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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation potential is 240 000 ha. The irrigation sector has undergone major changes since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, many of the large scale irrigation systems having been destroyed. Of the remaining infrastructures many are not in use due to lack of maintenance and most of the formerly irrigated areas are now used for rainfed farming and grazing. There has been an expansion of rainfed farming, mainly in the areas of Middle Shabelle and Galgaduud.

Large-scale commercial irrigation was introduced during the colonial era (1880-1960) and played a major role in pre-war agriculture. Irrigated bananas and fruit trees (limes) were the major crops. Other crops, produced mainly by government-owned farms, were sugar cane, cotton and rice. Most of the private and government-owned farms collapsed in 1990, but several private farms have recovered and diversified into cash crops, such as sesame, groundnuts and rice. However, the technical level of production, mechanization and efficiency of these farms remains low. Unsettled land issues are also constraints on future development.

The area equipped for irrigation was 200 000 ha in 1984, of which 50 000 ha full/partial control surface irrigation and 150 000 ha spate irrigation (Table 4 and Figure 2). These estimates are still valid today, but much of the infrastructure is not used. The area actually irrigated is only around 65 000 ha.

Irrigated agriculture is mainly practised along the Juba and Shabelle rivers. In their upper sections both rivers have deep riverbeds and pumps are needed for irrigation. In the lower sections the rivers are embanked, which allows for gravity-fed irrigation, especially along the Shabelle. Pumps are used by those who can afford it during periods of low discharge. There are three common types of small-scale irrigation found in the Juba and Shabelle basin:

  • Small-scale pump-fed surface irrigation of cash crops. Individual families or small groups usually irrigate 0.5-5 ha close to the river;
  • Small-scale gravity-fed surface irrigation of staple and cash crops, with clusters of small-scale farmers irrigating 5-10 ha. Maize is most common, followed by sesame, fruits or vegetables;
  • Spate and flood recession irrigation of staple crops. Spate irrigation is called Deschek irrigation and it also includes the areas along the riverbanks, which are often called riverbank farms (5-100 m from river). When the bi-annual floods begin to recede farmers plant maize in depressions and dry river branches, particular along the middle and lower reaches of the Juba. Flood recession farming is practised from 500 m to up to 30 km distance from river. The system is quite risky as the floods can return before the crops are harvested. The areas are flooded through levee or embankment overtopping using water intakes through man-made openings along the river or by pumping, thus changing uncontrolled irrigation to controlled. No separate values are available for the part called spate irrigation or flood recession cropping.

In the dryer northern part of Somalia irrigation is practised as small-scale surface irrigation and as spate irrigation. Small-scale surface irrigation, oasis farming, is practised mainly in dry riverbeds or adjacent areas, using water pumped from shallow wells and in some cases by tapping the sub-surface river flow directing it through channels into the fields. These farms produce mainly fruits and vegetables for neighbouring villages and urban centres and the irrigated area for these farms is usually less than 2 ha. Less common is spate irrigation which is practised as floodwater harvesting within the streambed or by floodwater diversion where the floods are diverted to adjacent fields for sorghum and maize, with an irrigated area usually of less than 10 ha.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

Livestock and agriculture, both rainfed and irrigated, are the two major traditional socio-economic activities of the Somali people, where water is of vital importance. Water is scarce and the infrastructural developments with access to water for household and irrigated agriculture are very poor and often communities fight over the access to land and water. The production of staple crops is subsistence-oriented and dominated by smallholders. Fodder as a by-product often has a higher economic value then cereals, particularly in the north where livestock export is important. Irrigation efficiency is low because of the design of the system. Both men and women work on the farms. However, as regards access to land, women are not allowed to own land if they do not purchase it with their own money.

The main cash crops are bananas, lime, cotton, rice and sugar cane, while the main food crops are sorghum, maize, sesame, rice and beans. Rainfed and irrigation yields are low due to low seed quality and due to lack of farming skills and mechanized farm inputs. The average yield of sorghum is 200 500 kg/ha. On average 300 000 tonnes of cereals were harvested per year during the period 1994-2000, compared to a pre-war production of 480 000 tonnes per year.

Status and evolution of drainage systems

Many flood diversion control systems in the Juba and Shabelle river have collapsed and drainage is poor, leading to salinization and waterlogging. For example, in Jowhar (middle Shabelle) the major infrastructure that collapsed consisted of a flood control canal and the Jowhar off stream canal, operational from 1980 to 1990, and the Chinese flood relief canal, operational from 1983 to 1990.


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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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