Tuesday, May 15, 2012

East Africa: Talk of Modern Farming Is Futile Without Water

East Africa is currently experiencing plenty of rainfall (floods in some areas) after about five months of extremely dry weather.

In some areas, pastoralists were forced to migrate in search of water after most water sources dried up. Two years ago the entire cattle, goat and sheep population was wiped out in north-western Kenya following a devastating drought that lasted over a year.

Global warming presents two extreme weather conditions - very wet and extremely hot which call for careful planning in order to strike a balance.

Just about a month since the start of this year's belated main rain season, seasonal rivers in parts of Rwanda and western Uganda are back to life. During a recent trip to Uganda, I saw for the first time, more than two rivers between Kigali and the Gatuna. There could be more far away from the highway. Between Ntungamo to Mbarara, I saw a river, several kilometers long, flowing along the road and crossing several swamps that have now turned into small lakes. Suddenly, the scotched grassland has sprout, giving the entire country-side a fresh green cover. But all this will be short-lived as the dry season will return sooner than later.

There has been a lot of talk about global warming and how to mitigate its effects but no concrete action has been taken to with this phenomenon. The real challenge, as things appear now, is in striking a balance between these two extreme weather conditions - plenty of water and severe drought.

East Africa can therefore no longer afford to take this situation for granted. We must not watch as the water from the current rains flow away or evaporate into the atmosphere because we shall need it tomorrow.

All East African member states are currently talking about modernizing agriculture, the major source of livelihood to a majority of east Africans. But it is doubtful if those who depend on farming as well policy makers fully appreciate the core aspects of modern farming. Often, modernization of agriculture has been viewed within the lens of use of modern tools of cultivating the land and harvesting; planting improved seeds and appropriation of large chunks of land for large-scale production. And scientists have indeed done a wonderful job of producing improved varieties of cereal such as rice and maize, roots crops such as cassava and potatoes as well as fruits and vegetables.

Despite these innovations, productivity remains low and famine looms large because the most important component of modern farming - provision of adequate water - has not yet been tackled. This means that despite availability of improved seeds, pesticides, tractors and all modern inputs, our farmers continue to depend on rain-fed agriculture just like the early man did during the stone-age.

We cannot talk about producing for the market while continuing to depend of seasonal rain, whose timing we have absolutely no control over.

Any investment in modern farming must therefore urgently look into rolling out massive infrastructure projects aimed at harvesting and storing water during the time of plenty (such as now) for uses during the increasingly more frequent and prolonged droughts.

It is not uncommon to see farmers lose entire maize crop at flowering stage because of a small dry spell when just two weeks of irrigation could save the day.

Governments and their development partners need to look into investing in underground community water reservoirs to store run-off water for use during dry seasons so that farmers can produce through out the year.

We also need well constructed valley dams to store the water that collects in these seasonal swamps. This is especially necessary in the cattle corridors where cattle keepers have sometimes lost herds for lack of water while some have been forced to migrate to neighboring countries in search of water. Such movements have resulted into bitter conflicts between cattle keepers and cultivators.

There is a school of thought that suggests that apart from oil, water is likely to be most sought after item globally in the coming years. The same school of thought suggests that a third world war will be sparked off by conflict over water. Recent disagreement between the upper Nile states and Egypt over the colonial agreement that gives the latter near absolute control over the Nile is a pointer to possible confrontations. Whether war over Nile water can galvanize the entire African continent and finally escalate into a world war is a different matter.


  1. No. Actually I live in Florida and I'm retired. I do the blog as a hobby and public service. Trying to keep people informed about all the issues surrounding water. And the problems in so many countries.