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Local irrigation: Improving water management to boost agriculture and reduce poverty

It is estimated that between 2010 and 2017, through these two projects, Canadian aid will have developed or rehabilitated close to 25,000 hectares of irrigable, farmable land.

Project background

Agriculture is central to Malian society, economy and development. The agricultural industry employs 70% of the active population, contributes over 40% of the GDP and provides about 40% of the country’s export revenues. Some 60.1% of the population lives in rural areasand is dependent on this industry. Most Malian farming relies on traditional methods that are subject to geographical and climatic factors as well as variable rainfall. The dominant farming systems are family-based, and incomes rely on rain-fed farming with low levels of mechanization. Despite farming’s central place in Mali, agricultural production does not cover the population’s needs, and productivity is low. For these reasons, there have been recurrent major food crises since 2005. And, while a significant percentage (29%) of the population is malnourished, only 7% of the country’s 43.7 million hectares of arable land is cultivated.Over the last decade, food and nutrition insecurity have been exacerbated by a combination of exogenous factors including agro-climatic, economic and sociopolitical shocks.

Analyses of the constraints and opportunities involved in developing agriculture in Mali agree on two obstacles to sustainably increasing incomes and reducing poverty in rural areas: insufficient use of surface water and insufficient harnessing of water for farming.

Mali has significant groundwater and surface-water resources. The estimated amount of potentially irrigable land exceeds 2.2 million hectares, but only 12% is being cultivated. Part of the solution being proposed to face these challenges is to harness and manage water to increase agricultural production and productivity, and in this way, achieve food self-sufficiency.

How then can access to water be made sustainable to allow cultivation over longer periods of time or even year-round? Irrigation, and more specifically local irrigation, is an important part of the solution.

There are two broad types of irrigated agriculture in Mali: large-scale and small-scale (or local irrigation), as determined by the size of the installations.

Mali is located in the Sahel. Despite its very arid climate, the country has enormous irrigation potential, positioning it as one of the West African countries with the highest potential for agricultural development. However, according to the National Rural Engineering Directorate (Direction nationale du génie rural [DNGR]), the total land being cultivated in 2016 was only 462,450 hectares (with barely one third of this located in areas where water is fully harnessed). This accounts for only 21% of the country’s potentially arable land. Irrigation makes it possible to triple, or even quadruple, the yield of rain-fed farming and it increases cropping intensity.

Conscious of local irrigation’s great potential, and in order to coordinate strategies and actions into combined action, the Malian government has adopted a national local irrigation program (Programme national d’irrigation de proximité[PNIP]) for the 2012–2021 period. The PNIP is Mali’s national reference framework and operational-financial platform. It establishes the country’s needs and it guides the actions of the government and its partners in the sub-area of local irrigation.

Support for irrigation development is not limited to dam building. Quite the opposite. It arises from an integrated development culture and approach that involve supporting the communities incorporating and managing new farming practices. Once the work is completed, the program includes an agronomic training component that is adapted to the specific needs of the village(s) involved. This training can, for instance, cover the valorization, processing and even marketing of agricultural products cultivated thanks to local irrigation.

It is easy to see that local irrigation can radically change the life of a village and its inhabitants. In addition to providing food security for the community, irrigation can introduce off-season cultivation, thereby considerably extending the production period. When combined with storage and preservation capacities, it can allow a community to provide off-season products at distinctly more profitable prices. In this way, irrigation contributes to poverty alleviation in rural areas.

“It’s a profound change in the relation between humans and a water resource and space. Before development of the structure, when we talk to communities about water, they experience it as a transitory resource. They experience flooding as a vagary that can’t be controlled, and with a certain amount of fatalism. From the time a hydraulic structure is put in place, there is control of the resource.”

–Thomas Hertzog

Canadian involvement

In 2008, after successive food crises (2005, 2008) in Mali, Canada decided to contribute to improving food security by significantly increasing its investment in support of agricultural development and, more specifically, local irrigation. Canada first funded the Local Irrigation Support Project (Projetd’appui à l’irrigation de proximité [PAIP]) in 2010–2014, which was then followed by the Strengthening Irrigated Agriculture in Mali project (Projet de renforcement de l’agricultureirriguée au Mali [REAGIR]) over 2014–2019. Funding for these two projects together was Can$95 million, making Canada (along with Germany) the main donor agency supporting local irrigation in Mali.

PAIP (2010–2014) consisted of direct financial support of Can$20 million (about 8.6 million CFA francs), in delegated cooperation to the GTZ (the German development agency, which later became GIZ), one of Mali’s important and long-term partners in the areas of food security and local irrigation. The goal of PAIP was to help improve food security by increasing agricultural production and access to agricultural products. The PAIP project also had the following aims: to develop the national local irrigation program (PNIP); to coordinate development in this area; to increase production and marketing capacity for products grown thanks to local irrigation; and to reduce the risks of food insecurity in the targeted regions (mainly Timbuktu and Mopti).

