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Added 18th October 2016 11:01 AM

Out of Uganda’s estimated 400,000 hectares of irrigable land, barely 5% is under irrigation, and these are large-scale farms

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Uganda needs to start promoting irrigation to supplement the rains when necessary

Out of Uganda’s estimated 400,000 hectares of irrigable land, barely 5% is under irrigation, and these are large-scale farms

Irrigation is the answer to food security

By Owen Wagabaza

Last year, Moses Bategana was one of the beneficiaries of the Operation Wealth Creation campaign. Bategana, a 35-year-old peasant farmer in Kamuli district, received over 1,000 cassava cuttings that he planted on one-and-a half acres of land.

Determined to improve his income, the father of five also bought improved maize varieties that he planted on two acres. “With my two farms combined, I was assured of harvesting produce worth over sh6m. This would not only help me to take good care of my family but also improve my income,” he says.

Unfortunately, Bategena’s plans did not come to fruition; the long drought that hit the eastern Uganda district left his plans in tatters. “I harvested about sh200,000 of the sh6m I had anticipated, and my biggest worry is that I have nothing to feed my family,” a sorrowful Bategana says. Unfortunately, Bategana is just one of the millions of Ugandans who count losses every season as a result of long droughts due to climate change. 

Climate hits agriculture

A few decades ago, farmers relied entirely on the rains to grow crops, whether for home consumption or sale. The farmers knew the weather patterns well, just like the back of their palms.

They knew when to prepare their fields and sow seed, which time of the year the rainy season would be long or short, and harvests depended mainly on the quality of seed, nutrients in the soil and farm management practices, factors over which farmers had control. But times have changed.

“Today, because of a changing climate, farmers have another factor to worry about. It affects crop yields, but they (farmers) have no control over it and that is the issue of rains becoming unpredictable,” says Dr Adam Lwassa, a consultant with the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

He explains that because rains are either too much or too little to support crop growth, such changing rain patterns put food security at stake and ergo the economic well-being of the communities.

Irrigation for food security

Rain-fed systems dominate Uganda’s agricultural sector and this leaves it at the mercy of climate change, especially unreliable rainfall. Lwassa, however, says the effects of unreliable rainfall can be mitigated through irrigation when need arises.

“Egypt and Israel, which are largely deserts, are feeding the world, while Uganda, blessed with rich soils, rainfall, lakes and rivers, starves. The answer is in irrigation. All Uganda needs is to seriously start promoting irrigation to supplement the rains when necessary,” he notes.

Out of Uganda’s estimated 400,000 hectares of irrigable land, barely 5% is under irrigation, and these are large-scale farms. The Government has for years talked about harnessing water for production, but there is little being done.

The national irrigation plan

In November 2011, the water and environment ministry came up with the national irrigation master plan for Uganda 2010-2035. The plan seeks to mitigate the effects of climate change and contribute to transforming Uganda’s society from a peasant to a modern and prosperous country.

It aims to increase irrigable land from 2.7% per year to 6.25% per year over the next 25-years. Uganda’s spatial potential for improved irrigation is estimated to be 170,000 to 560,000 hectares, which is less than 13% of the total potential arable land.

Assan Balinda, a lecturer at the Makerere University College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, however, says the challenge the national irrigation plan faces is that 87% of arable land is not close to permanent water bodies, yet many people view irrigation as getting water from lakes, rivers, swamps or the ground.

  man operating an irrigation system on a farm in apchorwa A man operating an irrigation system on a farm in Kapchorwa


He advises that promoting rain water harvesting for production at a much smaller-scale on individual farms may do wonders. “Every part of the country receives at least one season of heavy rainfall and such rainfall presents a huge potential to sustain food production on the 87% of arable land that is not close to permanent water bodies.

All we need is to adequately put in place measures to harvest and store the rainwater and later use it for irrigation,” Balinda says. He calls on the Government to find creative ways to harness water resources to make irrigation by small-holder farmers possible.

This, he says, requires creative and committed leadership. “The initiative is expensive, but saving lives can never be cheap. Farmers should be encouraged and facilitated to harvest and store rainwater for irrigation,” he adds.

Rainwater harvesting for irrigation requires advanced technologies, notably, mechanisms of lining ponds using locally available and affordable materials that are effective and can be installed and managed by the communities themselves.

This will require massive sensitisation and capacity building of the communities, demonstration farms and farmer exchange visits. 

The world is getting drier

After every passing day, the world gets hotter and dryer. According to the world Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the world just had its hottest year ever in 2015, with the global average surface temperature in 2015 smashing all previous records, at about 0.73°C above the 1961-1990 average of 14.0°C.

The planet is also getting drier, according to the meteorological body, climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions will have an increasing impact on the water cycle and the contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions will increase during the 21st Century. “Wet areas will become wetter, and dry areas drier.

The extent and speed of these changes will depend on whether we achieve the target of keeping temperature increases to less than 2°Celsius above the preindustrial era,” notes a statement on WMO website.

Analysts say this will have severe effects on food security. Bernard Musaazi, the executive director of Trees For The Future, a non-government organisation that encourages people to grow trees to curb climate change, says climate change could make it too hot to grow certain crops, and droughts caused by climate change could reduce the amount of water available for irrigation.

“Climate change is also likely to cause stronger storms and more floods, which can damage crops. Higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns could also help some kinds of weeds and pests to spread to new areas,” he notes.


Project For The Restoration Of Livelihoods In The Northern Region (PRELNOR)


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