Needed by African farmers: simple water pumps

A woman in Malawi operates a treadle pump.

To see a QuickTime video clip of treadle pumps in action in Burkina Faso, click on the photo.
Listen to an interview with treadle pump specialist Tom Brabben in
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Finding sufficient water for irrigation is one of the major challenges facing farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. "Very often it is too expensive for small farmers to buy, run and maintain engine-driven irrigation pumps," says Tom Brabben of the International Programme for Technology and Research in Irrigation and Drainage (IPTRID), sponsored by FAO, the World Bank and other donors.

Locally produced low-cost treadle pumps instead could make an important difference and could boost food security in the region significantly, as suggested by a new IPTRID report, Treadle pumps for irrigation in Africa. Treadle pumps make it easier for farmers to retrieve water for their fields or vegetable gardens, and they are cheap and easy to handle. If pumps are produced locally, they can also create jobs and income.

Many African farmers are still irrigating very small plots of land using bucket-lifting technologies, which are slow, cumbersome and labour intensive. "Treadle pumps are far more efficient and user-friendly," says Mr. Brabben. "They can be used in a comfortable way, the farmer stands on the treadles, pressing the pistons up and down, lifting up to five cubic metres per hour."

In sub-Saharan Africa, only 4 percent of arable land is irrigated, severely constraining agricultural productivity in a region where an estimated one third of the population is chronically undernourished. By comparison, 37 percent of arable land is irrigated in Asia, 24 percent in Northern Africa and 15 percent in Latin America.

Currently, most irrigation equipment in sub-Saharan Africa is imported. In many cases it is prohibitively expensive and often inappropriate for use by small-scale farmers.

"If we want to achieve 'more crop per drop' in Africa, locally produced small water pumps that fit into the social and economic environment will definitely have to play a bigger role," says Mr Brabben. "This helps the economy, and local manufacturers are likely to better understand farmers' needs." Treadle pumps, costing only US$50 to $120, can be built with ordinary workshop equipment.

The report notes that small-scale irrigation is one of the success stories in many countries in Africa, at a time when large-scale water developments have failed to come up to expectations. Small-scale irrigation is usually developed privately by farmers in response to family and local market requirements, without government interventions.

Case studies from Kenya, Niger, Zambia and Zimbabwe show that by using treadle pumps instead of bucket irrigation, farmers can increase irrigated land, reduce work time, improve crop quality, grow new crops and increase the number of cropping cycles.

In Zambia, FAO's Special Programme for Food Security has contributed considerably to the use of small pumps, having installed around 200 treadle pumps on demonstration sites. Farmers using treadle pumps instead of bucket irrigation on small plots (less than a quarter hectare) have seen their incomes rise more than sixfold, from US$125 to $850-$1 700.

In some cases cropping intensity has been extended to three crops per year. In Zimbabwe, treadle pumps are mostly used for irrigation of small vegetable gardens.

And because treadle pumps usually reach water only within six metres, they do not deplete valuable groundwater resources, the report says. It notes that the local water table would drop only if a large number of farmers were operating in the same area.

Click here to view the full report in pdf format (5.2 mb).
Full press release

30 January 2001

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