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Why irrigation needs to think smaller to save Kenyan pastoralism

‘As policymakers consider irrigation investments in the drylands, the past disappointing experiences of large-scale schemes must be taken into account.’

People are pictured taking water from wells. Obi Anyadike/TNH

There is much talk about investing in irrigation in Kenya’s drylands, a vast swathe of perennially drought-threatened territory. The idea of greening the “desert”, boosting food production, and creating new livelihoods is a compelling one.

But a note of caution: The type and organisation of irrigation that’s being pushed really matters. Will such irrigation projects integrate with pastoral livelihoods, which dominate the region, or displace and undermine them? 

We present two contrasting scenarios. The first is large-scale irrigation schemes, based on the construction of large dams and oriented towards commercial production either for food or export-oriented crops. The second is an approach that supports small-scale irrigation, and complements diversified pastoral livelihoods – the core of the local economy and society.

As in much of the rest of the world, it is the first scenario that is currently being advocated, with large infrastructure projects already announced. However, each approach has very different implications for longer-term development in the drylands – the home to 70% of Kenya’s livestock

A dismal track-record with high costs

Large-scale irrigation projects do not have a good track-record, either in Kenya or more widely. In the colonial era, many were built and most failed. Why? The basic answer is that they did not fit within the socio-ecological conditions of dryland areas. 

Pastoralism is a productive agricultural system because it can manage climate uncertainty. Irrigation cannot: It must rely on predictable flows of water to irrigated plots, and so depends on stable and plentiful supplies of water. 

This is very costly, and most irrigation projects have not made good returns on the investment – especially if the costs of infrastructure development are accounted for. Many of the dams that have been built over the years have silted up and became non-functional. 

Part of the sustainability of pastoralism is its adaptability. Pastoralists who become irrigators may do so only temporarily, typically using irrigation schemes to rebuild their herds after drought.

Large-scale agricultural irrigation schemes often make a loss. Even if they can be important for drought relief, they do not prove sustainable in the longer-term.

The relationships between livestock keeping and farming is always dynamic, and many irrigation schemes set up under a host of resilience projects have suffered through lack of engagement in the good years – often falling into disrepair – while people flock to them during droughts.

This makes large-scale schemes – that require the labour and commitment of a fixed number of landholders to keep them going – difficult to run in pastoralist areas, where mobility is key to survival.

In sum, large-scale agricultural irrigation schemes often make a loss. Even if they can be important for drought relief, they do not prove sustainable in the longer-term, and rarely deliver as promised.

But for a more complete cost-benefit analysis of irrigation interventions, we must also look at the “opportunity costs” of requisitioning land and water for irrigation. How might such resources be otherwise used? Is this use ultimately more valuable?

The opportunity costs of large-scale irrigation

Not surprisingly, irrigation projects are sited in places that have access to water. These are ‘key resources’ in dryland systems, where livestock, wildlife, and people go when there is no sustenance elsewhere. 

These drought reserves – essentially groundwater banks – keep the system going. Without them, the whole system can collapse as mobile livestock (or wildlife in conservation areas) cannot survive in the wider, dry landscape without access. Requisitioning such areas for irrigation projects – as well as damming rivers to create large water sources – can be catastrophic.

A study from the Awash region of Ethiopia shows how the investment in irrigated sugar production produced far lower returns than pastoralism if the wider system was taken into account. Equally, in the lower Omo valley in Ethiopia, large dams built for irrigation have displaced pastoralists, causing deprivation and poverty, again resulting in large costs to the community, and also the state when relief has to be supplied. 

An alternative scenario that compliments pastoralism

So, what are the alternatives to the standard model of building dams and large-scale irrigation? As pastoral systems adapt to climate heating, there is an increasing need for diversified livelihoods to complement mobile livestock rearing. This is especially so in drought periods, as we have seen in the past few years of back-to-back failed rains.

In such circumstances, access to irrigation can be crucial. Such irrigation, however, is very different to the large-scale schemes currently being envisaged. These are small, irrigated plots, using local water resources, without major infrastructural development, and they rely on largely informal, community-based management, rather than the bureaucratic systems of large-scale (and some smaller-scale) schemes.

Many pastoral groups have long been involved in irrigation, but with commitments varying over time, depending on their needs.

And most crucially, such farmer-led irrigation is integrated within pastoral systems. Irrigated agriculture thus becomes part of a portfolio of diversified livelihoods, not an “alternative” livelihood to replace pastoralism – a lifestyle and economy that both governments and development partners have historically viewed as anachronistic.

There is much experience with small-scale irrigation in pastoral areas, ranging from indigenous systems of water harvesting to arrangements with greater investment. Many pastoral groups have long been involved in irrigation, but with commitments varying over time, depending on their needs.

Many adopt cultivation to remain pastoralists, investing surpluses in restocking after droughts. Today, solar pumping allows relatively cheap installation of water supplies, which are easily maintained at low cost.

The area irrigated is usually small, between one and five hectares, and the costs per unit of land relatively low. The water and land can therefore be shared with livestock, and the vital resource is not disconnected from users.

Small, pastoralist-led, community-run irrigation schemes with individual plots can be managed flexibly, as they are not geared to a particular crop. Mixes of vegetables, fruits, staples, and fodder crops can be planted depending on the season and demand.

This is an important complementary livelihood and can be a critical source of income, especially for women. Having supplementary fodder in times of drought can also be crucial for livestock keepers.

With increasing pressure on resources in dryland areas, exacerbated by climate heating, the old system of relying exclusively on mobile livestock is fast-disappearing. But this does not mean pastoralism is finished.

Far from it: Livestock keeping in the drylands is the most productive, sustainable form of land-use on offer. Replacing pastoralism with large-scale irrigation schemes will not work – as past experience shows – but appropriate irrigation systems may have an important place in pastoral systems of the future.

Integrating irrigation within pastoral systems

Today, pastoralists must adapt to changing conditions: shifting their patterns of movement, increasing access to fodder supplements, and diversifying income and food sources, for instance.

This is already happening, and small-scale irrigation can be part of this, integrated into pastoral systems in ways that support them rather than destroying them.

As policymakers consider irrigation investments in the drylands, the past disappointing experiences of large-scale schemes must be taken into account – alongside a wider appreciation of the costs of removing land and water from pastoral systems.

A more sustainable – more effective and compatible alternative – exists through investments in locally-managed, small-scale irrigation that complements rather than destroys pastoral systems.

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