Untapped potential? Recommendations for smarter irrigation in Africa

High-level decision makers are gathering in Rabat, Morocco for the Malabo Montpellier Forum on 17 December 2018. The Forum – co-chaired by The Right Honourable Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima, Vice President of the Republic of Malawi and His Excellency Abdoulaye Bio-Tchané, Minister of State in Charge of Planning and Development of the Republic of Benin – creates a space for dialogue and exchange on issues of strategic importance for African agriculture, nutrition and food security.

The world’s attention has already been zeroed in on the impacts of climate change this month with the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took place in Katowice, Poland. As the continent experiences extended droughts and erratic flooding, the urgent need for resourceful water management and efficient irrigation systems has become unequivocally evident. To help policy makers address this need, discussions at the Malabo Montpellier Forum are guided by the Panel’s latest report, Water-Wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa, which finds that despite the potential to increase irrigation in Africa by 47 million hectares, only 6 percent of the continent’s arable land is currently being irrigated. To ensure that African countries exploit this huge potential, the Malabo Montpellier Panel offer nine recommendations to enhance irrigation on the continent, drawn from successful institutional arrangements, policies, regulation and interventions on the ground in several African countries.

Prioritizing policy innovation

To meet the targets set out in the Malabo Declaration and the Sustainable Development Goals, irrigation must become a top policy and long-term investment priority. With irrigation on the government’s policy agenda since 1991, Ethiopia provides a good example of the positive impact that public sector coordination and investment in irrigation can have on agricultural productivity and economic growth. Between 2002 and 2014 Ethiopia’s irrigated land increased by 52 percent, which makes it the country with the fastest growth in irrigation development on the continent.

The rapid growth in irrigation across Ethiopia has been supported by the government’s allocation of US$7.5 billion to irrigation development until 2020. Ethiopia’s specialised network of institutions with clear commitments and missions related to irrigation development – coordinated under the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity – has helped to ensure this investment generates the desired returns. Ethiopian farmers have experienced reduced seasonal variability in productivity, higher crop yields and increased incomes as a result of the government’s policies prioritizing irrigation.

Elsewhere, the South African government has demonstrated dedication to irrigation, smart water use and the maintenance of drainage systems with some of the most effective policy innovations in the world. In 2015, the Directorate of Water Use and Irrigation Development launched a new Irrigation Strategy for South Africa, which provides direction for institutional reform and guidelines on public investment in irrigation initiatives. The Irrigation Strategy sets a target of a more than 50 percent increase in irrigated land in South Africa over the next 10 to 20 years by revitalizing smallholder irrigation schemes across the country. The institutional support for the development and maintenance of irrigation and drainage systems has encouraged the emergence of 250,000 South African irrigators, including 32,000 smallholders.

Lessons for cross-continental progress

The progress made by both, Ethiopia and South Africa, must be built on and replicated across the continent. However, appropriate policy and technology innovations are urgently needed to sustain current water use. If management of water resources remains unchanged, more than half of Africa’s population will not have access to drinking water by 2030. Less than 2 percent of irrigated land in Africa uses treated wastewater, which presents huge untapped potential. Smart regulations for water use, including pricing structures that help to secure and save water resources, should therefore be coupled with incentives to promote the dissemination of technologies for the use of treated waste water. In addition, to minimize any adverse environmental impacts of introducing new irrigation technologies and systems, African countries should promote the use of renewable energy through technologies such as solar-powered irrigation pumps.

More detailed information about the most important institutional innovations and policy or programme interventions related to irrigation in Ethiopia and South Africa can be found in the Malabo Montpellier’s Water-Wise report, which features country case studies from Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria and South Africa. The valuable evidence, insights and lessons provided by the report will help high-level decision makers to design informed policies to promote best irrigation practices that will accelerate agriculture’s transformation and economic growth across Africa.