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August 09, 2010

Irrigating Africa more important as the rains become unreliable

by Laurie Goering

You might not think irrigation would be a good way to boost production on sub-Saharan Africa's chronically underperforming farms. After all, many parts of the region, particularly the south, are expected to see drying weather and worsening droughts as climate change advances, which suggests sources of water might not hold up.

But in a new paper, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) makes a good case for expanding the use of irrigation in the region, arguing that Africa has "ample, untapped water resources". Just 4 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's farmland is irrigated, despite worsening problems with drought and rains that fall at the wrong time, the institute says. That's one reason why the continent's agricultural productivity is just 56 percent of the world's average. Asia, by comparison, irrigates 37 percent of its farmland. But sub-Saharan Africa today uses just 1 percent of its renewable water sources for irrigation.

That's in stark contrast to northern Africa, which is using water twice as fast as it can be naturally replenished, a problem that now threatens to curb economic development in countries like Egypt, Morocco and northern Sudan, IFPRI noted.

That all suggests that sub-Saharan Africa's small farmers would dramatically benefit from expanded use of irrigation, particularly in countries with the best natural sources of water. Fully 60 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's rural population "could benefit from water investment", a study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation has noted. How big could the benefits be? Irrigated crops generally give double the yields of rainfed crops, IFPRI says.


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