This paper examines traditional irrigation practices and their contribution to rural livelihoods in Dangila woreda (district) in the north-western highlands of Ethiopia. Data were collected from November 2010 to May 2011 through a questionnaire survey of 126 irrigators and field observation of irrigation practices. The results show that over 90% of the irrigators used furrow systems. Around 54% of them reported that irrigation had contributed 11–20% to their household incomes in the past 12 years (1999/ 2000–2010/2011). The majority of the farmers agreed that the use of irrigation has increased in area coverage, crop outputs and contribution to household incomes over the past two decades.Water was distributed on rotation turns headed by water committees that were headed by individuals locally referred to as Yewha Abat (water fathers). Over 60% of the respondents indicated that they faced water and irrigable land shortages where the latter significantly influence households’ irrigation income (significant at p < 0.0005). Although traditional irrigation has been known in the study area for many years, the attention offered to it from state agencies has not been encouraging. The study recommends appropriate institutional support to be provided to smallholder irrigators to improve the overall performance of traditional irrigation schemes.
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