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Harnessing the Potential of Irrigated Agriculture for Food Security

In the last decade, Kenya has experienced food shortages attributed to low agricultural productivity occasioned by decline in soil fertility, high input costs and unreliable weather in the face of a rising population to feed. In 2017, production of maize, which is Kenya’s staple, declined by 20 per cent due to drought across the country. Continued dependence on rain-fed agriculture amidst climate change has put majority of citizens, especially in rural areas, in perennial need for relief food and farm subsidies, which puts pressure on public funds meant for investment programmes.

Expanding and rehabilitating irrigation schemes across the country could increase production and enhance food security. Kenya has an estimated irrigation potential of 1.3 million hectares of arable land but only about 125,000 hectares (about 10%) is currently under irrigation. Most of this irrigated land (43%) is under smallholder production, 18 per cent under public management while the private large-scale farms represent 39 per cent. There are seven irrigation schemes in Kenya: Mwea, Ahero, Bunyala and West Kano schemes which produce rice while Bura, Tana and Pekerra irrigation schemes are under maize production. Besides rice and maize, there are other crops grown within these schemes, including onions, tomatoes, watermelons, pulses, cotton, sorghum and other horticultural crops. Public schemes across the country account for about 43,270.5 acres under irrigation against a gazetted area of 70,626 acres. This implies that the current irrigation schemes are not fully utilized.

The National Irrigation Board is mandated to accelerate expansion and development of irrigation by partnering with local governments and development partners. Since 2011, the government has cumulatively allocated approximately Ksh 30 billion towards the National Expanded Irrigation Programme (NEIP). Among other activities, the programme’s mandate was to rehabilitate, expand and modernize public irrigation schemes and construct new irrigation projects across the 47 counties. The Board is also implementing six other irrigation development projects financed by various development partners, among them JICA, World Bank, BADEA, Kuwait Fund and OFID. These projects include Kieni Irrigation Development, Kayatta Irrigation, Bura Rehabilitation, and Lower Nzoia Irrigation Project Phase I and II. Development partners have over the years complemented government efforts in putting more land under irrigation with the aim of increasing food production and making Kenya a net exporter.

For Kenya to exploit its full irrigation potential, water resource conservation and management is vital. About 30 per cent of this potential can be achieved with available water resources while the rest requires water harvesting and storage. Kenya has an annual freshwater resources endowment of about 20.2 billion cubic metres or 548 m3 per capita per year, capable of supporting productive irrigation. These surface water resources are distributed within five drainage basins: the Tana, Athi, Ewaso Ng’iro North, Kerio Valley and Lake Victoria. In addition, the country has groundwater aquifers linked to major rock systems. Turkana County has immense groundwater resources, which provide a unique opportunity for cotton production in large scale under irrigation. The Lotikipi aquifer alone has renewable water (slightly saline) amounting to 3.224 billion cubic metres per year and can irrigate approximately 170,000 hectares of cotton particularly because the crop does well in saline conditions. Development of sustainable irrigation schemes requires considerable investments in mapping out both ground and water towers, and investing in boreholes and efficient irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation.

The arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) represent 84 per cent of total land mass in Kenya. This huge chunk of land is largely under-exploited; it is estimated that 24 million hectares in the ASALs have the potential for livestock production, with an additional 9.2 million hectares having potential for crop production under irrigation. In efforts to develop the ASALs, the government targets to put an additional 600,000 to 1.2 million hectares under irrigation. If the government achieves this target, irrigable land under crop production in the ASALs will double total arable land in the country. Thus, Kenya can double current crop production by exploiting irrigation in the vast ASAL counties. This would ease pressure on traditional bread basket regions and create jobs and wealth in areas believed to be marginalized. Moreover, irrigation in ASALs can be exploited for fodder production for livestock consumption, thus de-risking pastoralists against drought and increasing livestock productivity.

