Rural livelihoods in Ethiopia are vulnerable due to their reliance upon variable rainfall and the lack of access to irrigation. Irrigation coverage in the country is low, as the existing systems tend to cover state-run and commercial operations. There is significant potential for irrigation to play a transformative role in rural lives and livelihoods. Much of the evidence available in Ethiopia focuses upon technical studies of irrigation systems or impacts on households after gaining access to irrigation. This article highlights the causes and pathways of change. We focus on more financially-viable and environmentally-sound small- and medium-scale systems, versus the large-scale operations that have attracted much governmental attention. We draw on two case studies, located in different agro-ecological settings: a cereal-based farming system and a root crop- based farming system. We highlight unintended consequences, such as the spread of malaria and shift away from food crops, creating market- based vulnerabilities for farmers.

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