Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines

TANZANIA-AGRICULTURE: Problems of Food Security

Anaclet Rwegayura

MOROGORO, Feb 18 1996 (IPS) - Theresa Mkude and other small farmers are anxiously scanning the skies for signs of rain, badly needed to ensure a good mid-year harvest in east Tanzania.

“We have seen good years and some bad years. God willing, this year I will have enough rice to fill my house,” says Mkude, who has spent all her 47 years in the Wami river valley in Morogoro. “Last year’s crop was good and this year looks very promising. Wami will soon flood and spill over” to her paddy field.

But should the Wami overflow its banks, Mkude like millions of other smallholders in Tanzania, has no means of retaining any of its water. Nor does she have any technology to fall back on in case rains expected from March to May fail.

The rains have been known to stay away, especially in the past decade, mainly because of the destruction of Tanzania’s forests.

Until recently Tanzania lost on average 400,000 ha of its natural forests a year. But an influx of refugees from Burundi (since 1993) and Rwanda (from 1994) has accelerated the devastation of woodlands in the western regions of Kagera and Kigoma. Some streams have dried up in areas where the refugees have felled trees for shelter and firewood.

While other regions have fared less badly, the climatic changes linked in part to deforestation have adversely affected most of Tanzania’s small farmers, thus eroding food security in this east African country.

“The present situation of smallholders in Tanzania is becoming increasingly difficult”, notes Nicholas Bangu, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro. “For Tanzania’s smallholder farmers to take off economically, they require additional support to acquire irrigation technology in order to maximise crop yields by applying optimal amounts of water”.

“Without coping strategies to boost the economic performance of smallholder farmers and livestock keepers, national food security will remain an unattainable goal in this country,” he warns.

According to the academic, irrigation for farming should be given top priority because, “Tanzania has a lot of rivers and lakes which have not been tapped for the welfare of the nation.”

Though practiced in a few regions, crop irrigation is not yet part and parcel of traditional farming systems throughout the country. With simple techniques of water harvesting, animal traction and use of organic manure, smallholder families in Tanzania could be assured of food self-sufficiency even during years of poor rainfall.

In order to increase the certainty of raising crops in arid zones of the country, Bangu says: “It only requires people to work a little harder” to harvest rain, runoff, flood and subsurface water for irrigation. “Even in the worst of years,

areas prone to drought can be assured of a good crop by simple application of the techniques.”

“There is no part in this country where there is no rain at all,” he says. “It is a question of distribution. From our experience, we see the variation of rainfall in terms of weeks that determines the success of a crop. If that period could be supplemented with stored water, every household would have sufficient food.

“But, nobody in government has told farmers that these techniques for collecting water are available in the country’s institutions.”

A government proposal to drain water from Lake Victoria for irrigation in the arid central zone was mooted in the 1970s, before environmental lobbies surfaced in Tanzania. Water would have flowed through a system of canals across the sandy, cotton- growing and livestock-raising regions of Mwanza and Shinyanga to the central Tanzanian plains.

The initiative never got beyond the proposal stage, apparently because it needed a compromise with the countries that share the River Nile, particularly Egypt.

While that type of irrigation is capital intensive and thus beyond the reach of individual small farmers, experts suggest that there are cheaper alternatives, like building earth embankments to trap rain water and retain it on farms for short periods.

In arid southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, micro-catchments, modelled on the lines of ‘negarim’ earth embankments developed for the Negev desert of Israel, now provide water for fodder trees and shrubs. Sokoine University of Agriculture has also been working on low-cost irrigation systems which could be applied in all farming areas of Tanzania, according to Bangu.

“You need to dig trenches with a bit of engineering and survey to estimate the water that can be retained for supplemental irrigation of food crops and vegetables,” he explained.

Farmers, however, also will need to be educated in the advantages of water harvesting.

A study by the Lesotho-based Environment and Land Management Sector Coordination Unit of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) has shown that water harvesting is more readily accepted by rural communities when its effects on production are made clear to them.

SADC comprises Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, nearly all of which have been affected by drought over the past decade. The Coordination Unit’s study stressed that no development strategy can be viable in the SADC region without a water development component.

It noted that in most of the sub-region’s arid and semi-arid zones, rainfall is usually enough to sustain one crop – millet, sorghum, maize, beans or fodder grass – every three years, but water harvesting could make that two crops every three years.

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