Sustainable water management key agriculture driver

Irrigation systems development is an expensive
Irrigation systems development is an expensive venture. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Sustainable Water MantHE Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner wrote; “Water water everywhere, but not a drop for us to drink.” Looking at the water situation in Kenya today, one might be forgiven to think that Coleridge was writing about present day Kenya.

For a sector that contributes 26 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), directly and another 27 percent of GDP indirectly through linkages with other sectors, agriculture should be the most jealously guarded of the Kenyan economy. But it is regrettable that in Kenya where agriculture is predominantly rain-fed, farmers’ access to water is often limited based on seasonal variation.

Public investments in water resources and infrastructure are not substantial enough to meet water demands in an area where people do not have the means to make use of water sources on their own. In fact, in many parts of Kenya there is plenty of water available.

Though groundwater resources such as aquifers are relatively abundant, they remain an underused resource, with less than five percent of the water used for irrigation coming from groundwater.

The challenge is therefore to increase the amount of available water that is “harvested” for agriculture. Such water harvesting can be done at the field, farm or watershed level.


The fact that our agriculture sector needs to end its reliance on rain fed agriculture and adopt irrigation for sustainability is not rocket science. But several factors stand in the way to progressive irrigation. Of these, lack of a national policy as well as a legal and institutional framework stand out as key. Kenya lacks a national policy to guide development and management of irrigation activities. The existing irrigation Act Cap 347 that created the National Irrigation Board (NIB) for the management and expansion of national irrigation schemes seems to be gathering dust on government shelves.

This is evidenced by the prevailing inadequate development of irrigation infrastructure and water storage facilities despite the existence of the National Irrigation Board.

Irrigation systems in Kenya can be classified into three broad categories. We have public schemes which are developed and centrally managed by government agencies that give farmers tenancy rights for use of the irrigation facilities for crop production activities. The second category is the smallholder community irrigation schemes that are owned, operated and managed by the farmers through their irrigation water users’ associations. We also have private schemes which comprise schemes that are developed, owned and managed by individual farmers or companies and are run as commercial enterprises.

Of these three categories, it is only the private schemes that are firing on all cylinders as the other two lag behind.

This notwithstanding, there is inadequate public and private sector collaboration in irrigation investment. Irrigation systems development is an expensive venture with infrastructure development accounting for the major share of the investment cost.