After a drought-induced famine ravaged many parts of the country for months, President Uhuru Kenyatta finally called out for international assistance to save thousands of Kenyans from starvation. The call was reasonable, as Kenya’s internal resources have proved inadequate.
The question, however, is — why, in the 21st century, should Kenyans be starving merely because the rains failed? What became of the Galana-Kulalu irrigation project, which was touted as the ‘final solution’ to food insecurity? These questions must be answered by the relevant authorities because it is unacceptable for millions of Kenyans to be ravaged by drought-induced famine more than 1,500 years since the onset of the modern agrarian revolution.
History students will tell you that one of the greatest events in mankind’s history is the agrarian revolution, or simply known as the agricultural revolution. Historian Andrew Watson, in an influential paper published in 1974, acknowledges that the Arab Agricultural Revolution, which took place between the eighth and 13th centuries, was fundamental because of one technology that was adopted and proved to be a game changer — irrigation.
Prof Watson wrote that irrigation ensured sustainable food production in countries where rainfall is scarce or virtually non-existent. Irrigation has been a central feature of agriculture for more than 5,000 years and is the product of many cultures.
The first major irrigation project in Africa was undertaken during the reign of King Menes of the first dynasty in Egypt, 3,000 years before Christ. Since then many societies have used irrigation to grow cash crops, which they would otherwise not be able to grow.
The Arabs used irrigation to transform their near-desert lands into bastions of food security by introducing and spreading staple crops such as durum wheat, Asiatic rice, sorghum and cotton.
Interestingly, crops such as sorghum that have a high nutritional value were taken from Africa and adopted by the Arabs. And because of irrigation, there was greater food production, the result of which was a population explosion.
Today, the state of Israel is food secure thanks to irrigation techniques adopted as early as the eighth century.
If irrigation has been around for more than 5,000 years, why is it not working for Kenya? Envisaged under the Vision 2030 programme, the Galana-Kulalu irrigation project came to life in 2014, with its sponsors telling us that they would put one million acres under irrigation to provide more than “enough” food for Kenyans. It sounded like an excellent idea then. But when faced with a devastating drought-induced famine in 2017 that has led us to go begging, one would be forgiven for doubting the genuineness of the project.
We were told that the Galana-Kulalu is a joint project, with the government putting in an initial investment of $40 million and $125 million coming from an Israeli partner. But in January 2016, the government started shifting goalposts. Water CS Eugene Wamalwa announced that funding had been slashed from Sh14 billion to Sh7.2 billion.
Besides, instead of the promised one million acres under irrigation, the acreage was reduced to 10,000. As the project became steeped in controversy over costs and viability, the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture at one time called for its suspension.
Kenyans should review the Galana-Kulalu project and demand accountability from the authorities concerned. With the realities of climate change, there will certainly be another drought in the near future. It will be unacceptable for Kenyans to starve once again, 5,000 years since irrigation was discovered and adopted as a guarantor of food security.
The writer is the deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.