Strengthen irrigation policies to boost farming

By , K24 Digital
On Thu, 29 Aug, 2019 08:00 | 3 mins read
Tea farming. Photo/Courtesy

Fred Gori       

Eighteenth Century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem; ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ wrote; “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop for us to drink.”  Looking at the water situation in the country today, one might be forgiven to think that Coleridge was writing about present day Kenya.

For a sector that contributes 26 per cent of Gross Domestic Product directly and another 27 per cent indirectly, agriculture should be the most jealously guarded sector of the economy. However, it is regrettable that farmers’ access to water is often limited based on seasonal variation.

According to the Water Sector Trust Fund, Kenya has an irrigation potential of 539,000 hectares that can be increased substantially with water storage and exploitation of ground water. However, out of the total potential, only 105,000 hactares have been developed. 

Kenya presently has no national policy for irrigation development. All we have are various laws that give organisations mandate to undertake irrigation activities such as the Irrigation Act Cap 347 and Tarda Act Cap 443. This has resulted in uncoordinated irrigation development.

Yet water scarcity is not necessarily caused by a physical lack of water, but rather by and ‘economic water scarcity’. This implies that the necessary investments in water resources and infrastructure are not enough to meet demands in an area where people do not have the means to make use of water sources on their own. 

In many parts of the country, there is plenty of water available, but not available for use. Though groundwater resources are relatively abundant, they remain an underused resource. The challenge is, therefore, to increase the amount of available water that is ‘harvested’ for agriculture. Such water harvesting can be done at the field, farm or watershed level.

In some places, there is a potential for groundwater extraction using boreholes. Research by the International Food Policy Research Institute has shown that motor pumps can expand the amount of irrigated land during the dry season to 30 million hactares which is four times the current area.

The fact that our agriculture sector needs to end its reliance on rain fed agriculture and adopt irrigation for sustainability is not rocket science. However, several factors stand in the way to progressive irrigation development. Lack of a national policy as well as a legal and institutional framework stand out as key. The existing Irrigation Act Cap 347 that created the National Irrigation Board (NIB) is gathering dust on government shelves.

This is evidenced by the prevailing inadequate development of irrigation infrastructure and water storage facilities. Despite the high demand by irrigation relative to other water uses, construction of water storage facilities has been negligible leaving Kenya among the poorest countries in terms of surface water storage.

It is important to note that irrigation systems in Kenya can be classified into three categories; public schemes, which are developed and centrally managed by government agencies,the smallholder community irrigation schemes that are owned and managed by farmers through their irrigation water users’ associations and private schemes, which are owned by farmers or companies and are run as commercial enterprises.

Of these three, it is only the private schemes that are firing on all cylinders as the other two lag behind.  If farmers are to meet the food needs of our growing population and earn us foreign exchange, the government needs to tap into the private sector for more collaborative efforts to attain irrigation services. 

This is because the private sector  is ble to provide the required management capacity and skills. They can boost efficiency in design, contracting and management to ensure financial sustainability through cost control and efficiency.

In the long run, the government needs to revitalise its policies on irrigation and reach out to the private sector if it is to achieve sustainable water management. As things currently stand, we still have a long way to go.

— The writer is the author of Break the Chains, a motivational speaker and commentator on socio-economic issues.

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