Look to rain to lock in Africa’s food security

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30 July 2015 | Jamila Abass 

When 100 small-scale farmers banded together in Kenya’s Central Province to win a USD$240,000 contract supplying potatoes to a processing company, hopes were high. The rains were strong and weekly deliveries began in October 2014 and proceeded through November. Then the rains stopped, and so did the harvesting. Unable to fulfill the required weekly deliveries, the farmers lost the contract.

But the story doesn’t end there, for Kenya, or for Africa. When the rains started again, they came as a deluge. It lasted days, then weeks. In Kenya, as with much of the continent this year, excessive rains swamped fields, turned streets into rivers, inundated houses and businesses.

In southern Africa alone, close to 930,000 people were affected, with 300,000 people displaced from their homes in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar. For many, the flooding will cause a total loss of production and significant food gaps, particularly for poor households, during the 2015/16 consumption year.

In much of Africa, even when it rains, people starve. Yet, precious little of this abundant rain is captured for future use, leaving farmers vulnerable to both drought and flood. And now climate change is intensifying these extremes, with an intensive drought following the storms at the beginning of the year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Climate-smart agriculture—practices that adjust to the changing growing conditions—provides technologies to improve farming even under challenging conditions. One simple solution used in other dry parts of the world is the capture or harvest of rainwater to power local irrigation systems, and provide water for industry, sanitation and more.

In the arid country of Israel, over 240 reservoirs capture rain water which then supplies more than half the water used for irrigation. The city-state of Singapore harvests approximately 90 percent of its storm rainwater, having built a “water superhighway” that connects drains, canals, rivers, storm water collection ponds and reservoirs.

In Ethiopia’s Tigray Province, once the poster child for famine, communities terraced their hillsides to capture water, and farmers now reap three harvests a year. Now, small-scale irrigation has enabled more than a million farmers across the country to increase crop productivity by an average of 70 percent.

As seen in Ethiopia, with public and private sector support, Sub-Sahara Africa’s thirty three million smallholder farms could create their our own version of a water superhighway, networks of water harvesting schemes serving local farms and farmer collectives, and ensuring that they can deliver on their contracts and transform our rural economies into hubs of agricultural activity.

I recently met a farmer from Machakos—one of Kenya’s driest areas—at an exhibition showcasing farmers’ innovations. He constructs rainwater harvesting systems that cost less than $400 dollars and he produces watermelons and leafy vegetables for his family year-round, unlike his neighbors who depend on rain fed farming and are lucky to produce one good crop a year.

A UN report released a full decade ago states that about one-third of Africa is suitable for rainwater harvesting and that the quantity of rain falling over the continent is equivalent to the needs of 9 billion people.

Instead of rainwater capture, however, governments still favor large-scale irrigation projects, such as Kenya’s planned one-million acre Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme, projected to cost $651 million dollars. To attract private investors, the government is setting up a model farm that would cost $90 million, and $22.8 million is being set apart for a consulting Israeli firm, Arava, to oversee the success of the maize plantation. It would cost the government of Kenya less money, however, to construct rainwater harvesting systems for each and every farmer in the country

Although rainwater will not satisfy all our irrigation needs, it is a big part of the answer. We know that when farmers have access to water, they produce. We cannot leave the success of our farmers and our food security to chance.

No farmer can lift him- or herself out of poverty without adequate water for irrigation. Relatively modest investments and an abundance of ingenuity can transform idle fields into year-round working farms, and ensure the supply of quality, affordable food essential regardless of whether or when the rains fall.

This blog was originally published on Thomson Reuters. Click here to read the original blog.