More irrigation, less migration

Investing in irrigation in Africa’s semi-arid areas could stem the flow of migrants from the continent across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe and significantly curb urban migration, the African Union has found.

The AU commissioned a study on the rate of migration and its causes in rural areas in semi-arid countries such as Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Chad. Its findings show that a shortage of water for crops has driven many young people away from the agriculture industry.

The study found that increasingly erratic rainfall and encroaching desertification on arable land is forcing people out of rural areas into cities, said Mure Agbonlahor, the AU’s semi-arid food and grain research and development officer.

“Ninety-two percent of the semi-arid regions are rain-fed. That’s very bad. It’s terrible actually. If you look at the rainfall duration, it’s normally less than three months,” Agbonlahor said on the sidelines of the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, earlier this month.

“We have found that the migration across the Mediterranean is linked to the decreasing rainfall in semi-arid regions. And the people migrating are mainly the youth,” he said.

The findings were described as “worrisome” at the conference. The World Bank’s agriculture global practice director, Simeon Ehui, said: “Eighty percent of the people live in rural areas and about 60% of them derive their income from agriculture.

“When you don’t have any opportunities for people to develop and when there is no irrigation for agriculture, you see people moving across the continent and to Europe.”

Farmers in these regions have started cultivating drought-resistant sorghum and millet because of decreasing rainfall, Agbonlahor said. But this has not been enough to stem the flow of people to the cities.

African countries have lagged behind other developing countries such as India, which has reduced its reliance on rain-fed agriculture by cultivating farmer-led irrigation systems such as water pumps from rivers, boreholes and water storage.

Only 4% of the continent’s agriculture is under irrigation and the rest of the continent relies on rainwater to grow crops, Rwanda’s prime minister, Anastase Murekezi, said at the forum’s opening.


Tushaar Shah, of the International Water Management Institute in Anand, India, said that in sub-Saharan Africa the potential for irrigation farming is untapped because the region has billions of cubic litres of groundwater. “But because groundwater is viewed as a fragile resource [in Africa] and left to the nongovernmental agencies to develop, South Asia has been able to capitalise from it and increase irrigation to around 80% of its agriculture [because governments have invested in irrigation], while sub-Saharan Africa’s irrigation remains at 4%.”

Drought and unpredictable weather patterns were blamed for the contraction of 29% of South Africa’s agriculture sector in the last quarter.

The Western Cape produces most of the country’s winter crops and high-value horticultural crops such as fruits and vegetables. Agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo said the drought in that province worsened the outlook for agriculture in the country because of a late harvest in the other regions.

“The key issue is the delayed harvest in the summer crop-growing areas of South Africa, particularly the grain and oil seed production regions. This is on the back of a late start of the summer crop season due to unfavourable weather conditions earlier in the year,” he said.

In East Africa, farmers have faced similar weather patterns and arrived at the Kigali agriculture conference looking for answers.

The Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, which represents 20-million farmers in 10 countries, described the past two years as its most devastating and said it could no longer depend on predictable rainfall and a stable water supply. “We only received one week of water last season, even though the forecast said we were supposed to receive two months of rain,” the federation’s Stephen Muchiri said. “We are now forced to look for alternative ways to water our crops. The problem is we cannot afford these pumps because they are up to $300. So we are forced to rely on the big government projects.

Tanzania’s minister of agriculture, Charles Tizeba, said: “There are 94-million hectares of arable land currently being farmed in Tanzania, of which only 45 000 hectares are being farmed with an irrigation system. In the past our government has invested in large irrigation systems. But out of 2400 systems, only 906 are currently functioning.”

Most of these large-scale irrigation projects, into which government has invested, had failed, he said, because the cost of maintaining the sprinklers and pumps was left to the state.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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