How irrigation can help nations achieve food security

About 90 per cent of agriculture in Nile Basin countries depends on rain, making it prone to drought, according to experts. Yet, experts in water and environment engineering say that there are technologies which should be used to harness water available in the Basin to tackle drought effects on agriculture so as to ensure food security.
Raingun irrigation technology being used to water vegetables on a farm in Huye District. / E. Ntirenganya
Raingun irrigation technology being used to water vegetables on a farm in Huye District. / E. Ntirenganya

About 90 per cent of agriculture in Nile Basin countries depends on rain, making it prone to drought, according to experts.

Yet, experts in water and environment engineering say that there are technologies which should be used to harness water available in the Basin to tackle drought effects on agriculture so as to ensure food security.

Indeed, severe drought continues to be a nightmare to farmers.

Alphonse Rudasingwa was left dismayed after his 450-hectare maize plantation in Eastern Province of Rwanda withered owing to drought in 2010.

Rudasingwa was engaged in maize multiplication and supply of maize seeds to other farmers.

He had got a $120,000 grant from Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to help him run his agrarian business.

“My huge agricultural investment was ruined. I lost interest in agriculture,” he told The New Times as he recounted the experience.

So, what will happen if more farmers like him abandon agriculture because of destructive dry spells?

Countries would be at risk of food insecurity or even famine, because food — a necessity for everyone to live —will lack producers.

Having felt the bitter effects of drought on farming, Rudasingwa later decided to invest in fish business; and he is head of fish farmers, processors and exporters in Rwanda.

Now, he is advocating for multipurpose dams which can help in fish farming, irrigating of crops, and store water for cows in the Nile Basin countries.

“Dams are investment intensive as construction of one dam costs hundreds of millions of francs. So, we should optimise them to ensure food security in a holistic manner,” he said.

Hunger is on the rise, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s 2017 report.

The report titled “The 2017 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” shows that the number of hungry people in the world went up to 815 million in 2016, representing 11% of the world’s total population (currently 7.2 billion), compared to 777 million in 2015.

Going by the size of the population by region and the affected population, Africa has the highest number of malnourished people in the world, as about one in four people — of the continent’s about 1.2 billion people — goes to bed hungry.

The current situation where Africa spends $35 billion annually on food imports is not acceptable as Africa has about 65% of the world’s uncultivated land, said Akinwumi Adesina, World Food Prize Laureate 2017 and president of the African Development Bank while delivering his remarks at a special event on “Transforming the African Savannah Initiative” on October 18, 2017, in Des Moines, Iowa, USA.

Adesina added that if the current trend continues, it is projected that Africa will spend $110 billion on food imports by 2025.

Abdulkarim H. Seid, the Head of Water Resources Management Department at Nile Basin Initiative, said the population of the Nile Basin countries is expected to reach more than 1 billion by 2050 from about 400 million currently, basing on population projections from the United Nations.

This situation, he said, will drive up demand for food and water, which calls for proper and efficient water management and use.

He pointed out that currently, agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of water consumed in the Basin.

Producing much yield with less water

While giving his presentation titled “Harnessing water for food security: Challenges and options” during the fifth Nile Basin Initiative Development Forum in Kigali last week, Dr Eltigani Abdelgalil said that with population growth, there is need to increase the current food production by 70% to meet food needs.

Dr Abdelgalil is Dean of Water Management and Irrigation Institute at University of Gezira in Sudan.

“I think the most challenge is low productivity of water in the region. We produce less yields with much water,” Abdelgalil said.

“We need to enhance our production and productivity to achieve food security,” he said, explaining that such goal will be attained through addressing the issue of less use of technology along the process.

Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s Minister of Environment said that some of the solutions to addressing water challenges that can be envisaged are related to efficiency in utilisation of water.

“I’m sure that we can do irrigation with less water than what is used today,” he said adding “We can invest in wastewater treatment and reuse.”

Managing water by reducing evaporation

Having dams or water reservoirs in arid areas with high temperatures result in high evaporation, according to Prof. Seifeldin H. Abdalla, Chairman of Water Resources at the Ministry of Water Resources and Electricity, Sudan.

“You can also save a couple of billions (of cubic meters of water) just by coordinating dam operation by moving some of the storage from high evaporation areas to the humid regions,” Abdalla said, noting that cooperation is a driver in this issue.

Yilma Selelhi, Water Resources Engineer, and professor at Addis Ababa University Ethiopia, concurred with Prof. Abdalla that the reservoirs should go to areas with a lot of rainfall, and small evaporation, and water should be released for irrigation purposes when required to reduce evaporation.

Harvesting rainwater

Abdalla said that about 2,000 cubic meters of rain falls onto the Basin per year, but, only 5% of it flows into Nile River.

“With more efforts through technical solutions, we can double this amount into the Nile River,” he told The New Times, citing reducing water evaporation in the wetlands, and reservoirs.

Vincent de Paul Kabalisa, head of water resources department at the Ministry of Water and Forests said that technology should be used to retain water used in agriculture to feed crops.

Between 75 and 80 per cent of water evaporates before crops use it for productivity in line with efficient irrigation and water management through good farming practices such as mulching.

He said that there is much rain which can be optimised through rainwater harvesting and small scale irrigation during dry season.

“What is necessary is that we get required infrastructures that are often costly and therefore requires funds mobilisation,” he said.

“Engineers should carry out accurate studies to ascertain how much water the dams should store during rainy season so that water will be available during dry spell. Even when there is the issue of evaporation during drought, there should be ways to reduce evaporation. Those are the works of engineers which should be based on climate change,” he told The New Times.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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