Problems Plague Ambitious Irrigation Plan in Africa Tanzania hopes to jump-start its agricultural production by dramatically increasing the use of irrigation. But existing schemes have had significant, but unintended, consequences: power outages, dried-up rivers, and little, if any, growth in crop yields.
NPR logo

Problems Plague Ambitious Irrigation Plan in Africa

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Problems Plague Ambitious Irrigation Plan in Africa

Problems Plague Ambitious Irrigation Plan in Africa

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In East Africa the country of Tanzania wants to grow more food, and it wants to dramatically increase the use of irrigation to do it. The government there plans to quadruple the amount of irrigated land over the next four years to almost 2.5 million acres. But irrigation has had some unintended consequences in Tanzania. For months there were rolling electricity blackouts after water was diverted from hydroelectric plants to fields to grow rice. NPR's Jason Beaubien has the second part of his series on agriculture in Africa.


Tanzania has lots of water. It's bordered to the West by Lake Tanganyika, to the South there's Lake Malawi and the Revuma River, which marks the border with Mozambique. To the Northwest Africa's largest lake, Lake Victoria, divides Tanzania from Uganda. Plus Tanzania lies just below the equator and there's usually plenty of rainfall. So it doesn't seem like a place that would be fighting over water, but it is.

Farmers want more water to grow rice and other crops year round. Cattle herders need it for their pastures and for their thirsty animals. The electricity grid demands it to power its hydroelectric dams. But Tanzania's water is already overstretched, and rivers that used to run all year have started to dry up.

(Soundbite of water)

BEAUBIEN: In 2003 the World Bank funded the construction of an irrigation scheme on the Mapagora(ph) River in the highlands of the Southwestern Tanzania. The set of cement locks in lined canals replaced the series of traditional Earth and irrigation ditches that had been used to draw water out of the river for decades.

Ms. DELPHINA MWILO (Tanzanian Resident): (Speaking in Foreign Language)

BEAUBIEN: 45 year old, Delphina Mwilo(ph) says before the irrigation scheme was built she was getting 25 to 30 bags of rice per acre. Now under the so-called improved scheme, she says she gets 15 bags per acre if she's lucky.

Ms. MWILO: (Speaking in Foreign Language)

BEAUBIEN: I don't know why this is happening, she says, but it's just not enough water that's coming down the canals. Under the old scheme Mwilo's rice patties got far more water than they do now because she was close to the river. The new system moves the water further away and allows other farmers to plant rice in places where they never could have before. But to get this water into the new fields the system, at times, diverts the entire flow of the Mapagora River into the irrigation canals. Willie Morovanda(ph) is the government's top water official for the Rufiji Basin which includes the Mapagora River. With rain pounding down on his office, Morovanda says conflicts over water have been increasing in Tanzania particularly between farmers and hydroelectricity producers.

Mr. WILLIE MOROVANDA (Tanzanian Water Official, Rufiji Basin): The Refuge Basin is the largest producer of electricity in our country. So, but unfortunately, the electricity increase declines downstream the irrigation schemes, so they normally complain that water has been overused, electricity used upstream by irrigation or other uses.

BEAUBIEN: One of those hydro plants has been shut down for most of 2006 because its reservoir has run dry. The other one has been generating far below capacity. These two dams normally produce 70percent of Tanzania's electricity. As a result, the country's been hit with crippling power outages. Morovanda says the hydro reservoirs have never been as low as they were earlier this year.

Despite these problems the government is pushing forward with the plan to quadruple the amount of irrigated land in the country over the next four years. The irrigation expansion plan is part of Tanzania's official poverty reduction strategy. More than three quarters of Tanzanians work in agriculture, most as substance farmers. The government hopes that with more water these extremely poor farmers can grow more crops and earn a bit more money.

There's been little debate, however, about what effect dramatically increasing irrigation could have on the country's electricity crisis.

(Soundbite of birds)

BEAUBIEN: The Great Ruaha River is one of the waterways that's been most dramatically affected by recent changes in Tanzanian agriculture. The Great Ruaha used to slow down in the dry season, but then a 75,000 acre irrigated rice project was built in the upper reaches of its catchment area.

Mr. PETER COPPOLILLO (Wildlife Conservation Society): And in 1993 it stopped for the first time. And it has stopped flowing every dry season since and for increasingly long periods of time every year.

BEAUBIEN: Peter Coppolillo with the Wildlife Conservation Society runs a research station on the banks of The Great Ruaha. It's the rainy season now and the river's heavily laden with silts, giving the water a reddish-brown hue. Along with the water, yellow and black weavers have returned. They dart in and out of the elephant grass on the opposite bank as they construct coconut-sized nests. Coppolillo points across the water to a special kind of palm tree with fruit that takes two years to mature.

Mr. COPPOLILLO: They're a critical food resource for all sorts of species. During the dry the season it's really difficult to find an intact fruit on the ground. And the reason is because baboons go up there, elephants will put their head against the tree and bang, bang, bang, bang and shake the tree. You'll hear it at night and they're shaking the tree to get the fruits to fall down. And those palms have to grow right here on the alluvial plane, right next to the right next to the river where there's, where there's good ground water.

BEAUBIEN: Coppolillo says this entire ecosystem is being threatened by the drying up of The Great Ruaha River. Three industrial rice irrigation projects were built upstream in the late 1980's. These projects like the one in Mapagoro were also funded by large international development agencies. The goal was to allow small farmers to grow rice during the rice season so that the rice would hit the market when prices are five to six times higher than at the normal harvest time.

The problem, Coppolillo says, wasn't the rice schemes as they were planned, but rather what they've become. Soon after the irrigation projects were built, other farmers started tapping in to the industrial canals and diverting water to tens of thousands of additional acres of fields.

Mr. COPPOLILLO: What they do is they'll dig into the return canal from the original rice scheme, and then they'll go and nag the farm manager and say, could you please leave the water on so that we can take water. But of course, a lot of these, the unsanctioned, the illegal fields, they're not level. So what it means is, you can't flood it once. You have to keep water flowing into because you keep losing it all along.

BEAUBIEN: Other factors besides the irrigated rice projects have contributed to the drying of the Ruaha. Livestock herders have started grazing their cattle, goats, and sheeps in a swamp that used to act as a sponge, absorbing water during the long rains and releasing it slowly back into the river during the dry season. But stripped of vegetation, the swamp now just lets the rainwater rush through like a toilet bowl, Coppolillo says. Coppolillo, however, says the main culprit is the irrigation schemes, which were designed primarily to allow farmers to sell rice when the price is at its peak.

Mr. COPPOLILLO: The irony, the frustrating part about it is, rather than building an enormous industrial irrigation project, the same could have been accomplished by building a warehouse and helping people organize into a cooperative that would store the rice and sell it out of season.

BEAUBIEN: Coppolillo and the Wildlife Conservation Society are now trying to do just that. Farmers who join the cooperative will have to agree to monitor the use of water and return 25 percent of the water that goes into their fields back into the river. In exchange, farmers will get significantly higher prices for their crop if the water doesn't get diverted elsewhere. The Great Ruaha could start flowing again year round. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Catastrophic soil erosion is also making agriculture in Tanzania difficult. You can hear about that in the first part of Jason Beaubien's series at

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.