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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation potential in the Gambia was estimated in 1984 to be 80 000 ha. There are several irrigation development projects under way in the country:

  • The Jahaly Pacharr Smallholder Project (JPSP) is based at Sapu in the Central River Division (CRD) and has been in operation since 1980. The total irrigated area was 1 409 ha in 1999, including 560 ha double cropping pump-fed and 849 ha tidal rice areas, and benefited some 22 000 people. In the project areas, tidal and pump irrigation are coordinated. Tidal water is utilized to irrigate low lands nearer the banks of the river while water is pumped from the river to irrigate large areas of land at higher elevations.
  • The Rice Irrigation Development Project (RIDEP), which commenced in 1988, has addressed the rehabilitation of a number of pumped irrigation schemes in CRD. The objective was to rehabilitate the numerous deteriorating rice irrigation schemes to provide double cropping and to encourage self-sufficiency in operation and maintenance. It was planned to rehabilitate and develop 1 250 ha and benefit 25 000 people by 1996, but only some 243 ha were in operation by 1999.
  • The Small Scale Water Control Project (SSWC) is an IFAD-funded, double cropping tidal scheme also located in CRD which began in 1991 and received support until the end of 1996. The project has emphasized farmer involvement from the outset and the total irrigated area was 482 ha by 1999. There are a number of problems in the scheme including poor water quality (salinity), poor land levelling, maintenance and water management.
  • The Lamin Horticultural Project and the Bakau Horticultural Project are both situated in the Western Division relatively close to Banjul in densely populated areas. Continuous cropping on small irrigated areas produces a more or less constant flow of vegetables for sale. The gardens were developed using donor funds and the emphasis was on women growers. At Bakau, water is obtained by bucket from shallow wells and applied by hand to the surrounding beds. Participants own up to 20 beds each, so that an average plot is between 0.01 and 0.03 ha. At Lamin, a good supply of freshwater is obtained from boreholes using solar power supplemented by a small generator. The garden area is 15 ha of which about half is devoted to individual irrigated vegetable plots and half to a communal orchard.
  • The Lowland Agricultural Development Project (LADEP), a 20-year project which began in 1997, is being funded by IFAD and the African Development Bank (AfDB) and aims to develop 3 735 ha of land during the first eight-year stage. To this end, LADEP is involved in the construction of dykes to store freshwater during the rainy season and to prevent flooding with saline water. The freshwater impoundments are used for wet season rice production only. In a second phase, LADEP will explore the potentialities of water control during the dry season.
  • The FAO Special Programme for Food Security (SPFS) covers the period 2002-2004 and its overall objective is to demonstrate the technical, socio-economic and environmental feasibility of simple irrigation techniques during the dry season and their positive effects on crop production and food security. It is aimed at using irrigation in order to facilitate a second crop, ensure and increase the rice yields and diversify crop production by harvesting not only rice but also vegetables. Pumping from shallow tube wells and harvesting the tide where appropriate will also be carried out, in this way complementing the LADEP project. The expected output of the project is the development of four tidal and pump irrigated schemes with a total area of 28 ha. About 4 300 farmers could benefit from the project.
  • The Smallholder Irrigation for Livelihood Enhancement (SMILE) project introduces selected irrigation technologies, proven to be successful for small-scale farmers elsewhere in Africa, to woman farmers. Local manufacturers are trained to make good quality irrigation equipment to ensure that as many women farmers as possible can benefit.
  • Other ongoing projects are the Farmer Managed Tidal Irrigation Project (FMTIP) and the IFAD-led Integrated Watershed Management Project (IWMP).

Accurate up-to-date figures on irrigated areas are not available. In 1991, the area equipped for full or partial control irrigation was estimated to be 1 670 ha; this figure might have increased to 2 149 ha by the year 1999, referring to the sum of the JPSP, RIDEP, SSWC, and Lamin-Bakau schemes. In addition, non-equipped wetlands and inland valley bottoms are cultivated and these accounted for approximately 13 170 ha in 1991. These areas represent mangrove swamps and freshwater swamps, where rice is grown from August to January by constructing simple protection dykes. Thus, the total water-managed area is estimated at 15 319 ha or 7 percent of the cultivated area (Table 4 and Figure 2). All the area equipped for full or partial control irrigation is surface-irrigated, either with pumped schemes (818 ha or about 38 percent of the area in 1999) or by employing tidal irrigation (1 331 ha or about 62 percent of the area).

In the low-lying marshy areas tidal flows are employed for irrigation purposes. This is feasible in the middle reaches of the river, beyond the 240 km mark, where river water is not salty. Tidal irrigation is very different from ordinary gravity irrigation or pump irrigation, as it takes advantage of the ocean tides to force river water onto the fields. Tide heights vary from 3.5 m at the mouth of the River Gambia to 0.9 m at Basang, 310 km upstream, and as a general rule tidal irrigation can be used to water marshy fields with an elevation of less than 1.7 m above the average sea level. A water control valve is usually installed where water enters the system, and the system should have separate inlets and outlets. River water is allowed to flow into the system at flood tide, and the outlet valve is shut as the tide ebbs to keep the water on the fields. Areas where tidal irrigation is feasible include Wassu, Kuntaur, Tobakuta, Sukuta and Bauajali on the north bank, and Sapu, Willirgara, Kuffzally and Yidda on the south bank in the Middle River Division.

