Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Irrigation Promises to Increase Food Security

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
Wyson Chandanga, a small-holder Malawian farmer from the northern district of Mzimba, does not care if the country receives enough rain this year. He is also not concerned on whether the rains come on time or not.

Chandanga’s attitude is at first surprising, since Malawi is an agricultural economy which greatly depends on rain-fed farming. The country derives up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange revenue from agricultural production and 85 percent of the country’s population depend on the same sector for their livelihood.

However, Chandanga says adverse weather, including erratic rains, experienced in the country in recent years, has persuaded him to find ways to reduce his dependence on rainfall.

Malawi has recently experienced three major episodes of drought; one in 1991, another in 2000 and the most recent happened in 2005. The country has also faced major flooding in some parts of the country -- last year, half of Malawi’s 28 districts were hit by heavy flooding and most crops were swept away.

Looking dirty and tired but content after finishing a day’s work cultivating his plot of land, Chandanga declares that he will be a more successful farmer now that he no longer cares for the rains.

"I have now ventured into irrigation farming and I grow maize twice a year even in the dry season. I could only produce the staple food once in a year when I practiced rain-fed agriculture and the yield was not enough for my family," says the farmer.

Chandanga is one of the 29,000 farmers being assisted by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to intensify farm production by developing small-scale irrigation systems and water harvesting schemes in Malawi’s northern region.

The farmers are being trained to improve food security, diversify sources of household income, prevent waterborne diseases in water points and pit latrines, improve their dietary intake and conserve natural resources, according to FAO communications officer Muwuso Chawinga.

"Up to 90 percent of Malawi’s agriculture is rain-fed but we need to diversify into more irrigation farming practices if we have to attain food security for the country," says Chawinga.

Seven out of 10 households in Malawi typically run out of food before the harvesting season, mainly because of drought and floods, according to Chawinga. "It is therefore important that the country should now be maximising on all the seasons and grow their crops even in the dry season and avoid the drought or flooding which may destroy their crops," says Chawinga.

The irrigation programme, which only started in January this year, is already showing signs of having promoted crop diversification in a country that is highly reliant on maize as a staple food. Chandanga, for example, is now also cultivating potatoes, beans and rice to supplement the maize that he has been growing.

Masuzgo Jere, who is also cultivating on a small piece of irrigated land, says she has already harvested enough maize this year to feed her family of five; most farmers are yet to even plant a first crop as they await the rains. She expects to bring in two more crops before April next year, which is when the country harvests maize from the rain-fed agricultural system.

"I not only manage to feed my family, I also sell the surplus food I grow. My family is now regarded as well-off by members of my community," says Jere.

The farmers involved in the irrigation project are provided with treadle pumps and water pipes which they use to pump water through canals from dams, rivers and streams closest to them.

Apart from irrigation, the farmers are being taught skills in water management, development of agro-business, promotion of afforestation and natural resource conservation.

"Our children are not left behind in this since we are also developing garden-based learning centres in primary schools. This is forming part of the agriculture lessons and it will ensure sustainability of the project since the kids will grow with the knowledge on the importance of irrigation farming," says Jere.

The irrigation programme was kick-started following a Poverty Rural Assessment (PRA) exercise which FAO carried out in May 2007. The assessment highlighted low crop yield and low income levels among rural households – the findings were mostly attributed to lack of irrigation opportunities, erratic rainfall and drought.

Malawi is only irrigating 72,000 of 400,000 hectares of irrigable land, according to the government. However the country’s president Bingu wa Mutharika, who is also Minister of Agriculture, told reporters at an August press conference that government is creating a "green belt" along Lake Malawi, which will entail the creation of irrigation schemes along the lake. Lake Malawi is a fresh water lake -- the ninth largest lake in the world, it extends the length of the country.

Small-holder farmers will be assisted by government to establish irrigation schemes along the lake. In Malawi’s 2008/2009 national budget, the allocation to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development has been increased by 50 percent to $55 million.

"The funds will be used in the ministry’s development programme, considered to be crucial for the attainment of food security. This year, (the programme) is expected to construct some 16 earth dams in addition to 20 that have been constructed so far," said the country’s Minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe when he presented the budget statement.

The Ministry of Agriculture has since indicated that the country is expected to produce up to 300,000 tonnes of maize from irrigation by November. The country usually receives its first rains between November and December.


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