Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Irrigation has long been seen as an option to improve and sustain rural livelihoods by increasing crop production. It can reduce dependency on rainfed agriculture in drought prone areas and increase cropping intensities in humid and tropical zones by `extending' the wet season and introducing effective means of water control. In the 1970s and 1980s international agencies and national governments invested heavily in irrigation to intensify agriculture and reap the benefits of the high yield potential of irrigated agriculture. The nature of donor-sponsored development favoured large-scale projects rather than small ones and the majority of funding went into large-scale irrigation schemes. It is now widely accepted that this massive investment has not borne fruit. Food production targets were not met, development costs were extremely high, and there were many technical and management problems that remain unsolved. Over the past decade low world cereal prices have not helped this situation making it more difficult to maintain and invest in expensive irrigated agriculture for basic food crops.

In a review of a published report on smallholder irrigation for a journal it was stated that:

`An outsider to African smallholder irrigation with farming experience, would be amazed at the way irrigated agriculture has been approached in the region in recent decades. The manner in which farmers are given restricted and limited tenancies, told what to grow, charged for doubtful services and offered derisory prices for their produce would be laughable to European farmers. The fact that this and many other documents make such obvious statements show how widely the existing paradigm of development has been accepted.

`The authors' message is two fold. First, governments and others should allow farmers to control their own decisions and activities and help them to produce effectively. Second the authors stress that most African smallholders are preoccupied with minimizing risk and survival. If farming is too risky, then farmers may give priority to other means of survival and income generation.

`There are major obstacles to change that lie in the enormous vested interests of those other than farmers who promote smallholder irrigation.'

Much of this criticism of irrigation has been directed at the more formally structured irrigation schemes usually under the control of a government body. Because schemes were large, the approach was almost exclusively `top-down'. Project management, to all intents and purposes, treated smallholders as labourers, and attempts were made to carry out all major agricultural operations on a large scale as a subsidised service. Dissatisfaction arose as a result of the inability of scheme managers to provide promised services such as cultivations, land grading, and harvesting on time.

The case for smallholder irrigation

Because of the criticism, attention turned in the 1980s to the informal sector. This was a significant shift from engineering led irrigation solutions towards an interactive approach in which the financial, cultural and social circumstances of the beneficiaries were to be taken into account. This was irrigation practised by individual farmers or smallholders, usually farming on a small scale (a few hectares) under their own responsibility; usually at low-cost with little or no government support and using technology they could understand and manage easily themselves. It is often described as the `bottom-up' or `grass-roots' approach to development. Surprisingly, up to that point this kind of development had received very little attention from the main aid donors in spite of the fact that this type of irrigation was already playing a significant role in several countries.

Over the past 20 years this approach has been the main focus of attention. Ideas about how to increase food production have been adjusted to take into account some of the physical realities of land and water use and resource allocation. For example, only 5 percent of the cultivated area in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated and the rural poor are more likely to be found on marginal land in non-irrigated and often non-irrigable agriculture. There has been an increased emphasis on poverty reduction and a renewed interest in alternatives to the more traditional ways of irrigating using surface or groundwater such as water harvesting.

There are many smallholder success stories but all has not gone smoothly. Too many international agencies and national governments wishing to accelerate the development process still tend to use a `top down' approach. Some have grouped many independent smallholders together into a `project' for administrative convenience and created large-scale projects with their attendant problems. There have been too many instances of paying lip service to farmer participation, forcing the pace to meet investment targets and ignoring market forces. The much-used term of `low-cost engineering' has become a euphemism for poor engineering design and construction.

Too many reviews?

It is well established that the potential for irrigation in terms of land and water resources in the region is significant. These resources do not constrain development although many other factors do. The reality is that smallholder irrigation does not mean it is simple.

Over the past 20 years a great deal has been written about what has or has not been done for smallholder irrigation. The literature available is comprehensive, covering topics that include appraisals of various technologies and socio-economic and anthropological studies. Much has been published, but there is still much that is not in the public domain, which may be of considerable benefit to others and resides as `grey' literature in the archives of various organizations. Indeed, there is a fear that a great deal of knowledge and experience is `lost' simply through changes in international agency and government staff, thus reducing `corporate memory' to little more than a decade.

Unfortunately very little of this experience seems to have found its way into current development practice. The question remains as to how this potential, in terms of the available natural resources, can be realised. Some argue that market forces will drive development if the price of food crops is enough to encourage farmers to increase production. The rewards for meeting market demands can be high but so too can be the risks of failure. Others suggest that development can be driven by aid support, particularly for subsistence farmers who are more concerned with securing their basic livelihoods rather than producing crops to sell. The reality is that both approaches play important roles. The challenge is to encourage more subsistence farmers to move towards the market economy, through reduction of risk to their basic livelihoods, so that they may prepare to take the risks and rewards that the market offers.

If progress is to be made in smallholder development there is an urgent need to continually review and update what is known and to put this information before decision-makers in a way that provides them with the information to develop cohesive strategies to support future development.

Technology - at the heart of irrigation

Technology provides a useful framework on which to build a strategy for irrigation development. It is always at the heart of any irrigation scheme. Without it there is no means of lifting or distributing water.

