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Are Kenyans looking for the rain god? It’s in irrigation

Farmer from Kinisa village in Moyale in Marsabit county work on a vegetable farm in the semi-arid area that is currently the source of fresh produce in a region that has for years recorded harsh weather conditions. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

“God is in the rain.”

These words might have been figurative to Evie (played by Natalie Portman), the main character in the movie V for Vendetta, but for most Africans they have a potent symbolic meaning.

For Africans, God sends his blessings through the rains.  That is why when it rains there are bumper harvests. And when there is a drought — as it happened recently in Kenya with crops, livestock or even human beings dying for lack of water — Africans cast their eyes to the skies in search of the rain god, as the late South African writer Bessie Head, would put it.

Kenyans are still looking for the rain God. And this is more than 3,500 years after human beings (led by the Egyptians) found the rain god in a simple technology that harnesses the abundance of water in rivers and lakes to ensure constant supply of food.   

According to the National Water Master Plan (1992), Kenya’s irrigation potential is estimated at 539,000 hectares based on surface water and another 800,000 hectares if groundwater and water harvesting are considered.

Kenya’s irrigation potential

However, only about 120,000 hectares are currently under irrigation, with the country still largely dependent on the rains to feed itself.

A 2019 World Bank report notes that massive investments would be needed in small scale farmer-managed irrigation schemes to spur the sector’s growth.

“This would also require the development and maintenance of rural roads and the establishment of marketing and storage facilities (warehouses, cold rooms, milk collection centres), both of which are additional binding constraints to growth in the sector,” added the World Bank. 

Blow to cost of living

With the rain-fed agriculture being the backbone of the economy, when the rains fail it almost triggers an economic crisis. The size of the economy shrinks, jobs are lost and a food crisis ensues as prices rise.

On the flipside, whenever there is a heavy downpour, there is either oversupply or destruction of the crops in the shamba or difficulty getting the produce to the markets as pathways become cloggy.

Currently, prolonged drought — as well as high taxes on farm inputs and fuel as well as the Covid-19 pandemic —have thrown Kenyans into a spin of an unprecedented high cost of living.

In the 12-months to January, prices of various foodstuff have soared following poor rains and increase in the cost of inputs including fertiliser, kicking up a storm on social media.

Kenyans on Twitter have been calling for the immediate reduction of food prices.

Most of the crops whose prices have skyrocketed are vegetables which would have benefited substantially from irrigation.

Cabbages have experienced the sharpest rise, with a kilo retailing at an average of Sh50 in January this year compared to Sh39 in January last year.

A kilo of spinach, on the other hand, rose by more than a fifth to retail at Sh68, while the same unit of onions that went for Sh106 in January last year now goes for Sh128.

Close to 2.7 million Kenyans from 23 counties are staring at starvation as their crops and livestock die.

True, for every 10 hectares of land in Kenya, eight receive an annual rainfall of 612.5mm or less, which means they have very low potential for farming.

While 83 per cent of Kenya’s land area is arid and semi-arid, only two per cent of the arable land is under irrigation compared to an average of six per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 37 per cent in Asia, according to a 2019 World Bank report.

About 5.8 per cent of farming households practice irrigation, according to the census report that was done in August 2019. 

Yet, there is plenty of water that can be used for irrigation within the Kenyan borders.

For example, only 6.8 per cent of the farming households in Marsabit engaged in irrigation — the lowest of the 47 counties.

This despite the county having the most water area of about 4,126 square kilometres — although they mostly have seasonal rivers, Milgis and Merille, to the extreme south which flow eastward and drain into the Sori Adio Swamp.

However, there is very little crop growing in Marsabit, one of the counties that has been affected by the ongoing drought.

Turkana’s total water area of 2,279 square kiloemtres is nearly twice as big as Kisii County.

However, only 4,968 households in Turkana County — the most food deficient county in Kenya — practice irrigation.

Kenya has a number of irrigation schemes. They were started to either supplement farmers’ production and stabilise prices for consumers when it did not rain, says Stephen Muchiri, Easter Africa Farmers Federation. 

A pump attendant in one of the pilot project farms which is being piloted by Green Arava from Israel [Gideon Maudu, Standard]

Galana Kulalu failed project?

Most of these mega irrigation schemes were started before independence, a few by the first independent government and almost none by the subsequent administrations.

Attempts to replicate such mega irrigation schemes have barely been successful, with Galana Kulalu Food Security Projct in Tana River and Kilifi counties stalling.

The World Bank examination of the irrigation budget for the period between financial years 2013-14 and 2016-17 revealed that most spending was on two large-scale flagship irrigation projects, the Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project and the Thika dam project.

However, there was little, if any return, on these investments, with the World Bank calling for these monies to be shifted towards improving road and market infrastructure, as well as investing “in small-scale irrigation and water harvesting technologies.”

The global lender notes that there are better returns when the Government of Kenya spends on smallholder irrigation schemes.

“For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa returns to irrigation range from 17 per cent for large-scale farmers to 43 per cent for small-scale farmers, and could triple per capita farm incomes, with significant impacts on poverty reduction.

As such, there is need to boost investment in small holder irrigation schemes and to promote private sector investment in irrigation,” says the World Bank, adding that reforming water use policy could also allow the private sector to price and sell water to small-scale producers.

Dr James Karitu, Nyandarua County Executive for Agriculture, explains that they are coming up a small irrigation scheme in Ol Joro Orok for horticultural produce, and which will serve the community around that area.

They have also been doing demos whereby a household can their own well, and using a solar-based technology farm even without the rains.

“So that a farmer can have their own well and do irrigation,” says Karitu.

Such solar-powered equipment or other irrigation equipment are expensive, says Muchiri.

The solution, according to Muchiri, is to waive taxes on importation of irrigation equipment.

“If you then combine investment in borehole sinking by government, connect farmers even to solar-powered irrigation equipment, that will go a long way in managing the short and early maturing crops to be able to offset times when there is insufficient rainfall,” says Muchiri.

Getting a pump is the wish of Mark Saida, a farmer in Bondo, Siaya County. His three-acre farm, on which he grows maize and vegetables, is close to Yala River.

“If I had a pump to get water from the river, I would grow watermelons,” he says.

Conduits for siphoning public funds

Siaya is one the counties with great potential for irrigation, with a water area of 1,089 square kilometres. However, only 4,389 households grow crops through irrigation. In fact, 26 per cent of the families are not engaging in any farming, despite the area enjoying a double blessing of rivers and sufficient rainfall of 857.5 mm in a year.

The need for irrigation has been heightened by climate change, with the cycle of drought shortening from every five years to a year.  

“Rains have been there over the years, but with the climate change, we are telling people to move to climate-smart agriculture,” says Karitu.

In Nyandarua, there are more than 200 public dams that Governor Francis Kimemia’s government is trying to rehabilitate by silting so that they can utilised for irrigation.

According to Karitu, these dams have been in existence since the colonial days.

But besides deliberate efforts to channel resources towards small-holder irrigation schemes, prudent use of resources will be critical if the country is to successfully shift from rain-fed agriculture.

So far, the big irrigation projects have been nothing short of conduits for siphoning public funds. Case in point are the scandal-hit Arror and Kimwarer dams in Elgeyo Marakwet.


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