Making irrigation work for Africa: 10 questions decision makers should ask

The good news is that the international community is showing renewed interest in African agriculture. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme has ambitions to expand irrigation by a third over the next decade and the private sector is also being courted. The current wave of commercial agricultural investments and commitments to common objectives, such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, are touted as new opportunities to unlock Africa’s potential.

But investments in irrigation infrastructure alone are not enough to secure agricultural futures. We recently completed a review of the history of irrigation policy and practice in Africa, focusing on Ethiopia, Morocco and Mozambique.

Our results reveal that many irrigation projects miss basic, yet vital, ingredients for success. These include enough finance for routine maintenance, market access and reliable water supplies, among other factors. On the other hand, technically and financially successful commercial projects can be captured by elite interests, and may deprive local communities and pastoralists of traditional land and water resources, undermining their livelihoods. These problems are well documented.

If irrigation is to boost food production and reduce poverty in Africa, lesson-learning is needed. We propose 10 questions that every decision maker should ask of the irrigation proposal on their desk, whatever the source of finance:

  1. Is the project aligned with national policy objectives?

Justification(s) for the project should be clear and transparent. Given the political sensitivities of ‘land grabs’, ‘water grabs’ and accusations of corruption in infrastructure projects, decision-makers can protect themselves by ensuring there is a strong case for each project in terms of alignment with policy objectives. A single project may not meet all objectives, but can be assessed in terms of its fit with a broader portfolio of investments.

  1. Are there better uses for the water?

Growing African populations and economies will increase demand and competition for water. Allocating water to irrigation may have significant opportunity costs in coming decades, especially in drylands where water is already scarce. For example in the Souss Massa basin, in Morocco, many farmers rely on water intensive crops in a context of increasing demand from other water-using sectors and recurrent droughts. Perennial crops, such as citrus, are commercially valuable but they are also ‘lock-in’ demand for water as they take several years to mature.

  1. Who are the winners and losers?

Irrigation schemes often reallocate land, water, and financial resources, and so they are notoriously prone to elite capture, where those who are already wealthy reap the most benefits. Pastoralists in Ethiopia’s Awash Basin lost some of their customary land and water rights as a result of commercial cotton and sugar plantations, for example. Decision-makers should ask how the beneficiaries of the scheme were selected, whether any public subsidy is justified, and who will ultimately pay for it, either in terms of dollars or water.

  1. Is there enough evidence to understand the trade-offs involved?

Irrigation projects cannot be all things to all people. Their design and execution will involve trade-offs between different interests and objectives, which means that decision-makers have to make difficult choices. For example, the promotion of export-orientated irrigation to drive economic growth may have little direct benefit for poor communities. Decisions need to be transparent and informed by the best available evidence, to avoid political biases.

  1. Were irrigation users involved in the project design?

Decision makers need to build on local institutions, farmer priorities and incentives, rather than impose engineering-led ‘solutions’. In the Awash Basin the informal private sector is expanding rapidly, whereas government investments in smallholder irrigation have often performed poorly. Some pro-poor initiatives inadvertently exclude those they want to reach. For example, a recent paper describes how small farmers in Morocco struggle with bureaucratic requirements, such as filing land deeds, to access subsidies for new technologies. Involving end-users in the design of policies and projects reduces the likelihood of such barriers, and can contribute positively to point 7.

  1. Does the project account for other water users?

Many river basins are coming under pressure as competition for water resources grows. In the Awash basin of Ethiopia, uncoordinated development and poor regulation mean that upstream water withdrawals affect downstream users, particularly in the dry season. Safeguards are needed to ensure domestic and environmental needs can be met, with rules in place to allocate water between different uses and users. The institutional plumbing of rights and enforcement is just as important as the physical plumbing of pipes and channels.

  1. Is there a feasible technical, managerial and financial plan for operations and maintenance?

Farmers are often expected to manage water distribution and pay for system upkeep. In practice, farmers often struggle with both, and may see little connection between the fees they pay and the services they receive. Strengthening the accountability of system managers to users is key, whether the scheme is in public or private hands.

  1. Is there a market for the produce?

To be financially lucrative, irrigation schemes should be linked to markets. In Morocco, successful state irrigation schemes are associated with investments in food processing and marketing. In Ethiopia, farmers close to the main routes to Addis Ababa and other urban centres find irrigated vegetable production is very profitable, in contrast to those in remote rural areas, who often grow subsistence crops. In locations where irrigation projects are being planned, investments in transport, storage and market information systems may be necessary to make irrigation viable in the first place.

  1. Is the project climate-proof?

Technical designs and management arrangements should account for flood and drought risks. Will there be sufficient water for farmers to irrigate, and if so where will the water come from, and who will go without during times of scarcity? How can the impacts of floods be mitigated? In Morocco, irrigation schemes receiving water from multi-use dams find that in drought years water is prioritised for drinking water – just when farmers need it most. In Mozambique, the Chókwè scheme has been severely damaged by floods – a predictable risk. Improvements to design, warning systems, or financial planning could reduce these risks.

  1. Is there a clear framework for measuring performance?

Our study found that most schemes had poorly defined goals, targets and performance indicators. Without a clear framework for evaluating success, projects can lose their sense of direction and purpose, making it difficult to assess their contribution to national policy objectives, or hold managers to account.

To conclude, a badly designed project can leave farmers and other water users worse off than they were before. But well-designed irrigation projects have the potential to lift millions out of poverty, meet growing demand for food and strengthen climate resilience. Asking tougher questions of irrigation projects – and those proposing them – is long overdue.

Read the working paper and summary version

Pathways to irrigation development in Africa – insights from Ethiopia, Morocco and Mozambique

More on irrigation in Africa

View our irrigation theme


Image: Chókwè irrigation scheme, Mozambique (copyright: Beatrice Mosello)