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Gambian farmers adapt to climate change with new irrigation strategies

©FAO/Amadou Bah

FAO helps smallholders in West and Central Africa adopt new irrigation strategies

Key Facts

Many West and Central African countries are fortunate to have abundant water resources. However, these resources are unevenly distributed across the region and are mostly untapped. Less than three percent of the region’s arable land benefits from some form of strategic water management. At the same time, many countries face erratic rainfall as the region is becoming highly vulnerable to climate change, and farmers are increasingly dealing with climate variability and extreme weather risks.

Better water management is needed in this region to increase agricultural productivity and help boost farmer’s livelihoods. To this end, FAO is implementing the Adapting Irrigation to Climate Change in West and Central Africa (AICCA) project in Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Mali and Niger to provide smallholder farmers with concrete tools in water management, small-scale irrigation systems and adaptation strategies that respond to their specific needs.

As smallholder farmers are the most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, they need strategies to strengthen their resilience and adapt to climate change. They also need improved access to markets, information, finance, technologies and other agricultural infrastructure. Implementing small-scale irrigation techniques that are adapted to the effects of climate change will not only help the region secure sufficient and reliable access to water but also ensure that water is not wasted.

Adapting to climate change with climate smart irrigation

Agriculture has a large role to play in reducing poverty in The Gambia. 30 percent of the country’s GDP comes from agriculture. It is the second largest sector in the economy and employs about 44 percent of the country’s active work force. Smallholder farmers supply 90 percent of the domestically produced food in The Gambia. This is done mainly from rain-fed fields; only about 1 percent of the harvested land uses irrigation.

This high dependency on rainfall, weak policy environment, low levels of technology adoption, inadequate access to inputs (seed, fertilizer, etc.), low private sector investment, under developed markets, poor infrastructure and inadequate energy supply are the main factors that result in low agricultural productivity in The Gambia. Particularly in the uplands, production systems of grains and groundnuts, the country’s main products, are heavily affected by the inadequate and erratic distribution of rainfall. Poverty rates are also highest in the rural groundnut-producing areas primarily because of small or variable yields in this sector.

This untapped potential of irrigation combined with a changing climate means that farmers’ livelihoods are increasingly vulnerable and rural communities are more susceptible to poverty and food insecurity.

“In the past, the harvest could sustain households for 12 months if the rainy season was good, but now, with the impact of climate change, fewer people manage to consume their produce beyond six months,” says Manka Trawally, a farmer from Salikeni in the Central Baddibou District of The Gambia.

Baa Mariga, Chairman of the Rice Growers Association at Jahally Village in the Central River Region South, lost several of his plots of land because of flooding. A year’s worth of harvest was wiped out.

Maimuna Ceesay, a farmer from Pacharr Village, in the Central River Region South also adds, “Last year the floods destroyed more than 70 percent of farms. More than 60 hectares of rice fields perished. We filled 180 bags with sand and put them on the damaged areas with a view to control the floods, but everything was washed away. Farmers were in the fields helplessly watching their produce being destroyed.”

The development of irrigation and drainage systems is key to unlocking The Gambia’s agricultural potential. River Gambia is the main source of surface water in the country and is suitable for tidal and pump irrigation. There are also abundant underground water resources available for drinking and irrigation.

As part of the Adapting Irrigation to Climate Change in West and Central Africa project, FAO is conducting participatory assessments of the climate change impacts and adaptive capacity of the region’s different rural communities to understand the associated risks and vulnerabilities. In The Gambia, members of 221 households from Jahaly, Pacharr and Salikenni villages were interviewed. Most of them have observed changing climate patterns, such as the late arrival and shorter duration of the rainy seasons, causing the loss of their crops and reducing their incomes. The change in climate also implies spending more on agricultural inputs, especially fertilizers, and having less water available for irrigation systems.

Because the use of mechanized irrigation systems and the adoption of technologies (such as localized irrigation) are rather poor, farmers are even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Access to meteorological information and weather forecasts is also limited. Indeed, more than 80% of small-scale producers use traditional means, such as observing insect migration or baobab leaves, to predict events related to climate.

Farmers are using a number of coping strategies, such as incorporating manure into the soil, mulching and crop rotation, to increase the soil’s water retention. Small-scale producers are also using practices to ensure the efficient use of water. Some of these strategies consist of using drought-resistant and early maturing crops, alternating upland and lowland farming, digging new wells to access groundwater and building waterways and pits to direct the runoff water and avoid flooding in the lowland fields.

For instance, in the Salikeni village, farmers have changed rice varieties to early and late maturing rice varieties. In this way, when the rainy season ends early, they are able to harvest from the early maturing variety and when it ends late, they are still able to harvest from both the early and late maturing varieties of rice. In addition to adopting different rice varieties, they are now also diversifying crops, adjusting the crop calendar and adapting irrigation infrastructure to the new climate variability for flood protection.  

Farmers in The Gambia know it is time to "rethink" agriculture to cope with the impacts of climate change.

FAO, in collaboration with the governments of The Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger are working together to identify “climate smart irrigation” strategies that respond to the specific needs of smallholders in order to improve their productivity, and in this way, ensure sustainable food and nutrition security, poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability.

To hear more of the farmers’ stories, watch our “Voices from the field” videos series. 

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