By Joshua Kato
The swirl of winds as wave after wave hits the shores spreads a little water on my face. I am standing near Ggolo landing site, a famous source of fish for Ugandans in the Masaka area.
Not far away, River Katonga ends its long journey from Gomba by connecting to the giant Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa.
To the South-west in Rakai, River Kagera pours into Lake Victoria, but its waters maintain a similarity of a real river over the lake as they move across the lake towards Jinja. “You can even see the River Kagera water pass over the lake waters,” Swaib Busulwa, a fisherman tells me.
In Jinja, it is these waters that turn into River Nile! The Nile then starts a long winding journey northwards through South Sudan and then Egypt.
Ggolo is a well- known agricultural area, however during the recent dry spell, Ian Musoke, a farmer with a maize shamba slightly over 500metres away from the lake lost it to the sun!
“I did not have the means to draw water from the lake to my farm,” he laments. Musoke is a typical story of Uganda`s level of irrigation. Although the country is ‘very wet’ by any comparative standards, a one month dry spell is enough to see farmers make big losses due to lack of rain.
Irrigation improves food production by over 200%. This means that if Uganda adopted irrigation fully, her food production would increase 2 fold.
Bagamuhunda on his garden of onions.
Lots of water, little food
Uganda is gifted with water, compared to other regional countries. 18% of Uganda is open water, while 34% is wetlands! There are at least 15 big lakes in Uganda. There are 120 rivers in Uganda.
There are hundreds of water dams dug for various reasons including watering cattle around the winding cattle corridor. The water sources are nearly proportionately shared by all regions of the country.
Irrigation statistics are negligible though. According to statistics, only 0.1% of farmers in Uganda practice any kind of irrigation. Comparatively, Uganda has lower irrigation levels, to Kenya at around 5%, according to the latest report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Uganda has got enough water to last three whole years even if no single drop of rain falls on it,” says Dr. Abed Bwanika.
But farmers either do not seem to realize this fact, or feel they should not use it.
“You can dig a water source, be a bore hole or a dam almost everywhere in Uganda. Water is just a few feet under your foot,” Bwanika says.
Uganda receives between 1,500-2,500mm of rainfall every year. This is the largest rainfall in this region. Rain falls between March-May and September-November. However, over 95% of the rain water goes to waste! Yet, if it is harvested, it would be used to cover up during the dry months of December-February and June-August.
There are at least 10 big rivers evenly spread out across the central region. These include Katonga in the south-west, Mayanja in the west, Sezibwa in the east of the central region and Kafu in the north. These are supported by smaller rivers like Mayanja.
But during the July to August dry season, farmers near Sezibwa in Kayunga lost crops. Yet, the water was just a few metres away.
A farmer directs water to his rice garden.
“We do not have the means to use this river here,” says Bruno Setyabule, who grows maize in Bukolooto, Kayunga. And yet, with just a wonder pump irrigation system, Ssetyabule would not be crying out.
In the south-west, River Kagera runs through Isingiro on its way from Tanzania. Kagera runs through an area with very rich soils, however farmers simply ‘watch the water snake through’ without tapping any of it.
And yet, every dry spell in the districts of Rakai and Isingiro, farmers incur big losses. Around Mbarara, there is River Rwizi, whose other tributaries run through Ntungamo and Bushenyi.
In addition, there are tens of crater lakes around Rubirizi, three big lakes in Albert, George and Edward and the confluence of River Semliki.
River Aswa cuts across northern Acholi, while in the south of Acholi, River Nile can be used. During every rain season, there is flooding in most parts of Acholi and Lango, thanks to the various tributaries running off this river. When the water ebbs and the sunsets in however, there is groom as crops easily wither.
In Acholi for example, farmers can use the waters of River Aswa for constant crop production. The river cuts across Acholi from Lango, before moving upwards towards the Sudan.
“We see that as a big potential for irrigated agriculture in this region. What remains to be done is turning this into a reality,” says Professor Ogenga Latigo, a farmer in Acholi.
In Teso, the River Awoja can come in handy. There is also Lake Bisina in Katakwi. However between July and August 2013, many farmers in Teso region lost crops due to the dry spell.
“Our environment is arid and dry, but if we adopt irrigation using Lake Bisiina, we can produce enough food for ourselves and for the country at large,” says JB Ekongot, LC5 chairman Katakwi.
Although he is near a lake, Musoke amazingly still waits for the rains to practice farming. Musoke looks at the sky, east and west and predicts that the rain will come soon. “When those clouds gather in the east, then it is bound to fall soon,” he says.
But why should he look in the sky when just a few metres away, there is water all year round?
Lake Victoria water can be used to irrigate several farms in its vicinity.
