I was fascinated to read in The Daily Times of January 11 2016 that government was implementing irrigation projects starting with areas along Lake Malawi. We cannot stress enough the need for irrigation. Because of climate change, prospects for normal rainfall will continue to be opaque.
Malawi is endowed with plenty of resources— beautiful mountains, hills, and valleys; and a lake that spans almost the whole length of the country. Is it not paradoxical that crops along the lake should wilt with drought when the water body is close enough to touch?
I know that efforts are being made to diversify the economy through mining, manufacturing and tourism, among others. This is commendable. However, agriculture has been the central watershed for our economic streams and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. We, therefore, need to direct our energies to this sector. One way is through implementation of irrigation.
For the country to implement irrigation, there is need for a whole comprehensive plan, detailing out, among others, the targeted areas, the cost, the source of funding, and the time scales. According to Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Allan Chiyembekeza, the irrigation projects along the lake were part of the implementation of the country’s “first-ever Irrigation and Investment Master Plan” launched last year. This presupposes that a plan has been crafted. And that is good.
Then there is the issue of cost. According to the minister, the six newly developed irrigation schemes in Karonga and Chitipa cost $593 million (about K415 billion). That is a lot of money. Now, imagine criss-crossing the whole country with irrigation pipes. And then there is the money to maintain the infrastructure. The whole financial requirement is extremely large and almost forbidding. The point is that, because of financial limitations, we can only do it in phases, starting with high impact areas. Also, as suggested by the minister, the private sector should come in and make their contribution in this national cause.
Needless to say, irrigation also requires power. Currently, Escom produces only 351 megawatts. There is, therefore, need to increase power output. It is interesting to note that the six new irrigation schemes are being driven by solar power. I have also read in the papers about plans to establish a coal-fired power plant. The point is clear. There is need for a convergence of technologies. Solar power, hydro-generated power and coal-driven power, all need to come wrapped together as a package, and should be mutually reinforcing in supporting the implementation of irrigation and other national development projects. That said, however, I noted in the article that government prefers solar power. Although the reason was not given, it must be the cost. And government is right. To pump the water through the pipes requires a lot of power, which costs money. I know, for example, that in the recent past, Blantyre Water Board was paying nearly half of its revenues to Escom for electricity bills in pumping the water from the Shire River to Blantyre. Now, with irrigation, who would meet the colossal electricity bills? On the other hand, solar power is free!
The article also mentioned other sources of water, including rivers, to support irrigation. This is important. Because such other sources are dotted all around the country, it would help reduce the distance from the source to the targeted area, with the corresponding benefits of reduced capital outlay and power requirements. However, such sources may not be sustainable in the long term as they dry up due in part to deforestation. There is, therefore, need for parallel programmes of reforestation and economic empowerment of the rural masses. Is it not amazing how things are inseparably interconnected?
The implementation by government of the new irrigation schemes is, therefore, worthy of applause. Full implementation of the plan may take a long time, but, as they say, even the longest journey starts with a single step. n
The author is director of finance and administration for Malawi Posts Corporation