Rain-fed agriculture is no longer tenable; let's embrace irrigation

A maize plantation in Gikarangu village along Kaharati- Kangari road. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

After a prolonged drought, the rains are finally here. There is a sigh of relief across the country as farmers till their land expecting a bumper harvest while the citizens are waiting with baited breathe for prices of agricultural commodities to go down, thus bringing down the cost of living.

The dream of Kenya being the food basket of the region remains elusive as the prolonged drought destroys the little that's left of our agricultural output. Have we, as a nation, over-relied on rain -fed agriculture for too long? Is it time to change the narrative? Time and again, we have witnessed in awe as desert countries like Israel not only feed their populations, but having surplus for export.

Agriculture uses about 75 per cent of available water, most of which comes from rain. The rainfall patterns have been unpredictable in the past decade because of the negative effects of climate change. Historically, the long rains were always expected between March and May while the short rains occurred between October and December.

This predictability ensured that farmers planned for planting, ripening of the crops and harvesting seasons. In the past three years, Kenya has experienced a shortage of rain resulting in persistent famine in the country.

The severe drought has led to water shortages, death of livestock and humans, and increased food prices, making the cost of basic commodities unaffordable. As we experienced La Nina, scientists are warning of expected El Nino as the rains resume. The negative effects of El Nino were experienced in the past, with floods leading to loss of human lives and livestock, displacements, mudslides, destruction of crops in the farms and recently the splitting of infrastructure along the Rift Valley.

President Ruto has called for concerted efforts by both private and public stakeholders to plant as many trees as possible to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. Stakeholders have devised ways and means of reducing carbon emissions in a bid to reverse the effects of climate change.

The agricultural sector has not been left behind either, noting that for a long time, agriculture has been the backbone of our economy. The use of smart agricultural practices and reduction in wastage of water by recycling wastewater for agricultural purposes ensures there is reduced emissions of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.

The use of technology will go a long way in resolving the food crisis that the country has been experiencing. Deploying these climate-friendly technologies will limit human interference in the agricultural value chain and ultimately increase yields. Water harvesting is a crucial part of smart agricultural practices. This can be done through construction of dams or gullies to prevent it from going to waste. Instead of draining wastewater, it is prudent to recycle that water for use on crops. Use of organic fertilisers from farms e.g., waste from animals, could also help in subsidising the cost of farm inputs instead of purchasing expensive inorganic fertilisers.

It is high time for Kenya to invest heavily in irrigation as a means of boosting agriculture production without being overly dependent on rain. This will ensure production of crops all year round. Countries like Israel have successfully used irrigation to produce crops and their agricultural practices are worth emulating.

Over the last five years, the Kenya Innovative Facility for Water has financed projects which are water-based and climate resilient, and developed an understanding of how water directly impacts on food security. We have partnered with private developers in various parts of the country to ensure that some of the water projects will, on completion, not only provide water for domestic use but also for agricultural purposes.