Every drop counts

Fifteen-Litre buckets used by small scale vegetable farmers for a drip irrigation system in semi-arid Malawi.

Fifteen-Litre buckets used by small-scale vegetable farmers for a drip irrigation system in semi-arid Malawi.

The effects of climate change are hitting the developing world hard. Effects like increased drought incidence, shorter growing seasons, and less overall rainfall are already impacting agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, which mean that improved water-use efficiency should become a priority.

In Southern Africa, many countries have been experiencing mid-season dry spells that can last for about 2-3 weeks. Irrigation has been one of the only ways to avoid crop failure, and it is a technology which can deliver higher yields to bolster farmer incomes and ultimately improve livelihoods.

Many irrigation schemes, however depend on flood and/or overhead sprinkler irrigation systems that are not the most efficient. Neither can most smallholder farmers afford such schemes due to the high start-up costs involved, even though they are the ones most affected by water scarcity.

Drip irrigation can be an economical way to improve water-use efficiency in crop production. With drip irrigation water is supplied directly to the base of the plant, both saving water that would normally be lost to evaporation and decreasing weed prevalence. Fertilizer efficiency has also been seen to improve enormously with drip irrigation, and the incidences of diseases associated with moisture on plant leaves and stems(rust, early and late blight) is reduced. The drip systems even save on energy costs because they only depend on gravity for the needed water pressure.

The combination of these factors means that drip irrigation systems greatly increase crop productivity. These systems are easily affordable by smallholder farmers because they can make use of locally available, inexpensive materials. Even line maintenance just requires semi-skilled labour and minimal experience.

These systems have been used widely in horticultural crop production by farmers, and they would seem to be a worthy prospect for further investment from governments.

Drip irrigation is just another example of an innovative way to improve on household food and nutritional security, and one step down the road towards Africa feeding Africa.

Blogpost by Armwell Shumba, a social media reporter for AASW6.

Photo: Malawiprojectdirector

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