In a publication in World Water Policy, researchers Issaka Osman and Gaoh Aboubacar evaluate the current state of development of micro irrigation, an important technology for food security and climate resilience in the Sahelian country Niger. Irrigation is seen as the best way to increase food production and reduce the vulnerability of the country to climate change in Niger following the food crises in the country in 2005 and 2010. Small scale irrigation has developed in the country since 2010 and the production of food through irrigated agriculture with irrigated has more than doubled between 2017 and 2020. However, many challenges remain on the path to food security, and this article sheds light on the progress achieved and remaining challenges for the sector going forward.
The authors note a marked shift in Niger’s approach to irrigated agriculture over time, from large scale, state sponsored irrigation schemes in the decades after independence in 1960, to a farmer oriented approach after 2000, which, amongst others, allowed the growth of small scale irrigation.
The availability of water in Niger varies strongly from place to place: the country is semi-arid and average rainfall in the southwest is 821 mm per annum, compared with just 15.9 mm in the north east. Over the decades there has actually been an improvement in average rainfall recorded, but overall projections are uncertain and show the likelihood of both dry periods and wet periods increasing. Despite the aridity of the country, it has a fairly large irrigation potential with 270,000 hectares of land that could be irrigated. However, currently only about 30% of this potential has been realised.
From 2015, a national strategy was developed to provide harmonised and coordinated support for small scale irrigation aimed at increased and more efficient production, improved incomes, rational management of land and water resources, and coordinated access to markets. This marked a significant change in direction relative to the focus on large scale systems that had been in place previously. From 1990, though, farmer-led irrigation schemes had been supported by the World Bank, FAO and others, providing training and technical and financial support to cooperatives. The use of drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the root zone of plants and is 90-95% water efficient, profitable and with a low environmental impact, has expanded significantly. This has been assisted by training courses in drip irrigation provided by the National Network of Chambers of Agriculture.
However, the majority of producers still use traditional techniques for irrigation, which are water inefficient. They are generally constrained financially from switching to drip irrigation, as this is generally associated with groundwater extraction which can have high associated costs. Financing and access to credit remain obstacles to expansion, although a fund for investment in food security and nutrition has been established. Given the vulnerability of agriculture in the Sahel to climate change, climate services in agriculture are also needed to help farmers select the right crop varieties, and initiatives are underway to support vulnerable sectors.
In conclusion, the authors point out that major steps have been taken in Niger to transform the irrigation sector away from the large scale state led systems and towards farmer led, small scale systems. There has been a notable expansion of micro-irrigation which can be attributed to the support provided by technical and financial partners. To improve further, changes will be needed to strengthen water resources management, strengthen farmers’ capacities, provide adequate financial support and strengthen the science-policy interface to provide effective services that can increase food security and improve the resilience of agricultural production to climate change.