The National government is spearheading implementation of a one-million-acre irrigation project called Galana Kulalu Food Security Project in Tana River and Kilifi counties, which are partly semi-arid. The Galana Kulalu project is estimated to be 1.75 million acres with irrigation potential of 1.2 million acres. The government targets to put 400,000 acres of this potential under irrigation. In the first phase, the target was 10,000 acres but so far only 3,000 acres have been planted and harvested. An additional 2,145 acres is under new crop. The remaining 5,500 acres are to be handed to private investors, including Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC) to commercialize production. Total production from the cultivated 3,000 acres was 132,980 bags of 50kg, translating to 31 bags (90kg) per acre.  Cumulatively, the government has spent Ksh 14.5 billion on the project being implemented by a consortium of consultants from Kenya and Israel. The second phase of 400,000 acres is expected to cost Ksh 400 billion. The output was below the projections for the period under review, given harvest from Phase I compared to the expenditure incurred by the government during the similar period. However, this is a good project whose impact on food security will be tremendous if implemented as planned and meets its projections.

There is need for the country to fast track necessary policy, legal and institutional framework for irrigation. The framework would foster development of a national irrigation master plan that will highlight key priority areas for exploitation in a more systematic and concerted manner in addressing food security. The draft irrigation policy is yet to be discussed at cabinet level, although land reclamation for irrigation is among the aspirations highlighted in Vision 2030.  However, a number of policy instruments, including National Land Reclamation Policy, National Land Reclamation Bill, and Draft National Water Harvesting and Storage Policy, are yet to be completed, an indication of inadequate policy framework for effective implementation of irrigated agriculture in the country. Application of these policies would enhance investments in irrigation from both levels of government, and private sector.

There are lessons that Kenya can learn from Israel and Egypt in exploiting the potential of irrigation agriculture to feed its people and develop her industries. Israel has specialized in reforming use of ground water through regulation of water allocation to farmers and regulation of levies for water extraction from wells. To guarantee adequate availability of this scarce resource, Israel invests in desalinization programmes, water recycling and surface water reservoir expansion. In addition, Israel’s Agricultural Directorate in collaboration with the private sector invests in aquifer storage and recovery programmes, ground water banking, and infiltration ponds to store water for irrigation purposes. Massive investments in irrigation technologies that are water efficient is the key driver in the success of irrigated agriculture in Israel, which Kenya is tapping through exchange learning programmes.

Egypt depends on the River Nile for agricultural production. Along the river, it has invested in building dams and water reservoirs for storage, with barrages downstream to enable irrigation. The country also has elaborate drainage systems that allow efficient utilization of water given its desert ecology. Proper design of water canal systems allows hydropower generation to keep her manufacturing sector vibrant. Egypt has also invested immensely in ground water for livestock production. Kenya has the potential to triple what Egypt has been able to achieve since the source of River Nile is Lake Victoria whose irrigation potential is untapped. Moreover, Kenya’s forest cover is way above Egypt, with extensive water towers across the country. Through collaboration with development partners, Kenya can construct dams and water reservoirs for storage, with proper canals to agricultural plantations across the country, especially in low lying semi-arid areas. Tapping ground water, 15 large rivers and 11 lakes including the biggest desert lake in the world (Lake Turkana) for irrigation would make the country food secure and a net exporter in the region. 

By highlighting food security and manufacturing as the key agenda of the government in 2017-2022, the Head of State acknowledges the important role agriculture plays in ensuring food security and good health. The government proposes to impose tax on idle arable land to stimulate land utilization and free up more land for production. However, the efficacy of this type of taxation is yet to be established. The government could instead pursue the option of leasing idle arable land owned by government for production to private sector organizations such as banks and cooperatives, multinational companies and individual farmers with financial capacity to invest in agriculture.

Learning from experiences from Egypt and Israel in irrigated agriculture and technical expertise from exchange programmes, investments in skills and technologies are key requisites for achieving food security. Given ability to reclaim massive land for irrigation, the government should explore the possibility of using institutions such as universities, the National Youth Service and the Prisons Department in rolling out new public irrigation schemes across the country. Moreover, the country would more than double land under crop production for food staples and cash crops for local industries as raw materials by exploiting the potential in the ASALs. Growing of fodder in these areas would boost livestock production and guarantee pastoral livelihoods in the face of climate change. As productivity increases with irrigated agriculture, Kenya would gain back its export markets for crops such as pulses, pyrethrum, cotton and horticulture and earn much more foreign exchange. This would facilitate importation of food staples that the country does not have comparative advantage in production, and machinery for infant industries. Therefore, development and implementation of an irrigation policy and National Irrigation Master Plan by both levels of government through stakeholder participation is the key to unlocking Kenya’s food security paradox.

This story is courtesy of The Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA): Author: Dickson Khainga: 

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