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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

The irrigation potential of Kenya has been estimated between 353 060 ha and 1 341 900 ha depending on the sources (Table 8). The highest potential of 1 341 900 ha assumes additional storage and improvement in irrigation efficiency (MALF, 2015) and includes between 250 000 ha (WRMA, 2013b) and 600 000 ha of floodplains that could be irrigated if equipped (NEMA, 2010). The medium potential of 539 500 ha, of which 75 percent is located in Tana and Lake Victoria Catchments(NEMA, 2010), does not always take soil suitability into consideration.

Irrigation development in Kenya has a long history since there are records indicating that there were irrigation systems in the 16th century along the coast, the lower reaches of Tana River and the Kerio valley (Marakwet escarpment), West Pokot and Baringo districts, mainly dependent on high flood flows. The system was so elaborate that a traditional water management system had evolved that maintained canals exceeding 15 kilometers, and water transfers from basin to basin along rugged terrains with technologies that puzzle the present-day engineer. The traditional water management system also allocated water between different clans and the water rotation among the different users could vary from year to year.

In the early 19th century, rice schemes were constructed by slaves along the river valleys around Kipini, Malindi, Shimoni and Vanga. In the late 19th century, Asian workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway also started some irrigation activities around Makindu and Kibwezi. In the mid-1930s construction of drainage systems started in Central Kenya, especially in Karatina, putting large swamp areas under crop production. During the 2nd World War, irrigation schemes at Karatina, Naivasha, Njoro Kubwa in Tavetta, in Mt Kenya and on the shores of Lake Victoria were constructed by prisoners of war and conscripted labour (Spate Network, 2008). The objective was to supply food to workers and soldiers. The above-mentioned pockets of development have greatly influenced the present day pattern and distribution of irrigation development in the country, whereby the communities have developed a tradition of water management.

In the mid-1950s, the African Land Development Unit of the British East Africa Protectorate initiated a number of state-owned irrigation schemes, including Mwea, Hola, Perkerra, Ishiara and Yatta using detainee labour (Spate Network, 2008). By 1963, the year of the country’s independence, Kenya had developed a total of 2 500 ha of irrigation. Between 1963 and 1980, the new government expanded the existing schemes and developed new ones in the Lower Tana, Yala, Kano and Bunyala areas (WB, 2014). Small schemes were also equipped in the 1960s in the ASALs with assistance from international organisations as a result of the famine in the Turkwel and Ewaso Ng’iro basins (FAO, 2005). However, due to high development cost, the 1978-83 Development Plan shifted the emphasis from public irrigation development to small-scale farmer-managed irrigation. The Bura Irrigation Settlement Project, whose construction started in 1978, ended any remaining large-scale public irrigation development when it collapsed in 1989. Out of the 6 700 ha initially projected, the only 2 500 ha that had been equipped in 1989, despite large extra-budgetary costs, had poor returns on cotton growing. In 1985, there was around 52 000 ha equipped for irrigation (NEMA, 2010). Since the 1990s, export of horticultural crops is the main driver for irrigation development (WB, 2014).

Horticulture was also the main, if not the only, crop of the 2 200 ha of informal peri-urban irrigation done by 3 700 households within 20 km around Nairobi in 2000 (HR Walligford, DFID, 2001). None of the official reports mention this type of irrigation, but it was nonetheless considered similar in 2010 and added to the official figure in Table 9.The total water managed area in 2010 was about 150 570 ha, of which 141 900 ha (96 percent) was equipped for formal full control irrigation and 2 200 ha of peri-urban irrigation (Table 9 and Figure 2). The remaining 6 470 ha are under spate irrigation. Of the areas under full control, 70 percent were irrigated by surface irrigation, 22 percent by sprinkler and 8 percent by localized irrigation (Table 9 and Figure 3). By the end of 2013, approximately 161 840 ha had been developed (Table 10) (MALF, 2015).

Water lifting devices and pressurized irrigation date back to the late 1970s with large-scale commercial farmers producing mainly coffee. After that, it’s mostly the horticulture industry that adopted new and modern water saving irrigation technologies such as drip and greenhouses for the production of high-value crops and flowers (Spate Network, 2008).

Within the formal irrigation, there are four major types of irrigation schemes that can be grouped according to their ownership (private or public) (Table 10) (MALF, 2015):

  • Private irrigation schemes:
    • Community-based: small and medium farmer-managed schemes belonging to groups of farmers sharing a common irrigation system operating as irrigation water users associations (IWUAs), cooperatives or self-help groups. There are about 3 600 smallholder irrigation schemes covering around 43 percent of the total area. They produce the bulk of horticultural produce consumed in Kenya, appreciable amounts of export crops, grain staples and tubers. Examples include South West Kano, Mitunguu, Lower Nzoia, Chala, Lower Kaya, Oluch Kimira among others. They often experience poor mobilization and participation.
    • Commercial farms: can be individual or firm irrigation schemes: cover about 39 percent. Most of them utilize modern irrigation technology and produce high-value crops for the local and export market, especially flowers and vegetables. Examples include Del Monte, Kakuzi, High grown and Equator Flowers.
  • Public owned irrigation schemes:covering the remaining 18 percent; they are large-scale ranging from 800 ha to 12 000 ha each:
    • National schemes, such as Mwea, Ahero, West Kano, Bunyala and Hola, which are managed by the National Irrigation Board (NIB). In some national schemes, the government manages the schemes jointly with farmers’ organizations such as WUAs through irrigation management transfer programmes.
    • Institutional schemes, such as the Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme, managed by Regional Development Authorities (RDAs), Agricultural Development Corporations (ADC), the National Youth Service (NYS), prisons, universities and colleges.

