The agony of starving Kenyans is once again hitting the headlines. The drought that began in the last quarter of 2016 has persisted into 2017, exposing the country’s strained grain reserve and lack of a co-ordinated approach in addressing food shortages.
The Government’s response this time round is a Sh16 billion plan to lessen the pangs of hunger in the next six months.
These efforts come at a time when the Treasury has proposed to cut the Ministry of Irrigation’s budget by Sh6.8 billion. This has put into question the Government’s pledge to put a million acres under irrigation by end of 2017.
According to the revised budget, programmes affected by the adjustments in expenditure include irrigation and land reclamation, water storage and flood control.
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Kizito Temba, a personal assistant to Water Services Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa, said public-private partnerships are the only sustainable model of funding for irrigation plans, and the budget cuts do not spell doom for them.
“The Government has enhanced public-private partnerships. It is the way to the future. Over-reliance on government funding is not consistent with the 21st century because all governments face budgetary constraints,” he said.
The Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme, the grand project that was to put 400,000 acres under irrigation, remains at the model stage.
Yet, project experts had said actualising just 200,000 acres would have made Kenya food secure.
Having begun with 500 acres, the promising model farm has grown to 3,000 acres.
According to the project’s manager and chief engineer for planning and design, Thuita Mwangi, the necessary infrastructure for 10,000 acres is ready and planting will begin in March.
But despite its bright prospects, the project may not do that much for a starving nation.
According Mr Mwangi, last week, the project yielded 93,860 bags of maize from 2,500 acres. The local community will receive a share of this yield to help address the hunger situation. The rest will be sold to the Government to boost grain reserves.
Last year, the community received 40,000 bags of maize.
In October, site chief engineer, Henry Ochiere, told the press that running the project at full capacity would require construction of a mega dam with the capacity for two trillion litres.
The scheme straddles the dry Tana River and Kilifi counties.
In Tana River, the National Irrigation Board (NIB) runs two major irrigation schemes – Bura and Hola. The two, jointly referred to as the Tana River Irrigation Scheme, are the oldest in the country. They were started in the early 1950s.
Out of a gazetted area of 12,000 acres, with a possible extension to 12,500 acres, just 3,500 acres are under use. An estimated 2,245 households, in a county of about 240,000, benefit from the scheme.
Years of mismanagement saw the scheme lie dormant for close to two decades (between1989 to 2009) until NIB took over and rehabilitated it.
In Bura alone, NIB spends more than Sh110,000 every day on diesel to pump water to the farms, but it is now setting up a gravity system to replace the pump system.
“Pumping water for 17 hours every day has been costing us ... but once we shift to a gravity system, we will do away with a monthly cost of about Sh3 million,” said Felix Shiundu, the scheme’s manager. A similar system will be set up in Hola.
Currently, about 2,500 acres are under seed maize for sale. Other crops grown are watermelons and onions, as well as green grams.
Last year, the scheme harvested 37,500 bags of seed maize, 3,400 bags of commercial maize and 13,500 tonnes of watermelons. This has helped boost food security in the county.
In Turkana County, NIB is managing the Katilu scheme, which began in 1970 but came to a halt after the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization pulled out.
Using water from River Turkwel, NIB rehabilitated the scheme in 2011. From an initial 500 acres, it has increased to 2,200 acres, growing maize, sorghum and green grams.
The secretary of the irrigation scheme, Yohana Ekidor, said in the current season, farmers are expecting to harvest about 30,000 bags of maize each, up from 10,000 bags in 2015. Plans to extend the scheme are underway, as locals compete for farming space.
In Marigat, Baringo County, NIB runs the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme that depends on Perkerra River, the only permanent river in the sub-county.
Here, 13,000 households directly depend on the scheme for a living, and it supplies the larger Baringo County and parts of Nakuru, which is about 100 kilometres away.
Towns like Marigat solely derive their existence from this scheme that grows maize, onions, rice and vegetables. However, the meandering of the river just below Marigat Bridge has eroded the river bank, threatening the scheme’s intake works and fields.
In Western Kenya, NIB runs Ahero and West Kano irrigation schemes. Both are located in the Kano plains. Ahero began operations in 1969 with 2,168 acres, and West Kano was operationalised in 1976 on 2,230 acres.
In Kirinyaga County, NIB runs the Mwea Irrigation Scheme that has been synonymous with rice since 1956. However, the battle for control of water in the wake of population pressure is threatening production.
The scheme has a gazetted area of 30,350 acres. Some 16,000 acres have been developed for paddy production, while 4,000 acres are used by outgrowers. The rest of the scheme is for settlement, public utilities, subsistence and horticultural farming.
“Since 1998, about 4,000 acres have been developed by farmers on their own for paddy cultivation. This new area was not planned for and has worsened the situation in terms of water availability,” NIB said.
The existence of the scheme is dependent on Nyamindi and Thiba rivers. According to NIB, the scheme produces an average of 50,000 tonnes of paddy rice in the main crop and 25,000 tonnes from the regenerated crop (ratoon).
However, NIB says most of the infrastructure in the scheme is in a poor state and requires rehabilitation. For instance, the irrigation efficiency is almost at 45 per cent.
To meet rising demand, NIB wants to expand the scheme by another 4,000 acres, which will require the construction of a dam on Thiba River. It has secured Sh9 billion in funding from the Japanese government.
“We are expecting to ... double crop production in Mwea, thereby increasing the current annual turnover from rice production to Sh10 billion from Sh5 billion.”
In addition to land and population pressures, another challenge plaguing irrigation schemes is water availability.
The Ministry of Water and Irrigation says there are already areas in the country where the capacity of water available is overstretched.
For instance, in Marsabit town, Bakuli Springs, which was constructed in 1970, is the only hope for a population of more than 30,000.
Its capacity of 800,000 litres a day in the rainy season and just 300,000 litres when it is dry ranks dismally to
daily demand of 2.75 million litres.
In Machakos, Maruba dam, which was constructed in the 1950s, has seen its yield drop from four million litres a day to just two million litres as a result of siltation.
The counties of Kitui, Garissa and Tana River have long been plagued by water shortages. To address this, NIB is looking for a contractor to set up a $2 billion (Sh206 billion) dam and associated infrastructure. The dam, however, is expected to be completed after five years.
According to Mr Temba, the Jubilee administration has taken a long-term approach to address water shortages in Kenya, and that the mega projects will eventually pay off.
“All existing irrigation schemes are being expanded and when you do this, you create food security. By mid-2018 most projects should be completed,” he said.