In Uganda, water stressed rice farmers turn to quick-maturing crops after irrigation scheme fails

In Uganda, water stressed rice farmers turn to quick-maturing crops after irrigation scheme fails

By John Okot & David Okema

As the river snaked gently down from the misty Langiya hill, which straddles the Uganda- South Sudan border, Geoffrey Ingala stood in the middle of his rice paddy powerless. Nearby, his crops were thirsty and weak, but the 42-year-old farmer could not save them. In the end, Ingala, who had explored all options in vain, decided to relocate his garden from the fringes of the Agoro irrigation scheme to somewhere else.

Ensconced in Lamwo District, some 538 kilometers away from the capital Kampala, the Agoro irrigation scheme, which was first built in 1966, has over the years supported farmlands in this part of the region, but now it can no longer supply enough water for farming due to the growing population relying on it.

The capacity of Agoro irrigation scheme, which is fed by river Okura originating from the top of Langiya hill (or Imotong hill as it’s called in South Sudan), is spreading thin as farmers continue to expand their farmlands. More water is needed to sustain their activities amid extreme weather conditions characterized by sizzling temperatures and the changing rainfall patterns. 

The Uganda Ministry of Water and Environment injected 27 billion Uganda shillings ($70,000 U.S. dollars), with support from the African Development Bank (ADB), to elevate this self-help scheme in 2011 from serving just 160 hectares to serving 1,670 hectares of land. The renovation was intended to support more than 10,000 farmers to access water.

But since 2013, after completing the scheme, farmers are struggling to access water due to the shoddy work that was done.

“We instead moved two steps backwards,” says Ingala, 42, a farmer and also the secretary for production in Agoro sub-county. “We were so disappointed with the work that was done because the canals [at the scheme] were too deep that almost all the water ended up there instead of flowing into our gardens.”

Siltation causing blocakge of the schemes Wier thus reducing the water volume to reach the reservior and the farms 6
Siltation causing blockage of the scheme’s wier thus reducing the water volume to reach the reservoir and the farms

This has led to food insecurity and low crop production in many households in Agoro, a community which was once regarded as the ‘northern food basket,’ supplying even neighboring South Sudan with food. 

In August last year, the government decided to contract another firm called Gets Technical Services Limited to rectify the deficits, following worrying concerns from the farmers and local leaders.

The second rehabilitation, which was supposed to be finalized this year in March, is yet to be completed, but the delay is worrying farmers already being battered by the adverse climatic conditions. 

Many farmers have been forced to relocate their gardens to the foothills of Langiya in search of fresh lands. Some have also abandoned lowland rice, which was the predominant crop in this region, for improved crop varieties that are fast-maturing  – such as maize, beans, eggplant and cabbage – that require less water to grow. 

Some of the farmers farming within the irrigation walking back home from their gardens
Some of the farmers within the irrigation scheme walking back home from their farms

Rice, however, fetches more money on the market in northern Uganda (about $1.5 USD a kilogram) compared to maize and beans (USD $0.5 and $1.03 a kilogram, respectively). According to the Agoro Irrigation Superintendent, Thomas Opoka, the government also wants to prioritize rice growing for both domestic consumption and export.

Climate change driving irrigation in the Nile Basin

As climate change takes a toll globally, the challenge of growing food by smallholder farmers who rely heavily on rain, especially in developing economies like Uganda, is becoming tougher with less reliable harvests. Changing rainfall patterns and sizzling temperatures, exacerbated by human induced activities such as pollution and deforestation, are forcing farmers to turn to nearby water channels to irrigate their crops. 

In the Nile River basin, for instance, approximately 5.4 million hectares of land is irrigated for farming purposes as the river Nile feeds more than 250 million people  residing within the boundary. The overall arable land development in this region, according to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) strategic water resources analysis, is projected to increase by 11 percent, from 968 million hectares between 2005 and 2007 to 1,075 million hectares in 2050.

For Uganda, the National Irrigation Master Plan study conducted in 2011 as reported by the Nile Basin Initiative projected that hectares of irrigated land would increase by 33,750 by 2035.  The East African nation contains 515,000 hectares of potentially irrigable land, which includes 243,500 hectares in wetlands and 272,000 hectares in uplands. From 9,120 hectares of irrigated land in 1989, NBI calculated that Uganda had increased its irrigated land to 14,717 hectares in 2018, an average of 37% growth per year.

But population continues to increase along the Nile basin, and farmers are being forced to expand their farmlands, even on patchier lands, to feed the growing numbers, leading to increased demand for water and energy. 

