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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation potential was estimated to be around 3.1 million ha by FAO, while other sources give 3.3 million ha. The major areas suitable for irrigation are in the centre and north. The Zambezia province alone accounts for about 60 percent of the irrigation potential. The southern provinces have the highest need for irrigation but have only a small share of the land suitable for irrigation.

Smallholder "traditional irrigation" has been practiced for centuries in Mozambique in particular in dambos (inland valley bottoms) and peatlands, mostly concentrated in the central and north high rainfall areas at the headwaters of most streams. Formal irrigation development through government or private investments is only recent. In 1968 the area equipped for irrigation totalled 65 000 ha, of which 72 percent were located in the Maputo and Gaza provinces. This includes only parts of the Chokwe irrigation scheme initiated in the early 1960s, reaching later 25 000 ha and thus being the largest in the country. In 1973 the area equipped for irrigation had increased to 100 000 ha due to the establishment of sugar companies in the Incomati, Buzi and Zambezi valleys (34 000 ha equipped area) and Limpopo settlers, with the major area still being located in the southern provinces of Maputo and Gaza. Portuguese settlers mainly exploited these lands, while Mozambicans did not practice irrigated agriculture. At independence in 1975 irrigation qualified staff and settlers left the country and private investments stopped. An inventory carried out in 1986-87, identified a total equipped area of almost 120 000 ha, of which approximately 42 000 ha were fully operative (INIA and FAEF, 1999). Most of the areas were again in Maputo and Gaza, where significant water development works were implemented at the same time: the Pequenos Libombos, the Corumana and the Massingir dams. In the years following independence, the government encouraged the exploitation of existing large irrigation schemes by state companies. These companies however became a symbol of inefficiency, mismanagement and the subsequent deterioration of the irrigation infrastructures. As a result, most were transferred to the private sector. Whereas 90 percent of the irrigated area in 1983 was owned by State farms, the remaining being equally distributed between cooperatives and small farmers, since the 1990s the same area was divided almost equally between commercial farms and smallholders.

Smallholder irrigation exists everywhere in the country, but is either abandoned or just partly utilized. Most of the schemes are in a bad to very bad condition, and only a relatively small part of the irrigation schemes is actually irrigated. Reasons for this are:

  • After independence the original owners abandoned the irrigated lands, and the new owners greatly lacked experience in operation and maintenance of irrigation schemes.
  • The extended civil war led to the destruction of irrigation infrastructures and forced the abandonment of others.
  • Public funds for irrigation were gradually reduced.
  • The lack of funding and technical assistance in the rural areas for operations, maintenance and improvements of irrigation schemes, led to their degradation.
  • The floods in 2000 and 2001 completely submerged many irrigated schemes and deposited large quantities of sediments in all natural and human-made irrigation and drainage channel networks.

In 2001, 118 120 ha were equipped for irrigation. The actually irrigated area was 40 063 ha, of which almost 80 percent in large schemes (> 500 ha), including 23 500 ha of sugar estates. In 2010, the total area equipped for irrigation is still the same (MINAG, 2014). However, there has been some rehabilitation on around 27 000 ha during the period 2001-2009, of which over 15 000 ha in the Gaza province alone (MINAG, 2013). In 2010, 62 000 ha are actually irrigated (Table 5), of which only about 30 000 hectares are used for food production, while the remaining area is used for ethanol production from sugarcane. About 60 000 ha remain in need of rehabilitation, of which 15 000 ha are considered not viable for recovery for agricultural purposes, except for aquaculture (MINAG, 2014).

Basin irrigation is practiced for rice and furrow irrigation for maize, other cereals and vegetables. Sprinkler irrigation is widespread with agricultural companies, especially in sugarcane plantations, but also for cotton, citrus fruits and vegetables and in the majority of the recently constructed schemes. Some producers employ localized irrigation to produce tomatoes (3 347 ha in 2001).

In most irrigation schemes, surface water from rivers is used. Groundwater is used to a very limited extent by the family smallholder sector.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, economy and society

The main irrigated crops are sugarcane, increasingly for ethanol production, vegetables and rice (INIR, 2013b; Figure 2). The 2009-2010 agricultural census indicates that 201 747 farms use irrigation (INE, 2013). The average rice yield in Chokwe irrigation scheme is very low at 2.1 tons/ha (ODI, 2015).

The climate of Mozambique means that the risk of harvest loss in rainfed agriculture exceeds 50 percent in all regions south of the Save river, and can reach up to 75 percent in the interior of the Gaza province. The centre and north regions of the country have more appropriate conditions for rainfed agriculture, where the probability of good harvests during the wet season is 70-95 percent. The north of the Manica province and the south of the Tete province regions are excluded from this Centre-North region, as they have a risk of harvest loss in rainfed crops of usually more than 50 percent.

Women and irrigation

At smallholder level, high value crops are traditionally grown by men. Although women play an active role in all activities of irrigated production, they are in general not involved in planning and decision-making regarding the management of the scheme.

Historically, and due to cultural habits, men from the more powerful and settled group have had the greatest access to benefits and increased income from irrigated agriculture. Women, migrant groups and poorer social classes have often lost access to resources and gained increased workloads. Conversely, the increased income and improved nutrition from irrigated agriculture benefit women and children in particular (WB, 2010).


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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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