|dc.description||The way to higher yields is through irrigation, some experts say. Others claim it lies in more efficient rainfed agriculture. After all, irrigation is a thirsty consumer. As a general rule it takes 1000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of food. Water for plants is like fuel for transport: scarce and expensive. What matters is who owns it, who drives it, and who decides where to go.
Everybody knows it. Irrigation, which comes in all shapes and sizes, can double farm output. Even low-input irrigation is more productive than high-input rainfed agriculture. Using irrigation, farmers can grow two or three crops annually; even in areas where it rains sufficiently, they irrigate to grow an extra crop, produce fruits and vegetables, or cultivate rice, the biggest water guzzler of all.
Future increases in ACP food production may come largely from irrigated areas. Today they are small: 3.5% in central Africa and 8% in southern Africa, compared with 37% in all Asia. How much they will grow in ouput depends more on man than the weather.
If you own a piece of land, an inexhaustible source of water, and the money and know-how to combine them, you are a well-blessed farmer. But access to all four is a problem for smallholder farmers, and more so for women than for men.
The search for solutions
Irrigation water mostly comes from common sources like rivers and lakes, which require some degree of regulation and an infrastructure to bring the water to the fields and to distribute it among users. In the past, parastatal irrigation bureaucracies were established throughout Africa to design and run both large- and small-scale irrigation systems. Many systems did not perform well in economic and social terms, due to poor operation and maintenance, unequal water distribution, and low water-use efficiencies arising from seepage and delivery of the wrong quantities at the wrong time. Furthermore, soil salinity linked to irrigation and drainage is a serious problem all across sub-Saharan Africa. Irrigation development was held back by the failure of governments to recognise traditional common property systems of water management. While family, land, and water rights are often determined and administered at village level, most irrigation schemes are managed by governments, which enforce rigid land and water regulations and may ignore the realities of social organisation in rural Africa.
The search for solutions has come a long way, passing through several paradigms. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a strong belief in technocratic innovations. After all, technically, anything is possible: automated distribution devices in canals, sprinkler or central pivot systems, drip or strip irrigation. But the human factor should not be forgotten. From the 1970s onwards, the focus has shifted to user participation and the irrigation world has now realised the need to reform irrigation management if performance is to be improved.
In a related development following cutbacks in public expenditure in the 1980s, irrigation agencies have started to hand over operation and maintenance of the systems to water users. The debate continues, but it is now widely accepted that it is best to give those who actually use irrigation water the power to plan and manage their own supplies at local level using, of course, the most efficient and sustainable technologies available. Associations of water users are being set up everywhere to assume this responsibility, but they may not always be able to take over full managerial responsibilities immediately, nor do they have the required funds to operate and maintain their schemes.
It might work for some, but it won t work for all
Photo Holt Studios/Sunset
People, or governments?
Most African countries intend to improve and expand irrigation but lack both the means and concrete policies for implementation. Various ACP governments, like Jamaica, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, have launched transition periods with support and training programmes to prepare water users for the time when the government pulls out. But there are also many cases of irrigation communities who carry on business as usual or decide to develop their own schemes, with or without support. Dessalegn Rahmato, manager of the Forum for Social Studies in Ethiopia, has reported widely on local successful management systems in north Shoa, Wollo, and east Gojjam, which prove the ability of farmers to organise themselves and manage irrigation systems. Conrad Zawe, an irrigation expert from Zimbabwe, applauds the way farmers organise savings clubs to pay for electricity to operate irrigation pumps, a communication system like a communal phone or mailbag, or for contracting technicians for specialised jobs.
As long as watering of crops is profitable, people and governments will always be keen to irrigate. 'Water limitations [ ] will force them to be more efficient', says Jean-Marc Faurès, water resource officer at FAO. 'There are regional and local problems and differences, which need regional and local solutions, but if the question is: do we have enough water to feed the world, the answer is yes.'
To know more:
International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
PO Box 2075
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Fax: +94 1 86 68 54
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