The total estimated annual water demand for irrigation is approximately 85 BCM and the actual basin withdrawal of water from the Nile for irrigation is estimated as 82.2 BCM. Yet preliminary projection calls for the need for strong coordination among Nile Basin riparian states, or else there will be a risk of the growing water demand outpacing the available resources.

According to an analysis on the economic value of water by the Nile Basin Initiative, countries should consider variables including the amount of water needed per crop, the value of land and labor, and the yield of the crop to determine which crops would be the best grown by which countries for maximum efficiency of the shared water resource. 

In the analysis, NBI recommended that Uganda, Egypt and Ethiopia consider growing root crops to export to the other Nile Basin countries, since they have the lowest value of water for these crops. 

Climate change has worsened the situation too. Uganda, for example, still ranks 10th as the most vulnerable country towards climate change and the 35th least prepared to combat its effects, globally. And yet despite having the highest irrigation potential with 15 percent of Uganda’s land covered with water in the Great Lakes region, the potential of these water bodies has not been harnessed fully as farmers still struggle to access water for their farmlands due to lack of efficient irrigation infrastructure. 

To address the problem, Uganda came up with a National Irrigation Policy in 2017  whose long term target is to “achieve an additional 1,500,000 [hectares] under irrigated agriculture (constituting 50% of irrigation potential) by 2040.” It aims “to ensure sustainable availability of water for irrigation and its efficient use for enhanced crop production and ensuring [that there is] reliable water for irrigation to optimize, intensify and diversify crop, livestock and fisheries production and productivity.”

But the implementation has been slow, critics say, adding that there is a need to install high standard irrigation infrastructures in all potential irrigation areas to build reliance among farmers amid climate shocks.

“We need to act very fast and the target is to ensure that the irrigation schemes are completed very fast because climate change is affecting many farmers who depend on rain],” says former Lamwo Resident District Commissioner (RDC) who was part of the group overseeing the Agoro irrigation project.

To ensure efficient water supply, in Agoro, for instance, the second rehabilitation project will switch from the canal system of irrigation to the hydraulic method, which will rely on Glass fiber Reinforced Plastic (GRP) pipes with sprinkler heads to distribute or control water flow into the gardens.

This method has its advantages according to Mr. Thomas Opoka, the Agoro irrigation scheme superintendent, says that it will help farmers maximize water by avoiding wastage and also ensure less interference with their farmlands during their crop irrigation.  A weir, a barrier installed across the width of the river, will also be part of the scheme to alter the water levels or divert water into the 59 irrigation ditch distribution boxes, which are equipped with valves that will help to regulate and distribute water in different gardens from the mainline.

Only 24 percent of the work done

At the moment, only 24 percent of the work has been done at the Agoro irrigation scheme, according to Mr. Opoka, adding that this is frustrating farmers and local leaders in Lamwo district. Some are calling for the termination of the contract if work is not completed soon. But the contractor, according to Eric Ocan, the Water for Production Regional Manager at the Ministry of Environment, is asking for ‘more time’, saying that the materials used for the hydraulic irrigation are “delicate and brittle, which does not need to be rushed when installing”.

“The rehabilitation is still in phases. Work is going on smoothly and we hope for the best. The problem is that [the new irrigation system] is quite unique: the material used here is like glass; it is brittle, and it can easily break. And if we hurry to use it, it would be hard for us to remove it [in case of any mistakes]. So extensions will be made as long as the reasons are valid,” adds Ocan.

Thomas Opoka insepcting the ongoing rehabilitation. Material being using is said to be delicate and cant be rushed 3
Thomas Opoka insepcting the ongoing rehabilitation. Material being using is said to be delicate and can’t be rushed

But as farmers wait for the scheme to be opened officially, some are farming along the river banks despite the ongoing works at the scheme. The farmers have switched back to the informal irrigation methods – which they used to apply in the past – that involve blocking the main water channel with sacks of sands to divert the water flow into the gardens through locally dug canals. And oftentimes this comes at a price as the same farmers have to bear the brunt of seeing their crops being trampled on every day by heavy trucks carrying building materials to the construction site. 

These farmers are also using pesticides and fertilizer additives into the soil so their crops can grow, but environmental experts are concerned that the chemical components in them may contaminate the river since there is no treatment in place.

Farmer still using rudimentary method by blocking Okura river with saks of sand to divert water into their farms 5
Farmers still using rudimentary method by blocking Okura river with sacks of sand to divert water into their farms

Decimon Anywar, an environmental scientist, says that fertilizer additives that contain phosphorus (which is an essential requirement for plant growth) and nitrogen (which is critical in both plant growth and reproduction), when washed into the river, especially when it rains, can lead to the growth of algal blooms. And when the algae happens to die on top of the water, the nutrients from the fertilizers stimulate the growth of bacteria that decompose the dead algae using chemical and biological processes. This can result in the release of toxins that can later contaminate drinking water, causing illnesses to both animals and plants.

“Dead algae also block sunlight and oxygen from the atmosphere into the water which is useful for plant growth found under the water,” Anywar says. “The [other thing is that when] algae dies, bacteria helps to break down the particles of the algae, and during this activity, the bacteria will rely on oxygen which will bring competition with other aquatic life that also rely on oxygen.”

The Ministry of Water and Environment says a treatment plant will be part of the scheme once the ongoing rehabilitation project is completed. 

But for now, environmental scientists like Anywar are advising locals to use low-cost solutions such as cultivating crops at least 50 meters away from the river banks to avoid chemicals being easily washed into the river, as well as using organic fertilizers such as red pepper, ashes and blackjack instead of relying on pesticide chemicals.

“The other interventions would be to plant trees along the river bank to ensure they control water run-off from going into the river,” Anywar adds.

Read Also; Low irrigation uptake in water-rich Ethiopia threatens food security for Africa’s second largest population

A need for trees to improve the micro-climate

Michael Tebere, a climate researcher in northern Uganda, notes that planting trees should not stop at the river banks but also in the community, adding that this will help fight climate change by “improving the micro climate in the region.”

But deforestation remains a big problem in Uganda, especially in the northern region which is also the hub for commercial charcoal production, supplying neighboring countries like South Sudan and Kenya with charcoal. In the past 25 years, Uganda has been losing 122,000 hectares (301,500 acres) of forests on average every year due to large tree cutting for timber and charcoal burning.

Apart from tree felling along the Okura River animal grazing also causing silting of the bank 3
Apart from tree felling along the Okura River, animal grazing also causing silting of the bank

Large scale tree cutting disrupts rainfall patterns, and yet many farmers rely on rain for their crops. In the Nile basin, water scarcity is increasingly becoming a daunting challenge due to population increase and climate change. But recent studies  by the Nile Basin Initiative suggest that water harvesting – which can involve low-cost water collecting technologies to collect and store water, for example from rain, for future use – and smart farming methods are among the measures that farmers in should consider amid shortages. 

Some of the recommended methods include conjunctive (ground and surface water) use; recycling and reuse of water (water harvesting, expanding water storage and cascading facilities); implementation of water deficit irrigation; intensification of rain fed agriculture; improving water-use efficiency; and improving cropping patterns.

In Agoro, due to the challenge of water access, locals are adapting by growing improved crops such as maize, beans, cabbages, and ground nuts that are fast-maturing, drought resistant and do not require a lot of water to grow.

“We grow these crops because they can be harvested early to sustain ourselves,” says Apoko Evelyn, 27 and a mother of four. “That’s the only way we could be able to feed ourselves and also [sell] and take our children to school.”

Apoko Evelyn a mother of four is hopeless affected by the delays in completing the irrigation scheme . She now relies on rain which is also un reliable 3 1
Apoko Evelyn a mother of four is hopeless affected by the delays in completing the irrigation scheme. She now relies on rain which is also un-reliable.

Other farmers have begun cutting down trees along the banks for charcoal production. This has reduced the water levels, since the trees normally act as a buffer by reducing water runoff that exacerbates soil movement and sediments into the river bed (silting).

“When I was a young boy, there were a lot of forests here [in Agoro] which were impenetrable. But now, all the trees have been cut. The rain is decreasing and it is [always] hot like a semi-desert,” says Opoka, Agoro irrigation scheme superintendent.

The water levels are further reduced during the dry season, Opoka adds, making it harder for farmers to access the remaining water. The reservoir at the scheme, which can store up to 214,000 cubic metres of water in case of shortages, now takes longer to fill out during this period compared to the past.

At the moment, as contractors work around the clock to complete the irrigation scheme, farmers will have to wait a little longer before they can begin benefiting from the scheme.  Meanwhile, the Ministry of Water and Environment is urging the farmers to remain patient, saying that it is hard to tell when the scheme will be completed.

But farmers like Joyce Ayaa, 62, are distressed. At the foothills where she relocated, water logging is already affecting her garden when it rains. For now, she has been using smart farming methods such as crop rotation to improve the soil fertility and also planting cover crops such as soya beans and trees to reduce water runoff.

Joyce Ayaa 62 a farmer in Agoro abandoned the scheme and depending on rain for her maize 3
Joyce Ayaa, 62, a farmer in Agoro abandoned the scheme and depending on rain for her maize

“Things are bad here and agriculture is our only way out, and my concern is when the floods destroy my garden for good,” she says. “For how long are we going to wait?” 

This story was produced in June 2022, supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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