“Rain-Fed Irrigation for Rain-Fed Agriculture”: Sustaining Economic Development and Food Security in Uganda

Changing rains, destabilizing agriculture
In the past, farmers relied entirely on the rains to grow crops, whether for home consumption or sale. The farmers understood the seasons; they knew when to prepare their fields and when to sow seed. The rains were distributed somewhat evenly over the rainy season, and farmers knew which time of the year the rainy season would be long or short. Crop yields were dependent mainly on the quality of seed, nutrients in the soil and farm management practices; farmers had control over these factors. These circumstances however have changed.

Today, because of a changing climate, farmers have another factor to worry about. One that affects crop yields, but over which farmers have no control: Rains have become highly unpredictable. Often the rains are delayed. They are either too much or too little to support crop growth. These changing rain patterns put food security at stake, and thus the economic well-being of the communities. Agriculture employs close to 70% of the working population, which makes it the most important sector in social terms.

The agricultural sector is dominated by rain-fed systems. Because of this, its viability is becoming increasingly compromised by climate change, especially unreliable rainfall. Lessening the effects of unreliable rainfall can be achieved through applying water to the soil and crops (irrigation) when need arises. Indeed the potential to sustain crop production by promoting irrigation has for long been recognized by communities, government, non-government, and public sector players.

Section of the water reservoir for a large irrigation scheme in Otuke district, North Uganda

Revitalizing irrigation schemes to strengthen agriculture
A 1952 article by J.M. Watson indicates that communities in the Agoro valley of present day Lamwo district, Uganda, established systems for emergency irrigation as early as the early 1900s. Statistics indicate that by the year 2010, there were several public, private or public-private owned irrigation schemes, covering 14,418 hectares of the 4,400,000 hectares of potential arable land. Another 53000 hectares were managed wetlands where crops (including rice, sugarcane and vegetables) were cultivated. These numbers indicate that agriculture other than that entirely rain-fed was done on less than 2% of the total arable land in the year 2010, which is likely to remain the same, given the situation.

Water distribution channel for a large irrigation scheme in Lamwo district, North Uganda

The National Development Plan 2010/11 – 2014/15 for Uganda calls for revitalizing the irrigation subsector, majorly placing emphasis on establishing more large and small scale (micro) irrigation schemes, rehabilitating existing ones, and developing institutional structures to sustainably manage these schemes. However, these schemes can serve only a small section of the community, mainly the farmers closest to the schemes, and this serice area is bound to decrease because of technical constraints, like infrastructure deterioration and poor operation and maintenance.

A national irrigation master plan for Uganda was prepared for the period 2010 – 2035. This served as a framework for sustainably realizing the country’s irrigation potential. Also it seeks to mitigate the effects of climate change and to contribute to transforming Uganda’s society – from a peasant to a modern and prosperous country. The plan foresees to augment the currently 2.7% increase of irrigated area in Uganda per year towards an average of 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.

Thus, even at its best, the irrigated portion in the current setup will remain much smaller than the rain-fed portion of agriculture. This being so because the current setup largely views improved irrigation as extracting water from its natural location (i.e. lakes, rivers, swamps, or the ground) for agricultural purposes. Yet every part of the country receives at least one season of heavy rainfall –when there is too much water flowing, to the extent that low-lying lands get flooded, bridges washed away and roads blocked by runoff water. This heavy rainfall (though unpredicted) presents a huge potential to sustain food production on the 87% of arable land that is not close to permanent water bodies, if adequate measures are put in place to harvest and store the rainwater and later use it for irrigation.

The real potential for sustaining agricultural (food) production is in promoting rainwater harvesting for production at much smaller scale, on individual farms.
Farmers should be encouraged and facilitated to harvest and store rainwater for (supplemental) irrigation. A few non-government organizations and government agencies have started to do rainwater harvesting for irrigation, still at a level of research and demonstration. However, the actors have a shared challenge: high costs and lacking proved quality of lined ponds and other rainwater harvesting techniques.

A small water-harvesting pond, for irrigation, fed by compound runoff in Otuke district, North Uganda

To adequately up-scale rainwater harvesting for irrigation, improved techniques are required. This can include for instance, mechanisms of lining ponds using locally-available and affordable materials that are effective and can be installed and managed by the communities themselves. Promoting rainwater harvesting for irrigation needs to be reinforced with in-situ soil and water conservation. For this, awareness creation and capacity building of the communities, to implement the various technologies, are important. Demonstration farms/plots and farmer exchange visits are also needed, for communities to see the added value interventions have on crop yields.

James W. Kisekka, Project Officer RAIN, Uganda

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RAIN is a brand of Aidenvironment, setting up programs and projects focusing on rainwater harvesting and 3R techniques.