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Talking Point


This space is dedicated to expert comment and opinion on issues surrounding climate & environment, infrastructure and livelihoods. The page is updated regularly with contributions from top academics and people on the front line of development work, and we want to hear your thoughts on what they say, too. So if you'd like to contribute a talking point or comment on something you've read below then email enquiries@evidenceondemand.org and join the debate...

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Small is flawed? Reflections on micro-irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa

By Professor Bruce Lankford, School of International Development,
University of East Anglia

Currently finding popularity with a number of NGOs and donors such as the International Crops Research institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), two types of micro-irrigation technology nevertheless raise a number of questions that throw doubt on their livelihood-friendly qualities and ability to deliver grain food security.

Human operated treadle-pumps and micro-drip using raised buckets are promulgated as technologies that, with support, can be purchased by small-scale producers to cultivate vegetables for home consumption and local markets. Some authors even suggest these technologies may play a significant role in irrigation and contribute towards food security in Africa (World Bank 2009). While there are peri-urban sites with accessible local water sources that lend themselves to potential success, a more critical examination reveals a number of concerns:

  • On a per hectare basis, the combined technologies are costly, amounting to approximately 5000 to 9000 US$/ha. This is comparable with larger canal systems, and cannot be characterised as 'low-cost' especially as they have only a 2-4 year useful life.
  • The technologies require humans to lift water 1-2 metres, which on a per hectare basis represents a substantial energy demand. Gravity or animal energy should be sought where possible.
  • The technologies, best used for row-crop vegetables, cannot be used to irrigate field crops (maize, rice) and therefore secure grain food security.

An African-wide policy on irrigated food security and related livelihoods should seek a balanced approach in the promotion of water control and distribution technology.

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