Sunday, June 5, 2011

Irrigation can shield Africa’s farmers from the effects of climate change

Jaco Maritz in How We Made It In Africa: Farmers in northern Ethiopia are struggling under the impact of climate change. Until a few years ago farmers in this hot and dry area could at least count on the occasional moderate rain. These days there is either no rainfall or it is in the form of torrential downpours leading to flash floods.

…A German-Israeli team, supported by the Ethiopian government, has started a project to show farmers how to irrigate their fields more efficiently. With the help of the local farmers, they have established a pilot project utilising drip irrigation to irrigate vegetables. Conduits that convey water from the reservoir to a tank next to the field has been repaired. Farmers also received training on how to determine how much water their crops need. The idea is that the project will lead to greater adoption of the drip irrigation technology in other parts of the country.

Irrigation has a proven potential to boost levels of agricultural productivity on the continent, as well as address the effects of climate change. Africa is, however, dramatically underserved in terms of irrigation. A 2009 research report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) states that African countries irrigate only about 6% of their collective cropland, compared with a world average of 18%. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 4% of farmland is under irrigation.

…The report also found that African countries produce 38% of their crops (by value) from cultivated land on which water is managed, suggesting that additional investment in irrigation would pay large benefits. The disproportionate contribution to agricultural production of Africa’s small irrigated area suggests that returns on additional investment in irrigation would be high, both in terms of greater food security for the continent and greater production of export-quality agricultural goods.

Drought and unpredictable rainfall patterns caused by climate change increases the need for irrigation. McKinsey & Company notes that even before global warming was a problem, many parts of Africa were particularly affected by droughts, heat waves and floods. As climate change becomes more of an issue, African agriculture will increasingly suffer because of unusual weather….

Satellite image of Ethiopia, from NASA

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