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December 31, 2008

Israel supports drip irrigation in Senegal

by Nhohé Ndioffogore

No matter how it was explained to him, farmer Michel Demba Sarr, 39, doubted that 1,500 metres of irrigation piping running across his field could increase his harvest.

“People told me that if these pipes released water slowly throughout the day, it would be better for my plants. It was like magic,” Sarr said.

But Ambassador Gideon Behar with the Israeli embassy in Senegal...said if the system is properly installed and the farmers clean out the filters to prevent the pipes from clogging, the system can save up to 50 percent more water than regular irrigation.

The UN has estimated that half of Africa’s cultivable land is in arid or semi-arid zones, one-third of it suffers from degradation, and more than 95 percent of the continent’s agriculture depends on rainfall.

The Geneva-based World Meteorological Association calculated an average 25-percent decrease in rainfall in the Sahel over the past 30 years, with the most rapid decline in West Africa.

“Before I started drip-irrigating, I worked when there was rain,” said farmer Sarr. “When there was not rain, I mostly waited.”

The Israeli government has subsidised the set-up costs of five irrigation projects in Senegal at the rate of about US$800 per farmer over two years. This includes irrigation materials – piping, rain barrels and their stands – fertiliser, seeds, pesticides, fencing to protect the land plots, operation costs and NGO support for 18 months after a harvest.

Spread throughout five hectares of land that Sarr shares with 49 other farmers are cement blocks elevating 200-litre water barrels more than one metre off the ground. An electricity generator pumps water from an underground well into the barrels, where it then drips down onto the fields through pipes.

Little water is lost to evaporation, said technical advisor Alioune Diouf, who helps the Israeli embassy train farmers how to “drip” their fields for eight hours every day: “The water is spread out more evenly this way, so we do not over salinate the land by watering only in one spot. Minerals in water can destroy the soil, so we need to get the water to the plants’ roots as quickly as possible. Water is life, but it can also mean death if not used properly.”

The water seeps through the pipe’s nearly-invisible holes.

The farmer Sarr said his initial scepticism has slowly turned into faith since he learned how to drip-irrigate in May 2007: “I can grow three harvests a year, working all year rather than only during the [four-month] rainy season.” He added he has been able to earn $300, half of which he saved, over the past year from two harvests.

“I planted peanuts in 2006, but made no money since it was a bad rain year.” He told IRIN he now grows okra, cucumbers and onions – year round. “We spend just half rather than the entire day watering our crops.” While the watering is now automatic, farmers are encouraged to clean the filters regularly, and stay nearby in case something goes wrong.

The embassy pledged two years of funding for each project when it installed its first drip-irrigation system in Senegal in November 2006. It has since installed drip kits at a school in Dakar, another school 70km east of Dakar in Thies, and in two rural communities.

“We want the farmers to take full responsibility,” said Behar of the embassy’s plan to gradually withdraw.

Communities contribute land and families pay $20 each to farm a drip-irrigated field, in addition to paying for the water. Farmers are also required to invest in a community savings account.

But the embassy’s handover strategy to ensure NGO partners and farmers can continue drip-irrigation is still under consideration. “Africa is filled with thousands of failed projects,” said the Israeli embassy’s Behar. “But ours is a low-cost, low-tech, low-maintenance one that can avoid this fate.”

One major cost is the fuel required to run the generators eight hours a day. But this cost is worth it, concluded Behar: “You cannot grow enough to feed a family through rain-fed agriculture. This is not just about watering crops. It is about lifting families out of poverty. Farmers pay to extract the water, but then the water yields more profits in the long run.”


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