Musoke, a farmer on the shores of Lake Victoria is in that web of natural satisfaction. He is tethered on that comfort zone-thanks to manna from the skies. But according to Bwanika, it is this ‘manna’ that makes Ugandan agriculture stay behind. We are gifted by nature and for this, life is easy.
Aggrey Bagiire, former State Minister for Agriculture and now Chairman NAADS board says that an attitude change is needed to make farmers adopt irrigation because of this so called ‘comfort zone’.
“We are a hugely endowed country and, for this, we are not always challenged hard. In Uganda, you just need to drop a grain and with time, it will germinate and you will harvest a cob. We are not challenged enough in life. Even if you don’t work, you will visit a different relative every day and still eat,” he says.
“It is these gifts by nature that are making us poor. We do not think beyond the rain that falls. We do not think deep enough to tap into these water sources all around us,” Bwanika says.
Across Africa, there are countries that are less gifted by nature, but produce more food than Uganda. He points at Egypt.
Bwanika wonders why Egypt that has got only the River Nile to lean on produces more food and fruits than Uganda, the source of this river. Egypt receives around 200mm-300mm of rain every year.
However, the country produces some of the best wheat and fruits in Africa. In areas like Fayoam, channels were dug off the great River Nile and farmlands created for agriculture. There are over 400,000 acres under irrigation!
There is also the example of Israel, with its arid environment, yet thriving. “Israel, now thriving in agriculture is historically a desert country whose agriculture is thriving on creative and adaptive agriculture techniques. Presently, Israel`s agriculture is intensive and is driven using irrigation,” says Joshua Enyetu, an agricultural mechanisation and irrigation engineer.
Somalia, one river lots of food
Somalia receives less than 100mm of rain every year. Yet in some areas of Somalia along River Shabelle, there is more elaborate food production than in Uganda. The river is not even the size of river Nile here, it is probably compared to River Katonga and yet the amount of agriculture activity it supports is massive.
The river runs across Somalia, from the north to the south. On average, this river is not even 15metres wide. The water quality is not the best too-it is dark and muddy, however the Somalis are using it to the maximum.
River Shabelle is the lifeline of agriculture in Somalia.
“It is our life and food blood,” says Mohamed Banana, a large scale banana farmer in Afgooye. Farmers use big water engines to pump water as far as four kilo-metres into the interior.
“As you can see, the environment in most of the Shabelle areas resembles that of Karamoja in Uganda, however while the Somalis are using the only available resource to produce food for export, people are dying of hunger in Karamoja,” lamented Lt-General Andrew Gutti, AMISOM force commander.
Gutti, just like most of the Ugandan soldiers serving with AMISOM in Somalia agree that if just a little bit of innovations that the Somali farmers use along River Shabelle is adapted by Ugandan farmers, then there will be no reason to cry of hunger and poverty in Uganda.
Over 95% of the rain is wasted, however there are farmers who have managed to harvest some of this water and are smiling away.
The lakes, rivers and other bodies naturally collect some of the rain water, however the majority of it falls on bare ground, nurturing crops briefly before soaking under the ground.
The cost of irrigation ranges from as low as sh300,000 for a simple water pump, to sh2m for a drip irrigation system to as much as sh100m (US$40,000) for a giant water pump, like those used by farmers in Somalia.
But for small holder farmers, the simple pumps that help pull and push water from cheaply dug underground reservoirs is the best option. “With just sh300,000 (US$150), a farmer can have an irrigation system. It is just a matter of changing the mindset,” says Abbey Kazibwe, a farmer who uses drip irrigation.
Agriculturist and former Member of Parliament Henry Mutebi Kityo agrees with Kazibwe. “We can have both small and large scale systems. That should be the way to go. We cannot depend on rain alone for agriculture,” he says. Mutebi Kityo says that for farmers who cannot buy the equipment, they can hire them.
In Somalia, fruits are irrigated using water from River Shabelle.
The government has got a ‘big’ plan for agriculture irrigation, that is however more on paper than in practice. Three years ago, government started renovating old irrigation schemes, including Mubuku in Kasese and Doho in Butaleja.
According to the Minister of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries, this was the beginning of a new move to irrigate agriculture in Uganda. “We realize the need for irrigated agriculture and we shall not look back,” Zerubabel Nyiira, State Minister for Agriculture says.
In the 2013/14 budget, only sh6bn was allocated for Water for Production, against a projected sh120bn requirement. The deficit is so glaring!
The money, according to the Ministry of Agriculture will be used for setting up 30 small scale irrigation demonstration sites in different parts of the country and to undertake three feasibility studies for medium to large scale irrigation schemes in eastern Uganda. “We must focus our budget for the irrigation cause,” Bagiire says.
“This must be targeted at small holder farmers,” he concludes. Farmers like Musoke pray that this promise is kept.
This report was produced with support of The African Story Challenge at African Media Initiative