Harvesting Water to Save Crops and Lives

  • by Isaiah Esipisu (nairobi)
  • Friday, September 10, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Like other farmers from Rwanguondu village, Kivuti trusted the traditional methods of weather prediction, which had been used by his forefathers for ages.

'Since I was a small boy, I knew that it was going to rain heavily on March 25, every year. This meant that all farms had to be prepared with everything necessary by March 23, in readiness for planting on March 26,' said Kivuti.

This trend had been observed within the entire Embu district for ages, until three years ago when the rain patterns became unreliable.

In 2007 the rains came on Mar. 20, five days earlier. And many farmers lost their crops because of this. 'We were totally disorientated. And by the time we planted, it was too late. The rainfall subsided long before our crops became hardy enough, leading to losses that year,' said Kivuti.

However, a new report released on Sep. 6 by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) warns that the changes in weather and climatic conditions may get even worse.

It says that the erratic rainfall related to climate change will further threaten the food security and economies of many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.

While the Agricultural Market Development Trust (an organisation that works with farmers in Kenya at grass-root level) has advised farmers to prepare for planting earlier in the month due to changing rainfall patterns, according to the report this may not be a long-term solution.

The remedy, the report states, is that countries, organisations and individuals must increase their investment in diverse forms of water storage.

'Just as modern consumers diversify their financial holdings to reduce risk, smallholder farmers need a wide array of ‘water accounts’ to provide a buffer against climate change impacts,' said Matthew McCartney, the lead author of the report, in a press statement released alongside the report.

'That way, if one water source goes dry, they’ll have others to fall back on,' added McCartney, also a hydrologist at IWMI.

IWMI is a scientific research organisation focusing on the sustainable use of water and land resources in agriculture, for the benefit of poor people in developing countries. The organisation is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

The report comes at the time the World Food Program is already implementing a programme in Kenya, known as Food For Assets (FFA). The programme has seen peasant farmers from the arid and semi-arid parts of the country harvest and store water for domestic and agricultural use. The harvesting is done when it rains - flowing rain water is directed into reservoirs and stored.

Through the programme, beneficiaries of food relief are required to do some work geared to increasing food security in their community.

'In Eastern Province, we chose dam construction as a project to alleviate poverty because water has always been the setback,' said Jacobus Kiilu of ActionAid Kenya, the organisation implementing the FFA project in the area.

As a result, residents still have access to water they harvested since heavy rains subsided over five months ago. 'This is the longest period we have stayed with rain water — thanks to the dam storages,' said Mwende Kisilu, a beneficiary from Kyuso village in Eastern Kenya.

In sub Saharan Africa, the IWMI report notes, up to 94 percent of farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, yet rainfall in the region is highly unpredictable.

'Lack of predictability both in the amount and timing of rainfall makes rain-fed farming extremely tricky,' notes the report.

This is because farmers find it difficult to choose when to plant. 'If you plant your crops too early, you may run into a risk of the seeds failing to germinate in case the rainfall falters. And like in our case when we planted too late in 2007, the rain subsided before the crops matured — leading to losses,' said Kivuti.

But if governments, specifically in Africa and Asia, organisations and individuals were to take immediate action to increase investment in diverse methods of water storage, then an estimated 500 million people in Africa and India would benefit from improved agricultural water management, the report states.

Though governments of developing countries with fast-growing economies have invested heavily in large dams during the current decade, the IWMI study says that more weight should be put on a range of small-scale, well-planned storage options to improve food security.

The report cites evidence from Zimbabwe, where such basins have boosted maize yields, with or without rainfall. In Niger, such methods have greatly boosted the millet yields.

In the northeast of India’s Rajasthan State the construction of around 10,000 water harvesting structures has made it possible to irrigate close to 140 square kilometres of agricultural fields, benefiting about 70,000 people.

However, it was noted that without proper planning of water storage facilities, the perceived gains may easily become a burden. 'Badly planned storage will not only waste money but actually worsen the negative affects of climate change, for example, by providing extra breeding habitats for malaria-infected mosquitoes,' notes the report.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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