The public schemes are currently experiencing management problems with large areas non-operational, due to water shortages, such as in Perkerra, or failure of pumping units, such as in Hola. However, some of them were revived after collapsing, such as Ahero, which collapsed in 1995 due to poor management and low economic return but revived in 2005.

The actually irrigated area varies greatly depending on the scheme and the water availability for a given year (WB, 2014). Based on the previous irrigated crop calendar and actually irrigated area in 2003, the actually irrigated area was estimated at around 136 000 ha in 2010.

Water for formal full control irrigation (141 900 ha) originates predominantly from rivers and lakes (86 percent) and from groundwater (14 percent). Lack of sufficient water storage incurred recurrent water shortages for the irrigation schemes (MALF, 2015). Water is directed to the formal full control irrigation schemes mostly by gravity (78 percent), either through pipes (in the Mount Kenya area, in the Eastern and Central provinces), canals (in the flat areas of Coast, Rift Valley and Nyanza) or both. Power is used for the remaining irrigation from the source to the scheme (22 percent), including at least 5 600 ha of the public schemes (WB, 2014).

Expansion over the last decades is below expectations due to lack of investments. New development is mostly driven by the private irrigation development, focusing in particular on the export of horticulture crops (WB, 2014).

Out of the estimated 250 000 ha of drainage potential area (WRMA, 2013b), there is no consensus yet on the area that has been developed. Depending on the sources, there are between 6 470 ha in 2010 (WRMA, 2013b) and 31 894 ha in 2011 (Annual Water Sector Review Report 2010 in WRMA, 2013b) of spate irrigation. Irrigation from flood water, either spate irrigation or flood recession agriculture, is widespread along the lower parts of the river Tana, the Daua River and the Lagh Dera River. Traditionally sorghum is cropped under flood recession, which is sufficient for the whole crop cycle. Maize would require at least one additional rainfall to complete its cycle, hence is only cropped during the long rainy season. Bananas are also produced used on flood recession on embankments. Flood recession plots range from 1-2 ha and are mostly individual. However, also the Sagana and Ichiara irrigation schemes use flood water through lowered intakes for controlled irrigation, as well as the planned Bura irrigation scheme once its intake is constructed within low embankments to allow natural floods in (Spate Network, 2008).

Rainwater harvesting is also becoming a common practice for the medium and low potential areas of the country through the construction of individual water pans and the diversion of roadside runoff, to improve food security. Conservation agriculture is practiced on 33 100 ha in 2011.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

Agriculture in Kenya is mainly rainfed. Irrigated agriculture accounts for only 2.4 percent of the cultivated area, but contributes 3 percent to the GDP and 18 percent the national agricultural production. It employs about 3 million people: 900 000 directly and indirectly in public schemes, over 2 million in community-based schemes and around 82 500 in commercial farms. In the past, irrigation development not only aimed to secure and stabilize the food supply in face of droughts and to provide employment, but also to provide settlement for the landless when (re)distributing the equipped land (MALF, 2015).

The main irrigated crops include vegetables, rice, coffee, sugarcane, fruits (bananas and citrus), maize, cotton, as well as flowers (WB, 2014) (Table 9 and Figure 4). Cash crops, such as coffee, pineapples, sisal and lucerne were introduced in the 1930s-40s (Spate Network, 2008). The main public schemes, such as Mwea, Ahero, Pekerra, Bunyala and West Kano, predominantly produce water intensive crops, in particular rice. Smallholder irrigators produce mainly horticultural crops (NEMA, 2010).

In 2010, 72 500 tons of irrigated paddy rice was harvested only in the public irrigation schemes, where a total of 17 611 ha were harvested (KNBS, 2014). Paddy yields in Mwea scheme are “high and comparable to Asia” (WB, 2014). However, they are generally quite low, but range from 0.8 to 8.4 t/ha for paddy and 0.8 to 5.2 t/ha for irrigated maize. Cropping intensity is also generally just 100 percent, meaning only one crop cycle per year, even though it can be over 200 percent locally (WB, 2014).

The Galana Kulalu irrigation scheme is located in Tana and Kilifi counties between the Galana and Tana rivers. This food security project, initiated in 2014, aims to equip the Galana Ranch for irrigated sugarcane, maize and fruits; although the announced objective of 400 000 ha equipped for irrigation seem disproportionate compared to the regional irrigation potential. ThisRanch was established in 1968 and later acquired by ADC to provide a buffer zone for the Tsavo National Park. Similarly, there are also projects for cash crops, such as the Ramisi Sugar Factory, closed in 1989 after 60 years of operation, but revival was initiated in 2009 with an objective of 8 000 ha of irrigated sugarcane, including both nucleus and out-growers (NEMA, 2010).

Women and irrigation

Traditionally, women and girls are the main collectors of water for domestic use. As a result, water scarcity affects them more than men and boys, having to walk further to find water. Men will only take the livestock to the source of water. If they fetch water, it’s to sell it, as part of their job. Only in extreme cases they may assist in the fetching of water for domestic purposes, but in those cases carry it back on animal or bicycle.

There are some attempts by the government to raise the level of women participation in the water users associations in order to overcome the lack of gender focus in the water policy.

Women have also a dominant role in subsistence agricultural production due to rural-urban migration of men in search of more lucrative economic opportunities. However they paradoxically have little access to and control over land and own only 5 percent of the registered land in Kenya (NEMA, 2010).


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