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Kenyan irrigation scheme offers solutions but raises questions

Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta at the innauguration of the Galana-Kulalu food project in Tana river district. PSCU
Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta at the inauguration of the Galana-Kulalu food project in Tana river district.
One of the largest irrigation schemes in Kenya’s history, the recently launched 400,000-hectare Galana-Kulalu Food Security Project, will focus on the production of crops, livestock and fish for both domestic consumption and export.

But will the project succeed in its stated aim of alleviating the country’s persistent food deficit while creating a million jobs? Or will it turn out to be another white elephant that lines the pockets of a well-connected few?

“Previous [irrigation] projects could not survive since the communities were not involved. They felt short-changed. We were given a raw deal. Only a few people benefitted,” Jefferson Kingi, the governor of Kilifi, told IRIN. Kilifi and Tana River are the two counties set to host the project.

“Massive projects such as this, like many others, are always opportunities for government officials and corrupt politicians to make quick money. It is incumbent upon the government to ensure it is not hijacked by corruption cartels,” PLO Lumumba, a constitutional lawyer and anti-corruption activist, told IRIN.

The government has already allocated some US$42 million to finance the first phase of the project.


Local activists and leaders told IRIN the government must move with speed to address underlying issues, among them tension between the pastoralist Orma and farming Pokomo communities of Tana River County.

“Already tension is rife between Orma and Pokomo. If the government wants to spur development in the region, the two communities should be involved in the project from the onset,” said Julius Fondo, an activist with Margarini Community Development Programme (MCDP).

Tana River is one of the least-developed and worst-served counties in Kenya, making it susceptible to inter-communal clashes over natural resources. Politicians in the area have also been accused of inciting violence to chase away supporters of rival candidates.

Elections in 2013 installed governments and legislatures in all of Kenya’s 47 counties, in line with a devolutionary constitution adopted three years earlier

Governor Kingi said, “We want 70 percent of [irrigation project] jobs to go to the locals. This is the only way of bringing [the] true meaning of devolved system of government. The locals also want the project to be an out-growers scheme where they can freely farm and sell produce.”

He added: “Normally people fight the projects not because they don’t want them but because they are not involved. Like now, we want 250,000 acres of the land spared as a grazing corridor and for animals to access River Gallana.”

Enock Mwani, an agricultural economist at the University of Nairobi, said, “The government must not unsettle people’s lifestyle by imposing this project on them. It will only succeed if they fit into people’s lifestyle and not the other way round. Pastoralists must be allowed to continue with pastoralism and agriculturalists must fit with that lifestyle.”

Government officials told IRIN that local communities will be involved at every stage of the Galana-Kulalu project. Already, the Ministry of Agriculture has set aside some 150 million Kenyan shillings ($1,742,160) to build water pans for pastoralist communities living in the area.

Kenya's previous large-scale irrigation schemes
Bura Irrigation Scheme - Situated in the coastal region, this scheme started in 1953. It collapsed in 1989 when farmers abandoned cotton growing as a result of poor returns.
Hola Irrigation Scheme - This scheme, also in the coast region, failed because of difficulties ensuring a reliable water supply and problems with water pumping.
Ahero Irrigation Scheme - This project was initiated in western Kenya in 1966 for rice farming. It collapsed in 1995 after years of mismanagement and poor returns, but was revived in 2005.
Perkera Irrigation Scheme - This project began in 1952 in Kenya's Rift Valley Province. Just 2,000 acres of the scheme's 25,800 acres has been developed for gravity-furrow irrigation. Out of this, just 1,500 acres is under cultivation, largely due to water shortages.
“We will ensure the project takes into account the lifestyle of the local communities,” Felix Kosgey, the cabinet secretary for agriculture, told IRIN.

The government projects an annual maize harvest from the project of some four million tons.


“The River Tana, which I believe will be the source of the water for irrigation, might get depleted, and this will lead to more conflicts as fights over water will be more common now,” economist Mwani told IRIN.

“The only challenge is availability of water for irrigation. Currently, the country has four main drainage areas, but statistics show that the effects of climate change and human activity have depleted the water catchments,” said Mathew Dida, a food security expert in Maseno University.

According to the National Irrigation Board, part of the project will include “water storage and utilization of the available water and utilization of other natural resources to ensure economically, socially and environmentally viable crop, livestock and fisheries enterprises alongside eco-tourism activities within the Galana and Kulalu Ranches are successful.”

In the face of population growth, erratic weather conditions brought by climate change, low soil fertility, crop disease and declining farm productivity, Kenya continues to grapple with food shortages.

According to the 2012-2013 Short Rains Season Assessment Report by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG), as of February 2013, about 2.1 million people were receiving food-related assistance in 29 districts.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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