REAGIR is a scale-up of the PAIP project and it involves a budget envelope of Can$75 million (about 32 billion CFA francs). This Canadian funding is allocated for the implementation of operational initiatives by German aid agencies (GIZ and KfW) in the sub-area of local irrigation, and is additional to interventions from other technical and financial partners (the EU and USAID).

REAGIR’s goals are to increase agricultural production through local irrigation and to improve access to markets, with a view to improving food security and job creation in Mali. More specifically, it aims to achieve increased, sustainable and equitable use of the potentially irrigable land in the following regions: Koulikoro (in the administrative sub-regions of Koulikoro, Banamba, Kati Sud and Dioïla) and Mopti (in Bandiagara, Koro and Bankass, as well as Youwarou).

In addition to strengthening the institutional, technical and organizational capacities of irrigation actors, REAGIR’s main activities focus on developing, building and rehabilitating infrastructure, such as village irrigation schemes, micro-dams, ponds, water-spreading weirs, storage facilities and rural roads, all in relation to the production, storage and marketing of farm products from irrigation. REAGIR also calls for the support and training of farmers on new agricultural methods and on sustainable use of natural resources (soil and water). Thus, REAGIR acts on two levels: (1) extending irrigated areas and valorizing agricultural products and marketing infrastructure, notably through the purchase of farming supplies and equipment; and (2) valorizing the products grown through local irrigation, notably by strengthening the capacity of farmers (and especially women) in the areas of preserving, processing and marketing agricultural products. Under this second component, the partnership with German aid also enables support for emerging agricultural and agro-food entrepreneurs, the development of farmers’ organizations, and the maintenance and valorization of hydro-agricultural structures.

Involvement of other partners

Canada’s involvement in supporting the development of local irrigation is above all characterized by a close partnership, one of delegated cooperation, with German aid. Delegated cooperation means Canada provides funds to the German aid agencies and entrusts them with responsibility for implementing projects, in light of Germany’s long-standing experience and its demonstrated expertise in this field in Mali.

This partnership reflects a relationship of trust between the two partners and recognition for their individual areas of expertise. This way of working requires a great deal of flexibility from both parties.

Thanks to this partnership, Canada was able to respond quickly to Mali’s 2008–2009 food crisis. Since the German aid team was already operating on the ground, it was possible for activities to start up quickly and to obtain results, in terms of increased agricultural production, after only one campaign.

Canada was able to consolidate its own knowledge and build a network in a field in which it had few programs, by benefiting from German aid’s long history and expertise in Mali, acquired through various interventions since 1970. This partnership enabled quick and efficient management of the funding placed at the disposal of the Malian government for local irrigation, while limiting the fiduciary risk.

Other technical and financial partners have also decided to support this sub-area in recent years. In 2017, some 30 partners were supporting complementary actions in local irrigation, including the EU and USAID, working through delegated cooperation with Germany. There are about 20 major projects, totalling 240 billion CFA francs (approximately Can$571 million) for the 2012–2021 period. These contributions cover about 60% of the investment costs of the national local irrigation program (PNIP), which are estimated at 395 billion CFA francs (approximately Can$940 million).

Results achieved

Location of Canadian aid’s local irrigation schemes, developed through delegated cooperation.

The first striking result of Canada’s support for local irrigation in Mali is the considerable increase in cultivated area, thanks to the re-cultivation of the lowlands. After a little over seven years of work (2010–2018), the consolidated results of the PAIP (2010–2014) and REAGIR (in its third year, 2014–2017) speaks volumes. These projects have increased the value of Mali’s potentially arable land in a significant way, while also participating in land development, occupation and stewardship, particularly in the Koulikoro, Mopti and Timbuktu regions.

It is estimated that between 2010 and 2017, through these two projects, Canadian aid will have developed or rehabilitated close to 25,000 hectares of irrigable, farmable land, if we include the ponds in the Mopti, Timbuktu and Koulikoro regions. This has resulted significant advances in the following areas: agricultural production, improved farming practices, nutritional health and labour development, in short, poverty reduction.

Canada’s support has contributed to the development and approval of the national local irrigation program (PNIP), which is now the reference framework for all stakeholders involved in local irrigation (communities, technical services, farmers, technical and financial partners and others).