To avoid an increase in salinity, the safe limit for irrigation from the River Gambia, without major dam construction, was estimated to be a maximum of 2 400 ha in the dry season. The lower and lower central river sections (up to Carrol’s Wharf) contain considerable areas of actual and potentially acid sulphate soils.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

The main irrigated crop is rice. In the Jahaly Pacharr Smallholder Project (JPSP), a high rice yield is achieved in the areas receiving pumped water. Between 4 and 7 tonnes/ha is expected rather than the 3-4 tonnes/ha achieved in the tidal areas.

Estimates on the cost of installing irrigation systems vary from US$4 000/ha for tidal irrigation to US$10 000/ha for pump irrigation. Analyses taking into account installation and production costs, the anticipated rice output after implementation, the value of that output, etc., indicate that the profit/cost ratio for tidal irrigation is 2.02, while that for pump irrigation is 0.72. It is evident, therefore, that by using tidal irrigation the Gambia could increase its rice output significantly. Costs for certain water control structures are: about US$3 per metre of dyke in the valleys, including labour and all other inputs; about US$30 per metre of concrete spillway; about US$1 per metre of contour or diversion bund, including the rock dams that are installed in the system at road crossings for example.

In the Gambia, the resources that are made available for irrigation, especially labour, are influenced by a particularly complex network of rights and obligations in rural society. Women in rural communities play an important role in the allocation of family labour to food production tasks. Despite this role, women are often stressed because old traditional obligations are upheld in new situations. The introduction of irrigation, or the technical formalization of existing water-use systems, involves in most communities a change in the traditional farming system. Women are major participants in irrigation at field level, however there is only scant evidence that they participate significantly in water management or policy decisions at the system, regional or national levels.

The Colonial Development Corporation (CDC) implemented irrigation and development schemes but started the alienation of women’s land rights by assuming that men own the land. This approach ignored the fact that women had significant access to land resources and their benefits from rice farming as well as responsibilities for food and support of children. Post-colonial development schemes made similar mistakes. Irrigated rice projects funded by the World Bank, China, IFAD, etc., be they small- or large-scale double-cropping schemes, ignored the elaborate system of land rights and cropping responsibilities. The women’s land was taken and they were expected to labour on men’s fields. Thus women had no means of generating the same income and maintaining independent decision-making rights over their labour and livelihoods. As a result of this situation, women tend to rebel and refuse to work at certain times of year when they want to work on their own fields, and they form work groups to drive up wage labour. As a consequence, many projects are expensive and unsuccessful.

In the course of the Jahaly Pacharr Smallholder Project (JPSP), the patterns of access to land and distribution of benefits have undergone a number of changes. However, the registration of project land in women’s names has had only a limited impact on the power bases of men and women. In the Rice Irrigation Development Project (RIDEP), training for the operation and maintenance of power tillers is offered to both men and women. However, while the women were enthusiastic, the older men of the village clearly disapproved of women handling power tillers and commented that they did not want women coming home too tired to do other duties.

Gender issues in irrigation in the Gambia can be summarized as follows:

  • Decision-making: decisions relating to crop production, e.g. crop selection, are taken by both genders. However, men more often than women take decisions about the inputs to be purchased and the labourers to be hired. Women take decisions relating to the deployment of household labour and marketing. Overall, in the Gambia there is a high level of participation on the part of women in agricultural decisions, but in general women have limited control of the production system.
  • Land tenure: irrigated land is commonly owned and inherited, mainly passing down the female line. This pattern follows that of the swamp rice cultivation traditionally undertaken by women. Horticultural gardens are generally considered to be part of the female domain. Vegetables are exclusively grown by women. Women working in the vegetable gardens also cultivate swamp rice in the wet season.
  • Income: incomes from rice are generally low because a high proportion of the rice produced is kept to meet the needs of the family. Marketing is often undertaken only to obtain cash for specific payments. Women may offer rice for sale to the men of the compound who will buy it to fulfill their obligation to meet family needs. Women do not necessarily control the benefits in proportion to the work they contribute.
  • Water control: responsibility for the application of water to the fields is taken on equally by men and women. The majority of rice growers are female, but water control in rice schemes is mainly managed by men. Women have a strong tradition of rice cultivation and a good but informal skills base. Until recently this experience has been largely ignored.
  • Impact of irrigation on women: women claim that they worked much harder than in the past as a result of the introduction of vegetable gardens and improved rice schemes. However, women continue to work in irrigated farming for a number of reasons.

Status and evolution of drainage systems

In tidal irrigation schemes, drainage is the paramount concern during the rainy season; during the dry season, irrigation is the most important consideration. The ditches of a tidal irrigation system must therefore have a dual irrigation/drainage function. It is necessary to prevent irrigation water from flooding the fields, and attention must be paid to controlling irrigation and drainage at the times of flood and ebb tides.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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