Ouagadougou — The Burkina Faso government is attempting for the first time to implement a nationwide dry-season agricultural campaign to counteract possible food insecurity in areas that received poor or erratic rainfall this year. But the government, alongside others in the region, also needs to invest in a "blue revolution" - small-scale irrigation systems to help farmers grow crops in drought-prone zones - says the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Some 146 out of 351 communes across 10 of Burkina Faso's 13 regions were affected by low grain outputs, according to the government's provisional estimates. The regions most affected by poor rains were the northern millet-producing zone, the Sahel, the Centre north, the Centre west, the East and the Centre east.
"At the moment the food security situation is not alarmist, but there are pockets spread out across the country that could be in a critical situation, and that need to be closely monitored," the Deputy-director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Burkina Faso, Ariane Waldvogel, told IRIN.
Government projections put this year's harvest at 3.8 million tons - 16 percent lower than last year's - with millet down by 21 percent and sorghum down by 18 percent. The rice harvest is estimated to be more or less the same as in 2010, though some 44 percent of the nation's needs (200,000 mt) would still have to be imported.
However, WFP noted that 2010 delivered a bumper crop and the above results are just one percent below Burkina's five-year average production. Waldvogel said a more in-depth study of the harvest and food insecurity will be conducted imminently, and a nutritional survey is about to be completed.
The government must nevertheless look ahead and prepare now to try to minimize the risk of food insecurity in the 2012 lean season, said Laurent Sedogo, Minister for Agriculture and Water. His department will invest 1.2 billion CFA (US$2.4 million) to distribute high-yield seeds and give a stipend of $150 to each farmer who participates in the dry-season campaign.
"We are inviting all producers who have access to water [Burkina Faso has some 1,000 small reservoirs] to start producing," he told reporters at the campaign launch. The money will also be used to repair water points, and to purchase surplus food and transport it to deficit areas.
Oxfam humanitarian project officer Sosthene Konate told IRIN that "It is in itself a victory to admit that the situation is difficult," and the government is headed in the right direction by thinking ahead and facing reality.
"It is a good thing they are talking about dry season harvests," IFPRI senior research fellow Ephraim Nkonya told IRIN. "But this needs to translate into investment in irrigation by government. We need a blue revolution" to make the scheme work.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest investment in irrigation and water storage structures in the world, according to IFPRI, while agricultural think-tank Future Agricultures notes that just 7 percent of Africa's arable land is under irrigation, compared to 33 percent of Asia's.
In Burkina Faso and its northern neighbour, Mali, some 30 percent of the water used for irrigation from the Niger River, is lost, said Nkonya. The government and partners need to help smallholder farmers to set up simple irrigation systems to diminish this wastage. Treadle pumps - foot-pumps designed to lift water - can cost just $100 each, while bucket and drip kits and collector wells are also relatively cheap.
The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali should apply some of the lessons learned from Nigeria, said Nkonya. In the 1970s the World Bank invested heavily in large dams, which now produce just 30 percent of Nigeria's irrigated agricultural output, whereas 70 percent is linked to small-scale, farmer-led irrigation schemes using water towers, simple pipe systems, and also drip irrigation. "Irrigation schemes in these areas work best when they are small-scale, and are run by farmers themselves," he pointed out.
In the dry season farmers often turn to short-season crops such as fruit and vegetables. In IFPRI studies, those who use irrigation to grow such crops - even on small plots - produce up to 10 times the output of rain-fed production, said Nkonya.
Irrigation is key to making the dry-season harvest work, agreed an agriculture analyst, but ultimately food insecurity in Burkina Faso's Sahelian band will only be stemmed if governments and partners address the problem at the level of production - irrigation, high-yield seeds, drought-resistant strains - as well as at the level of trade, ensuring the food produced reaches citizens at prices they can afford.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]