure that comprises provinces, districts, sectors and cells split into groups of 10 houses.

'The ERDMs are one of the ways of helping build sustainable communities by empowering local people through programmes that are community owned,' William Ngabo, a humanitarian emergency affairs manager with World Vision Rwanda, said.

Some results can already be seen. 'We are teaching the community how to construct different types of terraces,' Habyarimana said. 'We are starting to see some improvement. Previously, the soils from the hills would cover the crops growing in the valleys, these days that has reduced.'

Rebero is just one area in Rwanda experiencing problems related to land, in a country with a population density estimated at 310 people per sqkm. With about nine million living on 26,338 sqkm of land, Rwanda supports the densest population in Africa, most of who are engaged in subsistence agriculture.

The situation has prompted the Rwandan government to, among other measures, design strategies to curb high population growth. A policy that encourages no more than three children per family is under discussion.

According to the agriculture ministry, the lack of enough arable land for Rwanda's population is exacerbated by the country's small territory, which does not offer many alternatives to increased land use.

Apart from being small, the land is degraded. Erosion is responsible for soil nutrient losses estimated at 945,200 tonnes of organic materials, 41,210 of nitrogen, 280 of phosphorus and 3,055 tonness of potash annually.

'We estimate that erosion affects [our] ability to feed 40,000 persons per year,' the ministry said in a recent statement. Erosion was directly responsible for the leaching of arable soils and indirectly for increased transport of solids through waterways downstream.

At least 37.5 percent of the land in Rwanda needs to be managed before being cultivated, and overall an estimated 39.1 percent of the land has a high erosion risk.

So far, few measures against erosion have been implemented and losses from erosion per year average close to 14 million tonnes of soil, according to the ministry.

ERDM's other activities

The ERDM is involved in a wide range of activities, and also plans to teach about family planning. 'This will not be easy due to religious and traditional beliefs that encourage large family sizes,' Valeus Ntibizerwa, the ERDM's secretary, said.

'We will teach the community that having many children is not only a problem to the family but also to the country.'

They also constructed 26 tanks for water harvesting in 2007, and community sensitisation is ongoing to clear bushes and drain stagnant water near houses to reduce mosquitoes that transmit disease.

Some work is also being done on HIV/AIDS, despite the relatively low national HIV/AIDS prevalence of 2.8 percent.

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