Agricultural production and nutritional health

It is anticipated that, at the end of the REAGIR project (2019), close to 39,000 farms, and involving 233,500 male and female farmers, will directly benefit from the hydro-agricultural structures built, rehabilitated and valorized. This will increase job opportunities and incomes. Over 19,000 hectares of new irrigated agricultural land will be developed and farmed, accounting for one-third of the 60,000 hectares called for under the PNIP for 2014–2019. This will enable an additional yearly production of 27,600 tons of grain, including 19,000 tons of rice, as well as over 84,700 tons of produce like shallots, tomatoes and potatoes. Just the expected additional rice production should meet the needs of over 232,000 people per year. The additional produce should meet the nutritional needs of about 580,000 people, as suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Photo of the construction of a micro-dam in the Land of the Dogons, February 2018.

Food security has improved and there has been an increase in revenue-generating activities thanks to the expansion of arable areas, higher yields, diversified production and a significant increase in on-farm consumption in the intervention areas.

The approach selected by the PNIP for developing complementary infrastructures (dams for farm production and fisheries, storage and preservation facilities, market access routes) promotes sustainable development in the targeted villages.

Furthermore, the concentration of infrastructures within a single geographic area enables the following: the pooling of resources (dugouts, carts, work equipment, etc.); better organization of input procurement by groups; marketing of agricultural products for profit; the creation of a development centre where maintenance services for farming equipment can be promoted; and the mechanization of production and processing activities. When local irrigation is accompanied by improvements in storage and preservation capacities (seed storage facilities, warehouses, etc.), off-season agriculture becomes possible. This, in turn, allows local agriculture to become an economic activity whose spillover effects benefit the community.

Operating new hydro-agricultural infrastructures has assisted food security by increasing the area of farmable lands, diversifying crops, developing market gardening and introducing rice cultivation.

Job creation

It is difficult to count the direct farming jobs created as a result of local irrigation. In every village targeted, the whole community is involved in agriculture. While in the past, farming was a seasonal activity whose goal was family subsistence, it now provides year-round employment.

Creating a local irrigation sector in Mali has impacts far beyond production. Investments in local irrigation have contributed to the development of a value chain, creating economic opportunities and jobs. They have also created or strengthened other trades and service providers, upstream and downstream of production, who are necessary to the sustainable use of hydro-agricultural installations: mechanics, planners, masons and input and equipment suppliers (motor pumps, processing equipment, etc.). Between 2012 and 2017, local irrigation has resulted in the creation of over 11,500 jobs in engineering consulting firms, construction and technical control businesses, service providers and input suppliers. Thanks to the breadth of its investments, Canada has strongly contributed to developing a solid base and enough critical mass to ensure the sustainability of this sector in the PNIP regions.

Thanks to local irrigation, construction businesses and engineering firms have multiplied and become more professional. At the start of the PNIP in 2012, the National Rural Engineering Directorate (DNGR) had trouble recruiting companies with the required know-how to build hydro-agricultural structures. Six years later, there are over 100 construction companies and about 30 engineering firms nationally that are able to conduct technical studies and perform monitoring and control contracts.

The development of local irrigation has generated many higher-paying jobs in rural areas, especially for women and youth. What’s more, local irrigation now provides an alternative to emigration, especially in the north, and helps people keep living in rural areas.

Future prospects

The advances in local irrigation in Mali are not done. The use of new forms of technology, like geographic information systems and remote sensing, open the way for new irrigation planning and control methods.

The introduction of drones is a good example of a new technology being tested to improve monitoring, evaluation and communication. Other areas of application are also being explored, notably identification, prospecting and baseline studies (topography, surface evaluations, surface water volume assessments, crop yields). Remote communities are increasingly less isolated, so it will be easier for them to incorporate new technology in their farming activities, in order to increase productivity, better meet their needs and benefit financially from their work.

Challenges faced

A number of challenges have been encountered in implementing Canadian support for local irrigation and, more broadly, in executing the PNIP. One of the major challenges is the redistribution of arable land. Mali’s land-related architecture and legislation draw on legal provisions (modern law) and traditional provisions (customary law). This overlap between two approaches can easily give rise to disputes. In particular, land rights lack precision, women have difficulty accessing developed land, and the land rights of farmers receive too little protection. Thus, it becomes necessary to clarify or establish land agreements before the start of any development work.

Furthermore, peasant farmer organizations, which are principally responsible for managing the irrigated lands, are still fairly unstructured and therefore unable to provide effective services to their members. Economically, these organizations have difficulty mobilizing financial resources, especially since financing systems for the primary sector are not well adapted to support hydro-agricultural investments. Given the limited capacities of these peasant farmer organizations, it is sometimes difficult to show the return on investment of local irrigation. This however is essential if the results are to be measured against the goals of poverty reduction and economic growth.

Valorizing and commercializing agricultural products also remain challenges for farmers, as are the isolation of their production areas, the lack of crop diversity and the absence of information (knowledge-transfer systems) on potential markets. In this context, there is still much to do to achieve optimal valorization and access to favourable commercialization conditions for the agricultural products arising from local irrigation.

