For millions of people around the world, irrigation has provided a means of subsistence and economic opportunity in the form of small-scale farming operations. But for rural farmers in Tanzania’s agriculture-intensive regions, irrigation policy has become a source of controversy and economic uncertainty.
The most recent controversy was born out of the Tanzanian government’s plans to ban economic activity, including small-scale farming operations, from taking place near reservoirs and other “listed water resources.” The ban is an attempt to reduce competition for water in reaction to a recent drought-induced hydropower shortage.
The recent drought has struck a major blow to the country’s national power grid, 57 percent of which is generated by hydropower. The drought alone has been devastating for Tanzanian agriculture: of the country’s 29.4 million hectares of irrigable land, under 600,000 are currently being irrigated. Combined with the government’s recent ban on reservoir-sourced irrigation, many farmers face the prospects of lost livelihoods.
“I have been farming in this area all my life,” said Eliudi Samizi, a rice farmer who relies on irrigation from the Great Ruaha River. “If someone asks me to stop fishing or farming, what else can I do to feed my family?”
The government’s decision to limit water usage is a reaction to state-run power company TANESCO’s request to evict local communities that it claims overuse the water resources near its hydropower plants. Last year, President Jakaya Kikwete called for the eviction of farmers in the Uluguru region, reversing a decision made six years ago during a similarly problematic period.
While bans on irrigation have been temporary in recent years, TANESCO’s request would make those bans permanent, resulting in total uncertainty regarding the future income of Tanzanian farmers.
In 2006, farmers were threatened with eviction from the Uluguru Mountain, having been accused of damaging the environment and threatening the availability of urban water. They were allowed to stay only after an appeal to President Kikwete, but today their future remains uncertain, as demonstrated by the government’s recent compliance with eviction efforts from private investors and entities like TANESCO.
According to Elizabeth Harrison and Anna Mdee, development researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Bradford, these policy proposals are part of a broader trend throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, one that has seen the prioritization of large-scale commercial operations at the expense of small-scale communities.
“The politics of irrigation development in Tanzania sadly mirrors this: the favouring of large schemes that attract significant donor support, coupled with the problems of managing this at a local level,” they wrote in an article for The Guardian. “Unfortunately for farmers like those in Choma, it seems that no matter how significant the social or economic benefits of their less formal practices, the politics is likely to continue to lead to them being dismissed by those in authority.”
Indeed, large-scale operations driven by private investment are often sold on the claim that they will serve to benefit the most vulnerable Tanzanian farmers. But a recent resettlement process led by KPL, a subsidiary of British-based agribusiness giant Agrica, resulted in the displacement of 230 farmers, many of whom were vastly undercompensated. Some were given merely $17 per acre, a fraction of the $600 for which an acre can be purchased in neighboring Zambia.
“When they came here, they told me that if I provided land for KPL they would build me a new house,” said a villager from Tanzania’s Kilombero District. “But they did not do that; they just threw us out of there and gave us a little money in order to survive.”
Millions of dollars of aid contributed by countries like England and the United States continues to subsidize corporate investment in operations like that outlined above. The current politicization of irrigation in Tanzania represents an opportunity to alter the flow of aid in favor of operations that will prioritize the well being of the small-scale farmers whom donors claim to help. It also provides an opportunity for investment in renewable energy alternatives, like the Lake Turkina Wind Project in Kenya, which would relieve Tanzania’s allocation of water to its national power grid. Until that happens, rural farmers will continue to face economic uncertainty at the hands of corporate interests.
– Zach VeShancey