26 August 2014


Developing drought resistance or investing in water management?

The history of agricultural development, over the last decades, has been one where the bulk of investments made in agriculture has been used for developing irrigation and irrigation infrastructure, with only few resources being allocated to the development of dryland farming and particularly to the development of improved varieties for rainfed agriculture. [read The ‘‘all-out irrigation’’ strategy has led to a fragile, wasteful and inegalitarian system]

This strategy is still widely adopted today. For example, in Mali, more than USD 250 million have been invested over a period of five years in the Alatona investment project to increase the amount of water flowing through an existing canal and put 14000 hectares under irrigation (This cost does not include the full cost of the infrastructure). This amount can be compared with the 3% of total agriculture-specific public expenditure being spent annually on agricultural research in the country: less than USD 5 million annually between 2006 and 2010 (MAFAP country report on Mali).

In this context, one can only welcome the release and distribution of more than 30 drought-tolerant maize varieties, produced through traditional means (not genetically modified) to more around three million farmers in Africa, and it is expected that a further four million farmers will benefit in the near future. These varieties yield as much as 30% more than other varieties under moderate drought conditions, but are however unable to cope with extreme drought. The cost of this program, supported by the Gates Foundation is USD8.5 million per year over four years. It covers 13 countries and has a potential target of 40 million farmers.

It is estimated that in Sub-Saharan Africa about 40 percent of all maize crops are damaged by drought conditions thus endangering the livelihoods and food security of millions of smallholder farmers.

The question is, nevertheless, whether farmers will continue to have access to these varieties once the Gates Foundation-supported program ends, or whether they will have to purchase them from private companies, which would exclude the poorest of the farmers. The varieties used were developed through a collaboration between traditional research centres like the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), development programs and multinational seed corporations.

These figures illustrate clearly the need to boost agricultural research for dryland farming as it can impact of large numbers of farmers at a relatively low cost, when compared to irrigation.


Further reading:

K. Treier, The case for drought-tolerant maize, deveximpact, 22 August 2014


Last update:    August 2014

For your comments and reactions: