How Dams’ Collapse Failed Rice Production in Burundi

How Dams’ Collapse Failed Rice Production in Burundi

By Arthur Bizimana and Ferdinand Mbonihankuye 

Ruined structures some in a state of decay remain of the Gikoma hydro-agricultural dam, the once mega-hydro-agricultural dam for rice growing in Bujumbura Mairie, west of Burundi.

The canal’s water regulation gates are closed. Not a single drop of water flows through them. Weeds have grown in it and in Buhinyuza, where rice is planted, the water canal is clogged with all kinds of waste

kabuye perimeter
Canal irrigating the Buhinyuza and Kabuye areas obstructed by all kinds of waste in the west of Bujumbura

“Gikoma collapsed a long time ago. About three years ago,” says Moïse Ndayizeye, a resident. 

On the edges of these canals, buildings are swarming either side. Evidently, even if the Burundian government wanted to renovate this water channel to irrigate the Buhinyuza area, construction would not be easy.

To temporarily irrigate this area, the Société Régionale de Développement de l’Imbo (SRDI), which manages and develops rice cultivation in the Imbo plain, joined Buhinyuza to Kabuye by means of a channel, thus sharing the water from the Kabuye area with Buhinyuza. 

Nevertheless, water remains insufficient in the Buhinyuza area, according to MoÏse Ndayizeye.

In this central African country, rice constitutes 47% of the crops grown in the swamps irrigated by hydro-agricultural dams. 

rice fields
Rice fields in Kabuye area.

From 2020 to 2021, several dams collapsed, making rice scarce. The only option was importing it from neighbouring countries. But the escalating prices of imported rice have made it less affordable resulting in food insecurity. 

Irrigation experts say dams in Burundi are being affected by the erosion of the steep hillside slopes and by inadequate maintenance by the dam holders.

“We harvest rice only once a year. Before the dam collapsed, we used to harvest rice twice a year,” says Josephine Rwabavuyeko, a rice farmer adding that, “If by misfortune, the rainfall fails, the rice production dwindles.”

Farmers here have now turned to growing crops such as sweet potatoes, maize, groundnuts, beans, and sometimes soybeans that do not need a lot of water to grow. 

At the time of the irrigation of the Buhinyuza area by the Gikoma hydro-agricultural dam, there was enough water in the rice fields. The production was so good that nobody complained. 

This canal that supplies water from Kabuye to Buhinyuza continues to unravel as it passes over the Kabuye bridge, making it vulnerable to collapse. Since its construction in 2021, torrential rains have brought it down thrice.

Temporary canal
 Temporary canal sharing water from the Kabuye hydro-agricultural dam with the Buhinyuza perimeter

In the Kabuye area, they are still harvesting rice twice a year. The water supply there is still sufficient, while in the Buhinyuza area, they play it smart to grow food crops in the second season. They stay up all night because SRDI usually supplies water there once a week at night. 

On the other hand, farmers endeavour to get water to irrigate their plantations. 

“For us at the head of the perimeter, the rain comes as a supplement. But those at the back of the perimeter in Kinyankonge, irrigation water does not reach there,” notes Joséphine. 

Hydro dams have collapsed in significant numbers. Among the large-scale hydro-agricultural dams that have collapsed recently and whose effects have impacted almost all Burundians is the Gatura hydro-agricultural dam managed by SRD Imbo. 

This hydro-agricultural dam, which irrigates more than 3000 hectares, collapsed in March 2021.

‘’Gatura collapsed as a result of the torrential rain but also due to its dilapidated State’’, says Félix Habonimana, director of SRD Imbo. This was in the middle of the farming season. 

‘’The Gatura dam is the lung of the country, the main dam,” he says, it collapsed during the weeding season when it was most needed’’. 

Gatura dam
Mpanda River where the Gatura hydro-agricultural dam is built 

In collaboration with rice farmers, SRDI used local and conventional irrigation techniques: “To deal with this crisis, SRDI blocked water to the rice fields until June,” notes the SRDI director.

Although Gatura dam is considered old, other recent hydro-agricultural dam collapsed such as Mubarazi, located in the Muremera II marshes. This feeds two areas, Mubarazi and Kaniga, in the communes of Rutegama and Mbuye, respectively, all in the Muramvya province.

Built by the SOGEA SATOM company under the funding of the NGO PRODEFI, which implements IFAD projects, and provisionally received by the government in 2020, the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam irrigates 170 ha, explains Ezéchiel Nyambikiye, an agricultural monitor of Muremera II hill.

Before the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam was finally handed over, it had already collapsed twice; in 2021 and again in April 2022. Two years in a row. 

But fortunately, almost all the rice fields had reached the harvest stage. This collapse did not impact much on the producers. 

“For some producers who had not yet reached the harvest stage, we released a minimal amount of water so that Mubarazi would not collapse entirely. Because it is dying,” Ezekiel added.

Felix Habonimana
Félix Habonimana, Director of the Imbo Regional Development Authority, speaking on the impact of the collapse of the Gatura hydro-agricultural dam

To check if the production is good or bad this year, we went to the perimeter irrigated by the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam, in the Gisena marsh, accompanied by the agricultural monitor, in the rice fields and found that a good number of producers were harvesting rice, among them Zépherin Hategekimana.

rice harvesting
Farmers harvesting rice in the Buhinyuza perimeter

Rice cultivation in Muramvya province is widespread for one reason: “It is seen as a new crop for farmers,” says Zepherin.

The construction of the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam had improved the living conditions of the rice farmers: “They no longer relied on natural weather conditions to cultivate,” says the monitor.

Despite the hydro-agricultural dam today, the producers only practice one rice growing season and rotate their crops.

The advantage of the Mubarazi management is that the whole perimeter is reached by water, which was not the case before its construction. 

It also means practising monoculture: “Before the dam was built, everyone sowed seeds from scratch and practised polyculture which involved mixing beans, maize, etc., in a single field.

However, since the last cropping season, when the hydro-agricultural dam was in operation, they have been practising monoculture and sowing quality rice and maize seeds. 

‘’And production has improved significantly’’, reveals Zepherin, a farmer from Muramvya’’, referring to the yellow maize whose quality seed is distributed by One Acre Fund-Tubura and whose production has increased significantly.

Harvested rice packed in bags

The agricultural monitor and the producer agree to call on the state and donors to rehabilitate the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam. If not, the farm production for crop season C and others that will follow will be poor.

The Agricultural Monitor reports that the administration is aware of the collapse of the Mubarazi hydro-agricultural dam. They have been to the dam many times. 

Many dams have collapsed in recent years. Some of them deserve to be rebuilt, and others rehabilitated. Among those that need rehabilitation are the Gikoma, Kajeke, Nyengwe, and Mubarazi dams. Some dams like Rukoziri have become completely damaged and require re-development. 

Since 2017, several dams have been built across the country. The Ministry of Environment, Agriculture, and Livestock adviser, Pierre Sindayikengera mentions four of the dams that have been bulit as Kinyinya, Mubarazi, Ruvubu, and Rumpungwe. 

According to the National Agricultural Investment Plan published on the Burundian government website, Burundi has a substantial irrigation potential equivalent to 215,000 hectares. However, only 21,430 hectares or 8.7% of this area is irrigated. 

The Nile Basin in Burundi covers only 3.2% of the irrigated area, while the Congo Basin takes up the rest. It should be noted that Burundi belongs to two basins, the Nile and the Congo.

Referring to FAO (2016), the Nile Basin Initiative’s Baseline Data and Description Report published in April 2020 shows that rice constitutes 47% of the crops grown in the wetlands, which means that rice is highly valued. 

The International Rice Research Institute at the University of Burundi shows that rice fields occupy 50,000 ha

Rice is a significant consumer of water. Rice farmers pay water charges in the area irrigated by the hydraulic dam. 

Pierre Sindayikengera, an irrigation specialist and advisor to the Ministry of the Environment, Agriculture and Livestock says the water charges contribute to the maintenance of the hydro-agricultural dams so that they are not obstructed.

Irrigation specialist
Pierre Sindayikengera, irrigation specialist and counselor at Environment, Agriculture and Livestock Ministry

He acknowledges that Burundi has no decentralized institution that collects these funds. ‘’Each irrigated area is managed by a committee chosen and set up by the producers who use the hydro-agricultural dam’’, he says. 

‘’The only company where water charges are known at the ministerial level is the SRDI’’, narrates Félix Habonimana, the Director of SRDI,  adding that water charges in the Imbo plain cost 300 kg of rice per hectare, or 3 kg per acre each season’’.

He says the water charges decrease according to the location of the cooperatives’ areas.

Among the countries that share the Nile basin, Burundi is one of the countries in which the value of water in irrigated fields is high, according to the report “Economic value of water for irrigation in the Nile Basin.”

The collapse of the hydro-agricultural dams significantly impacted production, seasonal workers and producers. It has also raised the price and import of rice.

As confirmed by the Director of SRDI, Félix Habonimana, rice farmers did not cultivate during season A (Agatasi). This is because although farmers got water for irrigation, it was not enough.

This led to a decrease in rice production. ‘’Before Gatura collapsed, we were harvesting 6 tonnes per hectare, which was 30,000 tonnes from 5,000 hectares managed by SRD Imbo,” narrates Felix, but after its collapse, SRD Imbo lost 18,000 tonnes of rice production’’.

The collapse also led to unemployment and poverty among farmers and seasonal workers. 

According to Manirambona Abraham, a rice farmer, some farmers have gone bankrupt; “For example, those who had taken out bank loans found themselves unable to repay their debts because of the poor production caused by the collapse of the dams.”

This collapse has also led to food insecurity after the collapse of the Gatura hydro-agricultural dam, for example, André Nsababaganwa says, there are rice farmers who barely eat a meal a day yet were used to eating at least twice a day.

The Institut des Statistiques et d’Etudes Economiques du Burundi (ISTEEBU) has not yet published the annual Agricultural Statistics 2021 report. 

Nevertheless, food prices reflect available agricultural production according to the law of supply and demand. To deal with this challenge, we have relied on the monthly price bulletins for 2021 published by ISTEEBU. 

According to these bulletins, while in November 2020, a kilogram of local long-grain white rice cost 1850.7Fbu, it had risen to 3000Fbu by November 2021, or 62% only one year later.

Not only has the collapse impacted prices, but has also pushed Burundian traders to import large quantities of rice. Emile Bizoza, a wholesale trader whom we met in Bujumbura’s Mairie in the Nyakabiga zone and neighbourhood, attests that he imported a large quantity of rice in 2021, more than in previous years. 

‘’Usually, the suppliers from Bubanza province, in the north-west of country supplied us with rice. However, in 2021, since April, we have been getting rice from Tanzania,’’ says Bizoza.

This is confirmed by the statistics of the quarterly bulletins published by the Office Burundais des Recettes (OBR).

According to the quarterly bulletins published by the Office Burundais des Recettes, rice imports were valued at 2,697.7 million Fbu in the first quarter of 2021 or 0.6% of imported goods. 

In the second quarter of 2021, however, rice imports almost four-folded. It rose from 2,697.7 in the first quarter to 10,249.6 million, or 2.0% of the value of goods imported into the country.

As of crop season B, the Gatura hydro-agricultural dam is functional. Farmers like Alexis and the inhabitants of Gatura appreciate the restoration of Gatura. Even more, there is now a bridge over the big Mpanda River, which was not the case before the collapse.

However, the refurbishment of Gatura has not allowed the dam to regain its previous water level (water flow), say Abraham Manirambona and André Nsababaganwa, both SRDI employees in charge of releasing water into the SRDI canals: 

“Normally, it should be up to 90cm, sometimes even up to 120cm high. However, after rehabilitation, we would limit ourselves to 70Cm or 80Cm depending on rainfall and water flow’’.

To repair this flaw, SRD Imbo had to step in after the project owner, install logs to the dam, and bypass sufficient water in the irrigation channels. These local technicians say that another 30 cm must be added to restore the water level to what it was before: “At present, we can reach between 80 cm and 100 Cm. 

‘’The rehabilitation of the hydro-agricultural dam cost more than 800 million Burundian dollars, or 400,000 dollars’’, says Félix Habonimana, the Director General of SRDI.

According to Diomède Ndayiziga, Director General of Planning, Land Management, Irrigation, and Protection of Land Assets, collecting data is still challenging. The perimeter irrigated by hydro-agricultural dams in Burundi is still unknown.

Diomede Ndayiziga
Diomède Ndayiziga, Director-General of Planning, Land Management, Irrigation and Protection of Land Assets 

Pierre Sindayikengera, the irrigation specialist and advisor to the Ministry of Environment, Agriculture and Livestock notes that  the factors behind the collapse of hydro-agricultural dams are exceptional rains and floods. 

He contends that the dams were demolished both by the erosion of the slopes on the hills and by the insufficient maintenance of the recipients of the dam.

Pierre notes that after five years of marshland development on this dam, even the water fees paid by dam users is insufficient to support its maintenance. 

He adds that in some instances, these water charges are mismanaged or the funds collected are used for other purposes such as purchasing fertilizer instead of maintenance of the dam.

‘’For these dams to be sustainable, the dam should be protected upstream,” says Pierre, an irrigation specialist, ‘’but also, the State should set up a structuring fund that would support large-scale works that exceed the capacity of the funds collected by the users of the dams, because water is the primary production factor’’.

This story was 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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