Farmers versus big business: the politics of irrigation in Tanzania
Elizabeth Harrison and Anna Mdee
Thursday 14 May 2015
Lack of clarity over who should regulate and control water access causes competition between farmers, urban dwellers and foreign investment. Farmers in Tanzania say that sprinkler irrigation have significantly improved their livelihoods. The solutions to these problems are not easy and will require a strategic commitment to resolving the multiple and growing demands for water. At the national level, difficult political decisions are required as to where priorities for water lie. Is it with urban supplies for the swelling urban populations, or is it for large-scale investments in the agricultural sector, or should the priority be to use irrigation to improve the productivity of the small-scale farmers who form the majority of the population. Balancing all of these interests is a challenge.
The narrow Uluguru mountain paths in eastern Tanzania are crisscrossed by a spaghetti of hosepipes drawing water from the mountain rivers for the sprinklers on the terraced fields of Choma. Carrots, herbs, chillies, passion fruit, raspberries, strawberries and many other crops all grow here. Farmers say that the sprinklers in place since 2004 in combination with organic farming techniques have helped them to invest in transport, send children to school, and improve their housing.
But in 2006 farmers were threatened with eviction from the mountain, accused of damaging the environment and threatening the viability of urban water supplies. They appealed to President Jakaya Kikwete and were allowed to stay, at least until the local government could find the resources to evict them, but their future is precarious; last year Kikwete called for the eviction of farmers from the Ulugurus, reversing his stance from six years earlier. The direction of the state is unclear, still wishing to be seen as both the champion of the peasantry and of foreign investment
One of the main problems is that there is a fundamental lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to regulate and control access to water in Tanzania. The Wami-Ruvu River Basin Office is one of nine river basin offices in the country. They are formally in charge of regulating how water is used, but such offices have little capacity to do more than register water users and sell them permits.
Legislation states that river basin offices should monitor and fine users who breach their usage allowance – they don’t – and assumes that associations of “water-users” will automatically resolve issues of conflict over water. In practice, there are no mechanisms to resolve competition for water between the Choma farmers and the urban users of Morogoro, or between the Dakawa scheme and upstream irrigators. One employee of the Wami-Ruvu River Basin Office put it: We just sell water. This leaves a situation in which access to such a vital resource is determined by those who are currently best able to pay.
In all countries, dealing with agriculture taking place at different scales is a difficult one. Most governments in sub-Saharan Africa have worked on the assumption that as agriculture modernised, small-scale farmers would dwindle in number. In our opinion, agriculture policy has therefore tended to ignore the small scale in favour of larger and more commercial operations.
The politics of irrigation development in Tanzania sadly mirrors this: the favouring of large schemes that attract significant donor support, coupled with the problems of managing this at a local level. Unfortunately for farmers like those in Choma, it seems that no matter how significant the social or economic benefits of their less formal practices, the politics is likely to continue to lead to them being dismissed by those in authority. The solutions to these problems are not easy and will require a strategic commitment to resolving the multiple and growing demands for water.
At the national level, difficult political decisions are required as to where priorities for water lie. Is it with urban supplies for the swelling urban populations, or is it for large-scale investments in the agricultural sector? Or should the priority be to use irrigation to improve the productivity of the small-scale farmers who form the majority of the population? Balancing all of these interests is a challenge, particularly if those who can pay exert more influence.
At the local level, the river basin offices urgently need the capacity to do more than just sell water. They must be able to measure levels of extraction to help build a better picture of what is happening and make critical decisions about sustainable water use. If they could move away from merely selling permits and registering formal groups, then we might just start to see some key change for the better.
Elizabeth Harrison and Anna Mdee are researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Bradford. Their research was funded by the DfID-ESRC Growth Research Programme.