Irony of hunger amid plenty of food at Tana irrigation scheme

A farmer harvesting watermelons from the Bura Irrigation scheme in Tana River.  [File, Standard]

It is ironical that Tana River County produces a lot of food yet thousands of residents are hit by drought and hunger every year. 

When the government introduced irrigation farming in two settlement schemes in Tana North Sub County, between 1953 and 1978, there was hope that it would alleviate hunger.

The Tana Irrigation and Settlement Scheme was the first to be initiated, in 1953, making it the oldest irrigation project. Years later, in 1978, the Bura Irrigation and Settlement scheme was born. Halo Irrigation Scheme started in 1953 while Galana Kulalu was initiated in 2014.

The projects are currently run by the National Irrigation Authority (NIA). Prior to this, they were being shuffled from one department and parastatal to another before.

At the Tana Irrigation and Settlement Scheme in Hola town, 12,000 acres of land were set aside for farming and water canals dug, but until now, only 4,500 acres have been utilised with close to 1,000 farmers.

According to data from NIA, the scheme collapsed in 1989 when River Tana changed its course. It was revived in 2009 with funding from the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA) and the government.

The main crops at the scheme are maize, cotton, rice, water melon, green gram and onions.

Nancy Miano says she migrated from Kirinyaga County and first settled in Bura before relocating to Hola.

The 51-year-old mother of three says that she engages in rice farming on her 20-acre farm and it has been a good venture.

“My neighbour in Kirinyaga came to my home and told my husband about farming in Tana River. Because we had a small piece of land, we agreed to relocate.

“We first settled at the Bura Irrigation Scheme but because of frequent water scarcity, we moved to Hola where we are doing rice farming,” she said.

Rice imports

She adds that the rice variety that she was introduced to known as komboka yields 25 bags per acre compared to pishori that she used to grow in Mwea that only produces 15 bags per acre.

She has been in the scheme for four years. Miano appealed to the government to help farmers by purchasing their rice instead of importing.

“The other problem is that water is pumped using diesel engines and this makes it expensive, we would like NIA to be helped to install solar power for pumping water,” she said.

Her story mirrors that of Priscilla Mvinga who grows green gram in her eight-acre land provided by NIA.

“I started farming here on two acres but now I have eight acres. I employ at least 20 casual labourers,” she says.

Through proceeds from farming, she says, she has been able to construct a home in Hola and educate her four children.

Merci Wangui who arrived in the area in August last year says that she can’t go back to Thika since the farming in the Hola is promising.

“All I am asking for is that the government should buy our produce,” she says. Omar Komora and Ramadhan Ibgo who farm maize say that the venture has made them self-reliant.

“We used to think that farming is a difficult venture but I am glad that our people have embraced farming,” said Mr Ibgo.

Shee Bonaya is a sunflower farmer and has cultivated three acres which he hopes to sell and earn good money.

He is also the chairman of the farmers’ advisory committee and through that position he has been able to fight for the betterment of the scheme.

“The challenge here is the birds which invade our crops,” he said, adding that many farmers are contracted farmers where they plant crops for a ready market.

Johson Muko, an agronomist, has been at the scheme for seven years. He says the initial crop in the scheme was maize but over the years new crops have been introduced.

A combine harvester at a rice field at the Bura Irrigation and Settlement scheme in Tana River County. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard].

“From an acre, a farmer can harvest up to 29 bags (100kg) of rice. Many crops do well here, but the problem is the market,” he said.

At the Bura Irrigation and Settlement scheme 30km away from Hola, Robert Kana, 83, says their main challenge is water scarcity.

“The scheme started in 1982 with cotton as the main crop but it collapsed due to water problems until former President Uhuru Kenyatta revived it. If we can have a gravity system then we will be good to go,” he said.

Mr Mohamed Abdi, a watermelon farmer, says that farming is profitable but the problem is water.

The scheme covers 25,000 acres but only 12,000 are under use and the main reason is the water problem which the management says will be corrected once gravity flow system is complete.

Pumped water

According to the scheme manager Peter Orwa, the scheme relies on pumped water from Nanigi pumping station.

The scheme extracts irrigation water from River Tana, about 50km away. The water is pumped using diesel generators, it flows by gravity through the distribution system to the farms.

The main crops in the scheme are maize but many other crops such as green gram, cowpeas, cotton, water melon and onions have been introduced.

The Project manager for the Bura Irrigation and Settlement Scheme Rehabilitation project Engineer Joseph Wairuri says that the gravity system will cover 26km and join the 50km canal hence, increasing the coverage to 76km.

“The 26 kilometre canal from Korakora intake will join the existing canal at Nanigi and once complete, we shall decommission the Nagigi pump station. We shall have a 641-meter long desiltation basin,” he says.

Phase one commenced in October 2019 and is expected to be completed by the end of April, 2023 at a cost of Sh1.78 billion, while work on the 26km canal commenced in April 2021 and will be completed in November 2023, at a cost of Sh1.76, bringing the entire cost of the project to Sh3.4 billion.

“Run off crossing culverts to prevent foreign water from entering the canal are being put up and there will also be animal drinking points and also bridges for local populations. We are looking at this project as a 72 kilometre food security corridor since the farmers along the canal will be allowed to abstract water for irrigation once they pay for it,” he said.

The project is being financed by the government of Kenya and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development and implemented by the NIA.