FOOD SECURITY

CHOTO: Sustainable irrigation key to Kenya’s climate change response

Climate crisis has had a far-reaching adverse impact on food production and security

In Summary

• The climate crisis has had a far-reaching adverse impact on food production and security mainly through extreme, unpredictable weather patterns that are disruptive to agriculture.

• It is also at the heart of the Big 4 Agenda food security pillar on boosting large scale food production, nutrition, small-holder productivity and reducing the cost of food. 

Water Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki inspecting piping works at Changachicha Irrigation Project in Nyeri county.
Water Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki inspecting piping works at Changachicha Irrigation Project in Nyeri county.
Image: ALICE WAITHERA

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC), also known as COP26, is currently underway in Glasgow, Scotland.

Key on the agenda is accelerated action on global warming and ways to strengthen countries’ ability to deal with the impacts of climate change.  

The climate crisis has had a far-reaching adverse impact on food production and security mainly through extreme, unpredictable weather patterns that are disruptive to agriculture.

The implications for countries like Kenya that rely heavily on rain-fed agriculture are profound hence the need to develop strategies towards mitigating the harsh impact of the global climate crisis on food production.

This includes investing in sustainable irrigation and water harvesting projects.

Irrigation is simply the process of watering crops in a controlled manner using pipes, canals, pumps and other systems.

Human beings have practised this kind of farming for over 5,000 years since the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia and India. Some communities in Kenya have engaged in irrigation for centuries.   

Today, the adoption of this mode of agriculture has been shown to significantly boost agricultural productivity, especially in arid and semi-arid lands while enhancing food sufficiency and sustainability of agricultural livelihoods.

About one billion acres of land around the world are under some form of irrigation.

According to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has led to changes in rainfall patterns, the decline in water availability and reduction in agricultural productivity in many countries including Kenya which is exposed to climate-related weather shocks including prolonged droughts.  

“Kenya is characterized by low and declining crop productivity, and like many other developing countries, is particularly susceptible to climate change due to its over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture, aridity, inadequate water supply and degradation of many of its natural resources,” says IPCC. 

This makes irrigation so key to Kenya’s climate change response.

It is also at the heart of the Big 4 Agenda food security pillar on boosting large scale food production, nutrition, small-holder productivity and reducing the cost of food.

With eighty per cent of the total landmass being arid or semi-arid, sustainable agriculture can only be achieved through modern irrigation.

This also partly explains why irrigation is integral to the Agriculture Sector Transformation and Growth Sector (ASTGS), a 10-year roadmap to achieving food security in Kenya.

ASTGS prioritizes the construction of dams, rainwater harvesting among other measures to increase farmland under irrigation with greater emphasis on improving the resilience of small-scale irrigation systems to climate-related shocks.

ASTGS Flagship 4, for instance, targets sustainable water supply to more than 150,000 acres of irrigation from existing infrastructure.

This includes 40,000 acres of additional irrigation by2025.

This is expected to unlock Ksh 160-195 billion in agricultural value during that period as stated in the National Agricultural Investment Plan.

However, this will require a significant additional water supply which in turn puts more pressure on existing natural sources like rivers, streams and lakes.

There is, therefore, a need to devise sustainable approaches like rain-water harvesting using water pans and other innovative technologies that lessen damage to the environment, for instance, depletion of water catchment areas.

Smallholder irrigation projects are core to achieving the twin goals of food security and climate change impact mitigation.

Kenya has an estimated irrigation potential of 1.35 million acres out of which only about 500,000 acres have been developed.

Available data shows that with improved harvesting and water storage capacity, the country’s total irrigation potential could easily rise to 1.9 million acres.

Accelerated irrigation under the Expanded Irrigation Programme involves the provision of infrastructure, water storage facilities and installation of greenhouses.

Under this initiative, 209 irrigation projects have been constructed across 47 counties.

Additionally, rehabilitation, expansion and modernization of the major irrigation schemes have increased the area covered from 23,326 to 35,326 acres.    

Smallholder irrigation in Kenya is a fairly developed practice.

The Ministry of Water and Irrigation estimates that there are over 107,000 smallholder irrigation projects across the country.

However, some studies show that the sustainability of such projects in Kenya has been poor, with many not surviving beyond five years.

The main reasons for this are lack of funds, inadequate water supply, poor management skills and even use of obsolete technology.

Improving in these areas would require investing financial resources and up-skilling farmers.

Using appropriate water harvesting technology reduces dependence on rain, allows farmers to grow crops throughout the year using less water and results in a stable food supply.

Also, improving project management skills both for farmers and agricultural extension officers will go a long way in ensuring long-term viability.

Agriculture being a devolved function means that counties should allocate more funding to irrigation and water-harvesting projects especially those benefiting small-scale farmers so as to boost crop diversification and resilience.

The development of sustainable irrigation systems that reduce water wastage will help improve farm income, build stable farming systems, and most importantly, mitigate the vagaries of climate change.

Mr. Choto is a legal and policy analyst.

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