"Large-scale irrigation presents several benefits"

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Interview with Karim El Aynaoui

Karim El Aynaoui, managing director of the Policy Center for New South (PCNS) and member of the Malabo Montpellier (MaMo) Panel, explains what Africa can gain from effective irrigation policies and programmes.

The MaMo Panel report, Water-Wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa, recommends that African policymakers make irrigation a top priority. Why is it so important that African countries implement effective irrigation policies?

Low agricultural productivity still hinders Africa’s agricultural development sector, leading to high levels of food insecurity. To promote agriculture on the continent, the private sector and governments must act on various key elements. Among those, irrigation should be addressed first in order to intensify agricultural growth, while ensuring it is both inclusive and sustainable. Currently, only 6% of cultivated land is irrigated in Africa. Compared to other continents such as Asia, where 37% of cultivated land is equipped for irrigation, this rate is very low and can be significantly improved. Irregular and insufficient rainfall, long periods of drought and the negative impacts of climate change are bottlenecks that must be overcome to improve agricultural production in Africa, particularly to meet a rapidly growing food demand. Effective and efficient irrigation policies, which take into account the context of increasing water scarcity and growing water demand, should therefore be implemented to achieve a successful structural transformation of African economies.

Are there any stand-out lessons from the report’s case studies that other African countries could learn from?

The report showcases several countries across Africa that have experienced significant progress in implementing effective irrigation strategies, building large-scale infrastructure and establishing innovative institutional frameworks. Sharing these experiences with other countries on the continent will help shape new irrigation strategies to tackle local issues. For example, Morocco and Mali have invested in developing irrigation infrastructure to mobilise water for agriculture. Thanks to those efforts, the two countries recorded a higher pace of irrigation expansion compared to other African nations.

We can see a different, yet equally impactful initiative in Ethiopia, where the government promoted small- and medium-scale irrigation systems and established an irrigation development programme that consists of improving water efficiency toward food self-sufficiency. To this end, the government plans to build micro dams to catch flows from rivers and promote the use of shallow wells using manual pumps. There are many experiences that could help African countries in shaping their irrigation policies – however, a deep understanding of the local context is essential.

What are the benefits and limitations of large-scale government-funded irrigation schemes?

No matter the source of funding, either public or private, each irrigation management scheme has its advantages and limitations. The choice of large irrigation projects or small-scale irrigation depends on technical and financial characteristics, namely the existing quantities of water endowments, the surface area of land dominated by dams, the possibility of bringing water to farmers and the cost of projects. Where it is technically possible, large-scale irrigation presents several benefits. From the agricultural production point of view, it is a means of supplying water to large areas. By closing the gap in the variability of rainfall over space and time, such irrigation systems improve yields and stabilise agricultural production for many farmers in the same area. As a result, national agricultural production is stabilised, and food prices too.

The other side of the coin is that large-scale irrigation can have poor environmental ramifications – by increasing the alkalinity or salinity of soils and groundwater, for example – and can also encourage monoculture, consequently decreasing farmers’ incentive to innovate. Farmers must therefore be involved as major players in irrigation strategies established by governments. They have the local know-how that is necessary to ensure the effective implementation of irrigation systems with minimal negative impacts on the environment.

Putting digital technology in farmers’ hands

For decades, farm data across ACP countries has been collected by governments, financial service providers and even mobile network operators, to provide insights into agriculture that can be used to shape and influence the sector from the top down. But with more than 40% of African households now belonging to farmer cooperatives – many of which digitally record and store their members’ farm data – decision-makers increasingly acknowledge that a more localised and inclusive approach to data may be the best way to transform agriculture.

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Faced with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, food security and livelihoods in Africa can be improved by using climate-smart methods to promote crop and livestock production.

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