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

Sources: The Guardian, News 24, Reuters, New Internationalist
Photo: The Guardian

TAHMO network
For years, Africa has waited in vain for an agricultural revolution. Without consistent data on water availability, farmers have struggled to cope amidst the African landscape. A complete understanding of water availability is crucial for crop planning. However, the continent has never been fully equipped with the infrastructure necessary for agricultural success.

Regional planners have never had the data necessary to plan and invest in such infrastructure. Without adequate hydro-meteorological networks, planners have little information on water availability or weather patterns. These networks are disproportionately in North and South Africa, leaving much of central Africa in the dark. 1 in 4 existing stations in East and South Africa do not even work.

Africa lacks these networks because they are expensive (around $15,000 each). When a government has $15,000 to spend, it is often spent on matters of more urgent importance. Moreover, these networks require a skilled staff – something which is hard to find in the rural communities in which they are based.

Together, Delft University and Oregon State University (OSU) came up with a solution. Teaming up with 14 other universities and institutions, Delft and OSU started the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO) network. The network will be comprised of 20,000 stations across Sub-Saharan Africa, which should be completed by 2018.

The stations require almost zero-maintenance and costs only $500. They will measure for standard variables of climate, such as temperature, humidity, radiation, wind speed, rainfall, and more. The stations will most likely be based at secondary schools, which will receive training materials and money for simple upkeep. In addition, Delft created curriculum to teach the children about the weather, climate, water and management.

The network, however, will not be cheap. The network will require $5-7 million per year and hopes to eventually be self-sustaining. Despite the efforts of international donors and governments, the network will need a lot more support.

Many companies that could utilize the data collected through the TAHMO network, are looking to partner with Delft and could eventually become monetary sponsors of the network. The network could prove beneficial for other industries, such as micro-insurance, aviation, hydropower, and navigation.

Ultimately, the stations will not only educate a generation about weather conditions, but it will also provide climate scientists with a large amount of new data, which they can incorporate into their studies. A comprehensive database of the African climate would improve food production and harvest predictions.

This could lead to smarter farming, higher crop yields, and less food scarcity. The database will be available in a variety of forms – mobile phones, radio, and television – making it easier for local farmers to anticipate poor weather conditions and protect their crops. TAHNO is committed to the open exchange of all data collected between scientists, governments, farmers and civilians.

The TAHNO database and the free exchange of information between African farmers will improve the agriculture industry in Africa and hopefully lead to greater food availability.

– Kelsey Ziomek

Sources: The Guardian, Deft University of Technology, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Inhabitat

Irrigation, known for improving crops and overall increasing capabilities of life for centuries, may have one major drawback. With an increase in water abundance through irrigation, infrastructure such as irrigation canals are proving to be havens for mosquito growth.

Recent research shows that newly constructed irrigation infrastructure in malaria prone areas can increase the risk of malaria in the local community.

Research was conducted in the northwest region of India known as Gujarat. The research project found that when irrigation infrastructure was already established in sub-districts, such as Banaskantha and Patan, the monsoon rain influx had less of a malarial increase than sub-districts with early and transitional irrigation systems.

These transitional irrigation systems, known as “low irrigated,” were found to be the most susceptible to malaria that comes after the rainy monsoon season. In comparison, “mature irrigated” areas that had established wells and canals for over thirty years, were less affected by the mosquitoes and the disease they carry.

Led by University of Michigan graduate student, Andres Baeza, the team of researchers monitored the methods and results of a large irrigation project that was set to irrigate 47 million acres of farmland.

“In these dry, fragile ecosystems, where increase in water availability from rainfall is the limiting factor for malaria transmission, irrigation infrastructure can drastically alter mosquito population abundance to levels above the threshold needed to maintain malaria transmission” according to Baeza.

Although it has been known that malaria increases and new irrigation improvements are correlated, this new research shows that the improvements to land that eventually reduce malaria may take longer than expected for farmers in malaria prevalent regions.

This is not to persuade readers that irrigation is not worth it. On the contrary, with irrigation improvements come improved farm yields, food security, better incomes and increased access to finance and healthcare. With improved farmland, malaria is deterred and over the course of a few decades will be much lower as long as farming improvements are made accordingly.

– Michael Carney

Sources: Humanosphere, Proceedings of the National Academy of the Scienes (PNAS)
Photo: The Gef

By now, it is a well known fact that clean water is necessary for drinking and hygiene. About 1.1 billion people go without clean water every day and must rely on polluted or infected supplies to survive. Even more than that go without basic sanitation. But, water is not just for human consumption and cleanliness. Access to good water can be the difference between eating and starving for rural farmers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In order to grow sufficient crops, farmers need water and frequently must rely on sparse rains and transporting water on their own to provide for the plants they are attempting to grow.

Only four percent of rural farmland is irrigated, even though up to 40 million hectares are proven to be appropriate for irrigation. Farming in Africa has proven to be a difficult endeavor at the best of times. Rainfall has become unpredictable and crop yield is often too low to feed a family, let alone to sell in a market. The frustrating part is that there is plenty of water available underground, but the farmers lack an affordable way to actually obtain it.

Large, centralized irrigation schemes are usually built around a major dam and were very successful, especially during the so-called Green Revolution. Millions of people were brought out of hunger as a result. But they often proved to be environmentally destructive and tend to be very expensive to build and use, especially for those living in Africa.

