Irrigation Development for Climate Resilience in Zambia: The Known Knowns and Known Unknowns


August 21, 2019 - Hambulo Ngoma, Byman Hamududu, Peter Hangoma, <>, Munguzwe Hichaambwa, Chance Kabaghe

Hambulo Ngoma, Byman Hamududu, Peter Hangoma, Paul Samboko, Munguzwe Hichaambwa, Chance Kabaghe, 2019. Irrigation Development for Climate Resilience in Zambia: The Known Knowns and Known Unknowns. Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research Paper 144. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Irrigation is increasingly seen as a necessary means to build resilience in smallholder rain-fed farming systems and to increase productivity to meet growing food demands in Sub-Saharan Africa. Irrigation was important in the Asian Green Revolution. Abundant surface and ground water and the under-exploited irrigation potentials offer real prospects for expanding irrigation in several SubSaharan African countries, Zambia inclusive. However, there are still several gaps—the known unknowns: what irrigation models work and are suitable for smallholder farmers in the context of climate change? What irrigation models are preferred and why? What are the likely impacts of climate change on water availability and what are the long-term implications for irrigation development?

This study contributes towards filling these gaps. First, it assesses what smallholder irrigation models are present in Zambia and their performance. Second, it analyses the prevalence of irrigation use among smallholder farmers, what drives its use and the impacts and implications of current and projected climate change on water resource availability in the country.

Combining qualitative field interviews, econometric and hydrological modelling, the main results suggest that public-private partnership and privately managed irrigation schemes are better models for smallholder irrigation schemes provided that farmers retain a sense of ownership of the scheme, have good governance structures and are well organized into collective production and marketing units with production financing and forward supply contract arrangements. While community-based schemes have the potential, they are usually too small and farmers are often poorly organized to get into formalized collective production and marketing arrangements. Public-private partnerships such as the three-tier model (combining a large-scale farm to supply water and provide market to medium- and small-scale farmers) hold potential, but it is still too soon to evaluate them. Albeit successful, outgrowing arrangements under private irrigation schemes create winners and losers, as they often entail significant changes to the ways land, livelihoods, and social relations are configured.

Informal irrigation for fruits and vegetables is more prevalent at 18% use rate than for field crops (ca.1%) among smallholder farmers in Zambia. The majority of the irrigated fields are located close to water sources (Dambos/wetlands) and manual bucket irrigation is the most prevalent irrigation technology used by more than 80% of smallholder farmers. In addition to proximity to water sources, access to credit, labour availability, secure land tenure and income are strong drivers for irrigation use among smallholder farmers.

With climate projections suggesting that Zambia will become hotter and drier, and the southern, western and eastern regions much more affected compared to the northern region, water scarcity can only worsen. Reduced rainfall and a hotter climate coupled with increased demand for water resources will require smallholder irrigators to adapt in some ways. Water scarcity will increasingly make it difficult for irrigators to rely on Dambos/wetlands. How exactly the irrigators will adapt largely depends on their location in the country, proximity to water sources, resilience and adaptive capacity, inter alia.

Based on the main results, we draw the following implications on smallholder irrigation development in Zambia:

  • Current and future smallholder irrigation schemes will need to adopt more water efficient technologies such as overhead and drip irrigation systems as opposed to the prevalent surface irrigation methods. It is vital to understand the cost implications and feasibility of such a switch to more water efficient technologies.
  • Governance and institutional arrangements of smallholder irrigation schemes will need strengthening to facilitate collective production and marketing arrangements.
  • Reduced water availability will increase access and irrigation costs, which in turn may reduce its profitability among smallholder farmers as they tend to have limited capital and capacity to adapt to higher cost structures. In this vein, improved access to credit facilities and markets will be required.

Competition for the reduced available water resources will disadvantage the smallholder farmers. Policies to protect them against the large-scale users are required. This may entail strengthening the management, regulation, and monitoring of water use by ensuring that water user rights and fees become mandatory and are enforced, and the process of acquiring water rights transparent. Activities of Water Management Authorities require strengthening.



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