Jeffrey Barbee/Thomson Reuters Foundation

We can expand large-scale irrigation in Africa – carefully

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In the past two decades, African farming systems have made an important evolution. They are beginning to drive economic growth to alleviate poverty and improve food security. But much remains to be done. And this is certainly the case for large-scale irrigation.

In 2001, the FAO/World Bank undertook a global analysis of farming systems, providing powerful insights into strategic priorities for the reduction of the poverty and hunger that was affecting so many lives. And now a new book, Farming Systems and Food Security in Africa: Priorities for Science and Policy under Global Change, updates and expands this guidance for the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Experts examined 15 main farming systems found in Africa to review the drivers that have shaped their evolution and to help identify policies and investments that are responsive to the needs of the different farming systems.

Each farming system comprises of millions of farm households with similar livelihood patterns and broadly similar development opportunities. This makes it imperative to differentiate and target technologies, investments and policies to promote sustainability and resilience of each farming system without losing sight of the need for integration across farming systems.

One key analysis in the book focuses on Large-Scale Irrigated Farming System (LSIFS) - an important and sometimes contentious tool in Africa's irrigation arsenal.

A LSIFS system is usually centered around a public sector irrigation scheme distributing water collected in dams from nearby rivers over a command area. This is an area that can be physically irrigated and is fit for cultivation, spreading over thousands of hectares.

In this area, land is leased out to farmers who cultivate crops for domestic, regional and international markets. Although the potential of irrigation to improve food security, reduce poverty and promote agricultural growth is widely recognized by governments across Africa, expansion of irrigation has been slow and LSIFS have had mixed results in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

There are many constraints, opportunities and strategic priorities for sustainable development of LSIFS in Africa, especially in SSA. Four key messages emerged from our assessment:

First, LSIFS complements other irrigation systems found in Africa. It can be sustainably expanded in SSA to contribute to the achievement of SDGs on ending poverty and hunger, and on enhancing resilience of production and livelihoods to climate change and other shocks.

Second, sustainable expansion that would enable the full social, livelihood and economic benefits of LSIFS to be realized by all gender groups cannot be pursued on a business as usual basis. Lessons learned from sixty years of failures and successes of large-scale irrigation schemes in Africa must be utilized to develop efficient, equitable and ecologically benign LSIFS.

Third, there are various strategic priorities to establish well-performing, livelihood-enhancing and environmentally friendly LSIFS. These include improved water management, distribution and drainage, increased use of renewable energy sources for irrigation and agro-processing. And on the social support side they include improved access of women and youth farmers to irrigated land, improved access of all smallholder farmers to finance, irrigation advisory services, input and output markets, empowerment of water users’ associations and public-private partnerships to increase investment and improve management of LSIFS.

And finally, households in well-managed and sustainable LSIFS will be able to escape poverty and improve their well-being through intensifying and diversifying their agricultural production activities. This means using their improved water access to grow new crops, more crops, and better crops – and to bring them to market. The spill-over effects of better irrigation can also support off-farm income through agro-processing of raw agricultural products into longer shelf-life, ready-to-eat meals and drinks.

The potential of LSIFS and irrigation in general to improve food security, promote agricultural growth and reduce poverty is yet to be fully tapped. The availability of underutilized surface and groundwater, the growing demand for food, and continuing growth of trade all suggest that LSIFS has a role to play. Projects do, of course, wrestle with environmental externalities. But having the right mitigation strategies in place can minimise the more serious impacts. Sub-Saharan Africa has made great strides over the decades, and if we can ensure viable and sustainable large-scale irrigation, we can expect more in the years ahead.    

The new book Farming Systems and Food Security in Africa: Priorities for Science and Policy under Global Change edited by John Dixon, Dennis P. Garrity, Jean-Marc Boffa, Timothy Olalekan Williams and Tilahun Amede is published by Earthscan/Routledge.

This blog summarizes a chapter focused on Large-Scale Irrigated Farming System (LSIFS), authored by Mr. Williams along with Jean-Marc Faurès: FAO; Regassa Namara: World Bank, and  former IWMI economist; and Katherine Snyder: University of Arizona, former IWMI anthropologist. IWMI and WLE supported distribution of 100 copies to key stakeholders in Africa.


Unfortunately history suggests strongly that no African government can do this well.

I beg to differ. With the appropriate expertise, Africa should and needs to deliver on large scale water infrastructure.