Irrigation not a solution to food shortage


A centre pivot irrigation at a farm in Laikipia County.

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

The current severe and devastating drought is a painful reminder of past droughts and famines that Kenyans have had to endure. Going as far back as 1975, the cycles of drought have increasingly become shorter, reducing from occurring every 10 years, down to every five years and of late every 2-3 years.

The question is, are there any lessons that have been learnt and how have such lessons been applied in reducing the economic and social impact of drought?

It is estimated that global mean temperatures are likely to increase by between 1.5 to 4 degrees Celsius within this century. Temperature on its own has a direct effect on crop yields with different crops having different optimal growing conditions with high temperatures having the potential to damage those already close to their maximum thermal tolerance.

Given that water availability is a major factor in smallholder farming systems, the development and expansion of irrigation infrastructure has for a long time been mooted as a solution to intensify agricultural production.

The narrative in this country has, therefore, been on increasing productivity through the construction of dams and the setting up of irrigation schemes so as to reduce reliance on rain-fed agriculture. Towards this end, the current government plans to construct 100 dams and to double the land under irrigation to 1.4 million acres in the next three years.

Although it is true that with available water supplies, irrigation can help reduce the sensitivity of agricultural performance to climatic variables, the availability of such water can also be heavily affected by climate change.

Kenya has an irrigation potential of about 1.342 million hectares out of which only approximately 180,503 hectares of irrigation has been developed, representing 13.5 per cent of the potential. However, currently some of the notable lakes and rivers are drying up and this raises the fear that even with increased irrigation schemes, water shortage due to climate change will be a major challenge.

A number of case studies suggest that many irrigation schemes in Africa have failed to achieve intended goals of improving agricultural productivity and rural livelihoods with evidence of significant and increasing yield gaps due to scheme deterioration post-construction.

Since such schemes are often intended to secure national food security, most of them are for staple grain and rice production, crops which, unlike horticultural crops, are low value.

 Irrigation schemes may, thus, not be the silver bullet to ensure food security in Kenya. This is mainly due to unpredictable local hydro-climatology post-construction and inadequate scheme maintenance which are further undermined by a reduction in fertile agricultural land.

Otieno Nyabola, Kisumu