Rwanda's irrigation plan to boost agriculture faces challenges

Sunday December 24 2017

Many regions of the Rwanda’s hilly topography

Many regions of the Rwanda’s hilly topography have massive groundwater resources. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NATION 

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Data gaps on ground and aquifer water levels are a stumbling block to tapping into the country’s pumping irrigation potential. This is hampering the government’s plans to tap into the country’s water resources to maximise agriculture production.

A team of experts has been identifying appropriate irrigation technologies for the different regions in the country, such as river diversions, pumping from underground sources and rainwater harvesting, among others.

This was part of a project that seeks to tackle hunger and poverty through agricultural water management. It is spearheaded by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and other partners.

The mapping exercise, currently in the validation phase, has identified 13 zones in the country, their associated water resource potential, suitable irrigation infrastructure and farming typologies, which will be useful for the government and prospective investors.

The group of experts found that many regions in the country’s hilly topography have massive groundwater resources feeding aquifers, which can be pumped out for agricultural use.

Information gaps
However, there were critical information gaps on volume and depths of the aquifers.

“For now, the information we have is on the description and specific yield of the aquifers, but we don’t know the depths of the water table in the country.

If you are looking to invest in pumping the groundwater, the depths play a critical part in your costing,” said Mark Manyifika, a water expert who provided technical support in the mapping.

Experts say these data gaps are crucial since underground water resources are not limitless, and their effective management needs to be based on their quantification to guard against a water crisis.

“I think we should practise caution on ground water pumping, because we don’t know much about the resources or the risks of drilling because we could dry up some of our aquifers,” said Bernard Musana, an expert in the irrigation and water management sub-sector.

The country’s topography offers an average precipitation estimated at 1,400mm per year, translating into multi-million cubic metres of water every year and several water bodies.

Available figures show the country uses less than two per cent of these water resources at the expense of growing demand for water by millions of largely rain-fed smallholder farmers across the country. Experts say the country could ensure year-round cultivation by harnessing these resources.

Otto Muhinda, the assistant FAO representative to Rwanda said knowing the country’s irrigation potent is key to not only deciding interventions that can boost smallholder farming, but also stimulate investments in the agriculture sector.

The country currently practises irrigation on 48,500ha, but the government plans to expand this to 102,281ha in the next six years as per the developed fourth plan for agriculture transformation.

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