Gender equality

Photo of a Malian hydro-agricultural engineer coordinating the planning activities for the building of a micro-dam, 2016.

It is well known that women play a crucial role in agricultural production in Mali, particularly for rice and produce (with 60% of Malian produce being grown by women) in the local irrigation intervention areas. However, female entrepreneurship is held back by various sociocultural factors. As a result of these, women: (1) have little access to land and farming resources; (2) are restricted to growing subsistence crops for their families; (3) have little equipment to grow and process crops; (4) receive inequitable access to financing and hydro-agricultural structures; and(5) are excluded by inheritance rights. Over time, this marginalization has led to women being excluded from capacity-building and training processes. As a result, there are very few female peasant farmer organizations in Mali.

Photo of produce farmers in the Land of the Dogon, February 2018.

Exacerbating this situation is the low level of literacy among rural women in the areas targeted by local irrigation projects.

Canada has played an important role in ensuring that equality between men and women is a major component of all its project activities. This has led for instance to gender equity being better taken into account in programming processes and tools and in project monitoring and reports. Women have gradually become key players in local irrigation in Mali, thanks to the institutionalization of their participation in planning and managing hydro-agricultural installations. There is now a minimum of 30% women involved in the management committees for built or rehabilitated infrastructure.

We are also seeing a significant increase in the amount of land being farmed by women. Canadian support notably led to the requirement that any PNIP intervention dedicate a minimum of 10% of irrigated surfaces to female farmers. And, thanks to Canadian funding, there are village irrigation schemes in the Mopti region that are exclusively reserved for women, with pumping equipment that is adapted for them to manage.

Lowland irrigation is usually used to grow rice, an activity traditionally assigned to women, who therefore are the main beneficiaries of this aspect of local irrigation.

The funding of the PAIP and REAGIR projects has also multiplied opportunities for women through the creation of over 15,000 jobs for them, in activities upstream and downstream from farming and throughout the value chains of produce and rice farming. In addition, over 5,000 women have received training on production, valorization and processing methods for the crops grown thanks to local irrigation. These new jobs constitute a major advance in female entrepreneurship, thanks to the processing and marketing of crops. Some women have seen their income rise more than fourfold.

Finally, Canadian support has contributed to the implementation of awareness-raising strategies and activities for village communities, to promote women’s increased access to developed lowlands. Tripartite agreements (between the beneficiary, the project and the mayor) have been signed to secure the landholding of plots being farmed by women’s groups.

Lessons learned

A number of lessons have been learned and continue to be learned, thanks to Canada’s involvement in supporting local irrigation in Mali. The successful experience of delegated cooperation has encouraged other partners involved in developing local irrigation to follow suit. This approach facilitated coordination on the Malian side, through the PNIP, and encouraged the implementation of a sector-based approach managed and led by Malian structures. This approach also helped better manage the actions taken by technical and financial partners, through the creation of a solid node of major partners supporting local irrigation. Thanks to the successful experience of delegated cooperation between Canada and Germany and the results obtained, other partners have used this mechanism, including the EU and USAID.

The PAIP and REAGIR projects have brought to light several factors that are critical to ensure the long-term sustainability of the results and impacts of Canadian (and other) cooperation supporting local irrigation in Mali. A major factor is obtaining a consensus on how developed land will be managed in the targeted communities. This involves reaching agreements in town meetings, under the management and supervision of regional authorities.

Another important factor in the sustainability of these irrigation projects is making peasant farmer organizations accountable and strengthening their capacities. Experience has shown that certain preconditions must be met: a need must be expressed by a legally constituted farmers’ association; there must be an assurance that peasant farmer organizations will participate; landholding must be guaranteed by the local authorities; etc.

Finally, making sure gains are sustainable also depends on having long-term functional financial mechanisms in place to cover the maintenance and replacement costs of the new infrastructure. Canada’s intervention in the sub-area of local irrigation was a great adventure that proved its worth. Mali’s priorities continue to be stamping out food insecurity and poverty, population instability, and environmental degradation against a backdrop of climate change. These are particularly critical in rural areas. Canada’s support is closely aligned with these priorities. The major impact of the local irrigation intervention has been an improvement in living conditions, especially for women, thanks to job creation, increased incomes, development of entrepreneurship, improved food and nutritional security, and poverty reduction. This intervention contributes to sustainable water and soil conservation and it plays an important role in increasing population stability and reducing migration.


We would like to sincerely thank the following for their assistance in creating this impact story:

The Impact Stories series of Canadian aid in Mali was produced by the Field Support Services Project (FSSP) and in collaborationwith the above-mentioned stakeholders.

Rue Sotuba/ACI, rond-point de l’ancienne chaussée
Bamako, Mali
Tel.: +223 44 90 44 45
Note: The FSSP received funding from the Government of Canada.

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