It is well known and accepted that technology alone does not determine success and it is essential to assess its usefulness within a social and economic context for any intervention to have meaning. It is for the individual farmer, in each village, in each country to assess the appropriateness of the technology within their own complex socio-economic circumstances. Technology provides a useful framework on which to build a strategy for development. Technology comes early in any irrigation development and is always at the heart of any irrigation scheme - large and small and without it there is no irrigation scheme. Technology can significantly reduce the drudgery of lifting and applying water and can help solve water management problems faced by small-scale farmers making it easier and simpler to apply the right amount of water to their crops at the right place at the right time. The technology must be right for the situation if irrigation is to have a chance of success. Putting in the wrong technology can mean that the seeds of failure are already well established before a scheme has even had a chance to grow.

A wide range of well-established and well-documented traditional technology options is available for use by smallholders including, water harvesting, swamp irrigation, spate irrigation, flood plain irrigation using seasonal water and shallow aquifers, hill irrigation and groundwater irrigation. There is still, however, considerable room for improvement and adaptation of these traditional irrigation technologies so as to fit different circumstances.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in modern technologies. These usually cost much more than traditional methods and rely very much on external specialist support from suppliers and distributors. Small motor-driven pumps, for example, can greatly reduce the drudgery of lifting water. Distribution technologies such as trickle, sprinkle irrigation and piped supplies for the more traditional surface methods, can help farmers manage water better as well as reduce wastage, which in turn reduces the amount of water that needs lifting. Modern technologies have gained favour with farmers in the developed world allowing them to apply water more accurately and adequately and to increase yields and crop quality. Engineers and planners often favour the use of these technologies because water savings by some farmers means that more is available for others. As one irrigation specialist stated `trickle irrigation can improve crop yields, which is what farmers are interested in, and significantly reduce water wastage, which is what engineers are interested in.' A win-win situation for people and the environment.

Low-cost technologies are being examined and evaluated. Most of the traditional technologies are low-cost, however, the term `low-cost' is usually reserved for modern technologies that have been developed or modified to bring down the cost. An excellent example is the treadle pump, which was developed specially as a low-cost pump for smallholders. It has been particularly successful in Asia in replacing the manual lifting and carrying of water. Its uptake in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years is very encouraging.

Are these modern technologies as good as people say, or are they just another quick fix promoted by those who have a vested interest in selling the equipment? How successful have they been in the developing world as opposed to the more sophisticated social and economic environments of the developed world? Are the traditional technologies being simply ignored because it is psychologically easier to invest in sprinkler and trickle irrigation that are regarded as `efficient and modern' whereas traditional methods are regarded as `old and inefficient'?

The nature of smallholder irrigation

The term smallholder requires some clarification as it means different things to different people. For some, the large irrigation schemes in Egypt and the Sudan are smallholder schemes. These schemes are large in terms of area but they are made up of many small farms (often less than 2 ha). They are designed and constructed by government agencies that then take over the responsibility for managing the water supply system. They are often described as formal or large-scale irrigation schemes and have borne the brunt of much of the criticism of irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1970s. Government management characterizes formal irrigation rather than size. For example, a 50 ha irrigation scheme with 500 smallholders each with 0.1 ha where the water supply is managed by a government agency might be thought of as a smallholder scheme. However, it would have all the characteristics of a `formal' or `large' irrigation scheme because of the way in which water and other key agricultural services are organized independently of the farmers.

For others, smallholder is synonymous with `small-scale' or `informal' irrigation - small farms (often considerably less than 2 ha), privately owned and under the complete control of the farmer with little or no input from external government resources. Such private farms have developed where farmers use their own initiative and respond either to their family's food needs or to the market place. Farmers usually have direct access to surface or groundwater and make their own decisions about how and when they will irrigate and how much water to apply. They practice a mix of commercial and subsistence farming where the family provides the majority of labour and the farm provides the principal source of income. This sector includes small commercial enterprises growing high value crops such as cut flowers and produce for export.

Smallholders usually work on their own, however, because of the investment needed to gain access to water they sometimes need to work in groups. An example would be a scheme requiring a reservoir or a large pumping station on a river that one farmer alone could not afford. A 50 ha irrigation scheme having 500 smallholders each with 0.1 ha managed by the farmers themselves without government support could equally be called a smallholder scheme. It would have quite different characteristics to the similar sized scheme described above. The farmers themselves might manage such a scheme or commission a professional irrigation manager to do the job for them. The essential difference is that managers are responsible to the farmers for their performance and should they fail to perform properly the farmers have the ultimate power to dismiss the manager and to hire an alternative. This is not usually the case when the government runs the scheme.

The term smallholder is used in preference to small-scale as the latter is often confused with size as well as management style. Smallholder is also a term now widely used by international agencies and includes individual farms as well as groups where the farmers themselves or their representatives have taken on the responsibility for managing the distribution of water among the members of their group.

The term irrigation needs clarification. Irrigation includes any practice that stores, directs or exploits water such as water harvesting, use of low-lying wetlands and groundwater as well as the more traditional techniques of diverting or lifting water for distribution using surface, sprinkle or trickle irrigation methods.

Top Of PageTable Of ContentsNext Page