Embracing irrigation in Kenya

Irrigation in Kenya has a long history spanning over 400 years. Records reveal that irrigation in Kenya has existed for many years in West Pokot, along River Tana, and Baringo districts.

Rice irrigation activities also existed along river valleys such as Kipini, Malindi, Shimoni and Vanga. This was in the era of slave trade (19th century) where slaves were used to construct the rice schemes. Asian workers building the Mombasa–Nairobi Railway line also started some irrigation activities around Makindu and Kibwezi.

Currently, Kenya’s total irrigated area is about 80 000 hectares. Public and private small-scale irrigation is still less than 50 000 ha. The estimated potential is more than 300, 000 ha, meaning that there is a long way to go.

It was therefore, welcome news that treasury had set aside sh. 10.2 billion to expand irrigation in Kenya. And the ar

irrigation in Kenya

A river at the Aberdares

ea to be covered is a princely 1.7 million acres.

Irrigation in Kenya – the rising demand

Things are not looking good for the eastern African region in terms of food security. In fact, Oxfam has recently appealed for more funds to repel a humanitarian catastrophe due to drought.

Seeing images on TV of emaciated fellow Kenyans in the northern region is heart wrenching. And deaths due to starvation. In large, our country’s overreliance on rainfall for farming is largely to blame. But also the actions of some greedy folk that resulted in dwindled food stocks for the country.

Growing up, irrigation schemes in Kenya were quite common. We had Mwea irrigation scheme (rice), Perkerra (horticulture), Bura, Ahero, Hola, among others. Somewhere along the way however, neglect and mismanagement brought many of these to their knees. There was also a lack of funds.

Some problems hindering the growth of irrigation in Kenya

In addition to the brief mentioned above, there were other problems affecting irrigation in Kenya.

Most of these projects were funded by donors. They also designed them and chose the locations to set up the irrigation schemes. And funding problems occurred when donors reduced aid.

Other challenges include

·         Environmental problems caused by the irrigation projects themselves, e. g. high water extractions and unsustainable agricultural practices on the schemes.

·         Donor control meant that the projects were implemented on the basis of their potential for development rather than on demand for the facility. Many of the projects are no longer in operation and farmers are awaiting outside support to revive these projects.

·         General mismanagement such as deforestation and land overuse outside of schemes, and also by external factors such as climate change.

·         The competition for water resources for instance around commercial schemes at Lake Naivasha and in other regions (e. g. around Mt. Kenya) along small water courses. The result is conflicts which may turn violent, over water among commercial farms and the riparian population, upstream and downstream-users, and also farmers and wild animals.

·         Lack of development funds to farmers or involved bodies means that continuous development and maintenance of the projects is affected.

While irrigation in Kenya is needed to alleviate food insecurity, at the same time, it entails large environmental and social risks concerning the depletion of scarce water resources. And Against this background is Kenya struggling.

Ideas to enhance irrigation in Kenya

·         Forming new and strengthening existing bottom up institutions such as river water user associations with a mandate for conflict resolution and prevention. There are already existing ones at several water courses around Mt. Kenya, which could serve as a model for new foundations of such associations.

·         Enforcing regulatory measures to achieve a sustainable water use in irrigation and also giving incentives so that farmers favour an economic way to deal with water.

In Kenya the Water Resources Management Authority (WRMA) and the Irrigation Department Division (IDD) have the mandate for establishing such suitable regulatory framework. There is a need to also create bottom up institutions for the practical implementation, in particular, coordination of water uses, conflict management and local water extractions.

·         It is imperative to ensure financial and personal capability as well as the enforcement capacity of the new administrative bodies. In addition, it is important that farmers are willing to contribute to a sustainable use of water resources.

·         Availing part of the gains generated by increased water use efficiency to other water users as well as the water body concerned. This can be effected using the following additional regulatory measures:

–          Support for the efforts of river and lake institutions to coordinate individual users;

–          Coupling efficiency increases with rules requiring a reduction of the absolute quantity of water extracted or limitation on the area of the land under cultivation;

–          Enforcing 3 months-storage, install water meters or gauges and apply other regulatory tools to achieve good water management.

The extensive reforms on government schemes under the National Irrigation Board (NIB) are a pointer to government’s intention at revamping the sector. Indeed, the role of irrigation in Kenya in poverty eradication and economic development cannot be underestimated and more needs to be done.


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