The answer to providing access to crop irrigation for poor rural farmers in Africa could be much smaller, like the treadle pump. The pump is used by stepping up and down with the long poles, or treadles, that activate the suction and pump water out of the ground. One family told Sandra Postel, who of the National Geographic Freshwater Initiative, that their $35 investment brought them $100 in revenue the first year they used it.

The downfall of a pump like this is that it requires a lot of physical work to use and ends up taking time away from other important activities like schooling and harvesting. Nonetheless, several companies such as KickStart have created variations of the treadle pump to help spread the use of irrigation. With their affordable irrigation pumps, KickStart has been able to help 750,000 Africans pull themselves out of poverty. Groups like FarmAfrica have gone in and taught the farmers how to use the pumps and what crops to grow to get the best yield. Until small motorized pumps are more universally available and affordable, the benefits of being able to grow enough food to eat and sell seriously outweigh the issue of having to operate to pump manually.

– Chelsea Evans

Sources: Global Issues, National Geographic, FarmAfrica, KickStart
Photo: Indiegogo

Affordable Solar Irrigation SystemWatering crops has traditionally been a massive burden on poor farmers, requiring hours of hauling buckets from the nearest water source. Solar pump technology presents an opportunity for these farmers to harness the energy of the sun and pump water to their crops. But this technology is still too expensive to impact rural poverty.

By cutting the cost by 80% small farmer incomes would be transformed, tens of thousands of jobs could be created, and carbon emissions would be significantly reduced. If solar water pump was affordable at $2-a-day, small plot agriculture could become more profitable and many farmers could be raised out of poverty in India and Africa. But, how can this feat be achieved?

Through the work of iDE and their small farm drip irrigation systems, this cost-cutting has already been drastically reduced. By using thin-walled, lay-flat hose to convey irrigation water from sources to rows of plants and using filters to improve water flow, reducing pressure on the system, the cost of a drip irrigation system goes from $1,200 per acre to less than $600 per acre.

The greatest challenge is the reduction of the cost of the pump motor combination from $7,000 to $2,500. Traditionally diesel-powered pumps are utilized to transport water form the source, through the pump, and into the crops in unlined channels. Water is delivered to the plants by flooding the field with a loss of 60 to 70 percent of the water lost to seepage before it even gets to the plants.

By using a zero-based design, one where everything begins from scratch as if it were the invention of new technology, iDE is able to create SunWater,an  affordable PV solar irrigation system. A motor that is powered by electricity generated through photovoltaic panels would replace the diesel motors and efficiency is achieved by utilizing mirrors, which are much cheaper than photovoltaic. They are able to generate 2,000 watts off 10 – 15 mirrors. The water is then delivered to the plants via the thin walled, drip irrigation system already in place.

This simple, affordable change in the way water is delivered to plants will allow more diversification of crops by giving farmers a way to irrigate through the dry season. This means they can sell their high value crops when prices are highest (dry season) to sustain them through the wet season when farming is much more abundant and prices significantly drop. Educating farmers about how to optimize their incomes is the second phase of this valuable, life changing project.

– Shawn D. Ross

Source: Business Fights Poverty
Photo: Reeep

Nature Iraq: The One and Only
In a land where so much global attention is focused on its politics, Iraq’s environmental and agriculture issues have been left on the back burner. Until 2003, there was no sustainability or environmental organization that dealt with the dried-up marshlands of Iraq. Saddam Hussein purposefully dried them up to reduce the use of the marshes as hiding spots during his reign. This in turn damaged irrigation systems and the flow of water, almost bringing an end to thousands of years of Iraq’s farming culture.

Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer and former CEO of Nature Iraq, found himself back in Iraq to tackle this very issue in the early 2000s. “If Iraq does nothing to improve irrigation standards, agriculture is going to die in the place where it started,” Alwash stated. After hefty biological surveys, Alwash and his team began restoring the marshlands and reintroducing sustainable irrigation techniques. Their work was met with constant adversities and even threats from the government. Despite these obstacles, about half of the marshlands have been restored in the past decade and will now become a national park.

Achieving such a success is vital to the economy of Iraq, as many of its people rely on farming for food and livelihood. Alwash’s next project is working with the Syrian and Turkish governments to address the issues of the dams that are being built on the borders of those countries which stop the flow of water to the marshes. While the main goal is to prevent the loss of water, Alwash also sees this as an opportunity to prevent war in the Middle East. Of it, he says, “If we succeed in creating economic ties [between the countries], it’s going to be too difficult to go to war. Borders disappear when ties are strong.”

Nature Iraq, still the only environmental non-profit in Iraq, has expanded since its founding in 2003. It works with global organizations such as the UK’s Darwin Initiative to collect data on biodiversity and educate communities in those areas about the dangers of ignoring environmental issues. It also built the Adobe House on the banks of the Euphrates River to illustrate how people can build low-cost and sustainable housing even in marshlands.

Among all its projects, Azzam Alwash’s organization has proven that no matter the political stability of a country, environmental issues can be addressed. By creating stable communities that will foster a growing economy, it eliminates possible grounds of impoverished people and politicians forming uprisings.

– Deena Dulgerian

Source: Co.EXIST