By Winnie Watera on June 12, 2017

Irrigation for a Sustainable Agricultural Development in Uganda


It is an undoubted fact that agriculture has the potential to contribute to sustainable and broad based economic growth in Africa. However, this promise is thwarted by the incessant reliance on nature’s rain, which unfortunately, has become precarious because of the changing pattern of the global climatic conditions. To avert this, it is a long held and proven view that the only solution to this conundrum is to irrigate. While it has taken long to acknowledge the role of irrigation, many African governments have now made individual efforts to expand areas of land under irrigation. In East Africa, Tanzania plays an exemplary role with 1840 square/km followed by Kenya, S.Sudan, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda with 1030, 1000, 230, 140 and 96 square/km respectively[1] under irrigation.[2]

At the recently concluded 6th Press Plenary at Hotel Africana, the State Minister of Finance – Planning, Hon. David Bahati was asked, how different the 2017/18 annual budget would from the previous ones. He said irrigation would be prioritised to promote agriculture, a policy other previous budgets had blatantly ignored.

Unfortunately, irrigation is just a fraction of the woes the sector experiences. For starters, agriculture remains one of the least funded, receiving a paltry 3.3% of the 29 trillion budget for 2017/18 with 38% allocated to NAADS[3] and a large fraction for the provision of seeds while the provision of extension services remains relatively low. The sector has also not diversified to other commodities and has banked a lot on traditional cash crops[4] causing the country to rely on narrow range of exports leaving them vulnerable when prices fluctuate at world level. For instance in the case of coffee whose earning per tonne peaked at USD 2300 in 1995 before falling to USD 800 in 1999, as a result, coffee production has never recovered despite the stable prices being experienced now. In addition, subsistence agriculture is practiced by 68% of the population[5], the markets are weak and the technology wanting.

“The budget has earmarked UGX 70 billion for irrigation…” Mr. Bahati said. A decision, clearly emanating from a number of Ugandans being food insecure as a result of depending solely on rain fed agriculture. A political threat, perhaps, as a hungry and conscious electorate is hard to contend with especially when the opposition is trying to fill that gap[6]. This deduction is premised on the fact that even while exports and GDP from the sector dwindled over the years (54% in 1989/90, 39% in 2004[7] and 28.5% in 2017) and despite being the largest employable sector (80% of the population), the government remained adamant.

The efforts by the government are welcomed because agriculture is central to the economic and social wellbeing of the country and irrigation is an important vehicle in attaining the much needed increase in productivity. However, the investments to the sector ought to be carefully calculated if we are to receive sustainable returns for and in the future. The small and large dams are quite the investment; it would be a shame if they were not put to their intended use.[8]

A host of countries is Sub-Saharan Africa are agrarian, however the respective governments are inexperienced with irrigation investments. For a country like Uganda whose infrastructural investments are largely dependent on loans from various International Financial Agencies, it’s important that we do not surpass this financial capacity we are extended, (use the loans for their intended purpose within the stimulated time-frame) and that the investment is commensurate to the other agricultural expenditures and the corresponding value/revenue generated in the agriculture sector.

A feasibility study is an important part of the equation if the allocated funds are anything to go by and I certainly hope that part of the money goes into this. This is primarily to establish potentially irrigable areas and the associated water costs for these areas. The terrain is an important factor as gravity pulls water to the crop fields, at least it is the most common technology used in such kinds of projects. In addition, investment and consumption are at different ends of the spectrum, while the former is quick to change, the latter is quite the opposite so it’s important to establish which areas are more likely to benefit from irrigation investments to maximize potential values.

Also, to answer questions like, would we rather adopt Innovative Irrigation Approaches that are simple, cost effective and affordable and can easily be implemented by a farmer or group of farmers rather than the grand irrigation projects? ‘Have locals been sensitized about the benefits of irrigation as opposed to reliance on rain? Depending on government’s stand. Does the Bugisu mountainous area need the same irrigation investment as Karamoja? Have the potential beneficiaries been established; subsistence farmers who are a majority or the minority commercial farmers to whom the technology is affordable? Who will run the dams, the locals or the government in order to sustain them overtime? Such questions and more should be answered before sinking large amounts in the projects. The idea would be to pilot the projects and scale up after cost benefit analyses have provided results to that effect.

Another important factor to consider is the line Ministry mandated to take lead on irrigation between the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal industry and Fisheries (MAAIF). Both Ministries have provisions for water for production, MAAIF with an allocation of UGX: 67 billion and MWE with UGX: 23 billion. Basing on the policy framework and infrastructure already existent under the MWE, it is logical that it handles the irrigation investment. Besides, the Agricultural sector is heavy and over stretched and in dire need of restructuring. This works to prevent duplication of the roles currently being experienced by the Ministries and the subsequent bureaucratic tendencies because of the uncertainty on which handles what.

The question of local content ought to be taken seriously as many of these large infrastructural projects are aimed among other things at providing employment and incomes for young locals. Unfortunately, as seen in a number of road projects, the local content is minimal ranging from the procurement of consultants, raw materials required to even the labour for construction. Government should take with serious caution the threat unemployment causes especially if its policies are favouring non-nationals. The issue of technical expertise is something the government ought to have worked on by now.

Whereas irrigation is a viable solution for increased agricultural productivity it’s not the silver bullet that solves all the problems in the sector. Asia did but also improved on infrastructure as well as other corresponding factors and as a result experienced insurmountable rates of growth. It is pertinent that investments in irrigation are properly targeted and accompanied by complementary improvements in other agricultural inputs like the use of fertilizer, environmentally friendly pesticides and herbicides, low cost technologies and extension services for the farmers. The agricultural sector requires streamlining to eliminate duplication tendencies and the government needs to augment its financial contributions complemented by the political will to ensure success.

Winnie Watera works as a Programme Associate at Parliament Watch Uganda

[2]World fact book 2012

[3] Budget Framework Paper 2017/18

[4] Coffee, tea, tobacco and cotton

[5] The State of Nation Address 2016

[6] FDC delivers food to Karamoja

[7] UBOS statistical Abstract 1997, 1997, 2004

[8] The 1999 Karamoja Valley Dam Development Scandal

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