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South Sudan

Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation potential in South Sudan is estimated at 1.5 million ha that could be brought under irrigation by smallholders and commercial farming. This potential is divided between the Nile-Sobat river basin (654 700 ha potential), the Western and Eastern Flood Plains (in Warrap, Unity and Jonglei states), the Mangalla region (45 km from Juba, at the confluence of the White Nile and one of its tributaries in Central Equatoria state) and the Green Belt zone. The Green Belt zone’s agricultural production usually exceeds subsistence level, so modern irrigation techniques could further increase the production (AfDB, 2013). However, small streams and irregular land impede large-scale irrigation (Yongo-Bure, 2007).

This potential includes in particular (AfDB, 2013):

  • lowlands where farmers make use of flooding to supplement water for growing rice
  • areas adjacent to river floodplains, where farmers cultivate short-maturing varieties of sorghum
  • areas around swamps/marshes where extension of the growing season is possible by planting in moist soils left by receding floods

In addition, large flood plains are located in the enormous Sudd wetlands, the potential of which was estimated at up to 1.6 million ha by itself (FAO, 1997). They, however, would require extensive works.

Before the 2nd civil war broke out in 1983, the overall plan for irrigation development in Southern Sudan was to irrigate about 270 000 ha of land (AfDB, 2013). Because of the instability, development of irrigated agriculture was constrained, except for a few formal irrigation schemes, which were constructed in the 1970s as pilot agro-industrial projects. However, they have never been fully operational, were neglected during the periods of civil conflict and war and are largely non-functional at present (GoSS, 2013) but there are plans to revive them (UNEP, 2007):

  • The Melut sugar scheme: initially planned for 35 000 feddan, or 14 700 ha, of irrigated sugarcane. In 1979-80, 42 ha were cultivated and construction of irrigation infrastructure started in 1979, but implementation stopped before 1983. There were plans to restart it with the help of the pre-2011 Sudan Kenana Company in the 2010s with an initial capacity of 40 000 tons of sugarcane, to be increased to 110 000 tons, or 50-60 percent of the South Sudan’s consumption.
  • The Aweil rice scheme: located in the southern bank of the Lol River (Northern Bahr el Ghazal), founded in 1944 by British officials, expanded in 1976 by the government of Sudan with international aid, and partially rehabilitated in 2007 (FAO, 2013). At its peak in the 1980s, the scheme benefited about 1 000 tenant farmers, but it ceased operations in 1986. A rehabilitation project encompassed an area of 4 500 ha in 2010, to be extended to 6 500 ha benefiting around 2 000 households (UNMIS, 2010). In 2012, around 600 ha were planted with rice, and the area doubled in 2013. It relies on semi-natural flood irrigation without effect on Nile volumes, since using water that would otherwise evaporate, (CLICO, 2012).
  • The Mangalla–or Mongalla–sugar and agro-industrial project: located in Central Equatoria. It was an experimental station established in the 1950s to grow sugarcane, but production was shifted to the north of Sudan after 1956, under much less favourable conditions requiring heavy irrigation.
  • The Wau fruit and vegetable canning factory: the irrigation pump had a capacity to water only one feddan or 0.42 hectare.
  • The Penykou rice pilot project: located in Jonglei. Around 125 ha rice were planted in 1980-81 under irrigation, with a maximum yield of 4.5 tons/ha.
  • The Upper Talanga tea project: a planned area of 500 ha was to be under tea cultivation in the 1980s, including 85 ha by smallholders. Phase 1 was completed with 80 ha tea and 30 ha cereals.

The current area equipped for full control irrigation is only 32 100 ha:

  • about 12 700 ha is in Upper Nile state, including the Renk scheme of about 2 000 ha in Gaiger, Magara and Abu Khadra, where cotton, sunflower and other crops are irrigated
  • 300 ha in Jonglei state and 500 ha in Western Equatoria state
  • the remaining 18 600 ha are small parcels of land across the country, mostly individual farmers in isolated locations with simple water-lifting techniques from rivers to support perennial fruit and vegetable production.

In addition, about 6 000 ha of spate irrigation, confined primarily to Northern Bahr el Ghazal, is used for rice production (Figure 2) (AfDB, 2013).

Modern irrigation techniques, involving improved flood control measures or water pumping into gravity schemes, were introduced in the 1970s in the above listed pilot projects in order to gradually substitute traditional flood irrigation.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

Traditionally in the floodplain area, irrigation is used in small vegetable gardens cultivated with additional water from hand pumps, storage ponds, or lakeside moisture (with the help of drains). In the wet season, flood waters are diverted into rice fields, and sugarcane and banana are grown on dikes protecting fishing camps and lowland settlements. In the dry season, along the river vegetables and tobacco are irrigated through manual and small pump-driven lift irrigation, and maize and cowpea are grown using receding flood water. Irrigation has therefore played a critical role in traditional farming systems as a means to secure food supplies, especially in the drought-prone areas (GoSS, 2013).

Currently, the main irrigated crops are rice, fruit trees and tree plantations (Table 5 and Figure 3). Two harvests are possible each year in the bimodal rainfall area of Western and Central Equatoria, where the growing season is long, but generally only one harvest is possible in the unimodal rainfall areas further north except where water is readily available for irrigation (GoSS, 2011).

However, agriculture being mostly rainfed in South Sudan, farmers have little experience with irrigation. Consequently the research, extension, and advisory system is not yet ready to support widespread irrigated agriculture. The government considers that in the medium term it will be easier to increase the agricultural production through small increases in rainfed crop yield and expansion of rainfed cropland than through increase of irrigated area. This is despite the fact that irrigated yields are typically three to four times higher than rainfed yields, and that rainfed yields are even only half of comparable yields in Uganda and Kenya (GoSS, 2013).

In addition, large scale land acquisitions are ongoing in South Sudan. Between 2007 and 2010, around 2.64 million ha of land were leased or acquired by foreign investors in the agriculture, forestry, carbon credit and bio fuel sectors alone (Grain, 2011).

Women and irrigation

Because experience with irrigation is low in South Sudan, this is also the case for women. However, women are responsible for a lot of the agricultural work (WB, 2011). And the government in its water sector assessment mentions that “In moisture-rich patches of land, tobacco and vegetables are grown, primarily by women” (Goss, 2013).

Traditionally, the customary land tenure system limits women’s rights to access land and property (USAID, 2012). This is even accentuated by the fact that they are usually less educated than men. Despite spending long hours collecting water, they do not have access, control or use of information on water resources (WB, 2011).


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