Treatment of organic resources before soil incorporation in semi-arid regions improves resilience to El Niño, and increases crop production and economic returns

Jo Smith*, Dali Nayak, Fabrizio Albanito, Bedru Balana, Helaina Black, Shiferaw Boke, Alison Brand, Anja Byg, Mengistu Dinato, Mulugeta Habte, Paul Hallett, Thomas Lemma Argaw, Wolde Mekuria, Awdenegest Moges, Alemayehu Muluneh, Paula Novo, Mike Rivington , Tewodros Tefera, May Vanni, Getahun YakobEuan Phimster

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The use of limited organic resources to build resilience to drought in semi-arid regions was investigated using systems modelling. The study focused on Halaba in Ethiopia, drawing on biophysical and socioeconomic data obtained from a survey of farms before, during and after the 2015/16 El Niño event. Using a
simplified weather dataset to remove noise from weather fluctuations, a ten yearly El Niño was demonstrated to cause significant long-term degradation of soil, reducing crop yields by9%–14%and soil carbon by 0.5%–4.1%;more frequent droughts would increase this impact. Farmers in Halaba usually apply
manures to soils untreated. Counteracting the impact of El Niño on soil degradation is possible by increasing application of untreated manure, but would result in a small net cost due to loss of dung as fuel. By composting manure its recalcitrance increases, allowing soil degradation to be counteracted without cost.The best option investigated, in terms of both food and fuel security, for households with access to water and finances needed for anaerobic digestion (500–2000US$), is to use manure to produce biogas and then apply
the nutrient-rich bio slurry residue to the soil. This will result in a significant benefit of over5000US$per decade from increased crop production and saved fuel costs. However, many households are limited in water and finances; in that situation, the much cheaper pyrolysis cook-stove (50US$) can provide similar
economic benefits without the need for water. The biochar residue from pyrolysis is highly recalcitrant, but pyrolysis results in loss of nutrients, so may result in lower yields than other uses of manures. This may be countered by using biochar to capture nutrients from elsewhere in the farm, such as from animal housing or compost pits; more work is needed to quantify the impact of treated biochar on crop yields.
Original languageEnglish
Article number085004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
Early online date26 Jul 2019
Publication statusFirst published - 26 Jul 2019


  • organic resource use
  • resilience
  • soil degradation
  • compost
  • biochar
  • El Niño
  • bioslurry


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