The Eastern part of Rwanda had been a vacant land for decades before the government found a use, turning it into the country’s breadbasket through irrigation.
Farmers have traditionally irrigated rice by lowering groundwater into marshlands by digging drains. They typically build unsaturated zones between drains by piling up excavated soil. When groundwater levels drop during the dry season, farmers construct soil check dams in gutters to maintain groundwater levels at crop root zones.
When groundwater is not sufficient, farmers build what is called ‘wood-pole weir structures’ across main streams to divert water into earthen canal networks.
Following the national irrigation master plan development in 2010, the Rwanda government has implemented additional irrigation projects, mainly in the eastern part and other regions using hillside irrigation.
With these projects, the Rwandan government set its target to develop 40,000 hectares of irrigated land by 2017 and 100,000 hectares by 2020. As of June 2018, some 52,936 hectares had been developed, according to the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB)
By 2024, Rwanda aims to develop 102,284 hectares of irrigated land. These systems use surface and groundwater sources, including lakes, rivers, wetlands, or water reservoirs of various sizes-small, medium, or large dams.
Chart 1: Groundwater use in Rwanda
There are three major irrigation sites in eastern Rwanda: Kagitumba, Nasho/Mpanga, and Gashora.
One such impactful irrigation project is the Nasho Solar-Power Irrigation Project located in the Kirehe district, funded to the tune of USD54 M by billionaire philanthropist Howard G Buffett’s foundation as part of a broader USD500 M financing he committed in 2015 to Rwanda’s agricultural development.
The mega irrigation scheme was unveiled in March 2020 at a fanfare ceremony presided over by President Paul Kagame. Buffett himself was present.
The 3.3 MW Nasho Solar power plant commissioned in 2017 powers up the irrigation system, which draws water from Lake Nasho to farmland, reaching 1,173 hectares belonging to about 2,000 smallholder farmers. The surplus power is sent to homes within the community.
Collette Nyiransabimana lived a poor life for many years due to a prolonged drought that hit her home area in Munini cell, Mahama sector in Kirehe district, leaving them destitute and hungry.
Hardly could she manage to feed her four children despite more efforts she could put in to grow crops on her small land.
“The area is prone to drought, and we rarely get a harvest whenever we plant crops. As a result, I lived a miserable life, and I was too poor,” she adds.
“We used to grow sorghum and beans, but the harvest was mediocre; sometimes we could harvest almost nothing due to the long dry spells,” she adds.
Nyiransabimana’s plot of land, which is about half a hectare, is on the bank of the Akagera River that flows from Tanzania to Rwanda’s eastern province.
For many years, Kirehe residents and other people around the Akagera River used to see it as a threat and were constantly threatened that they could drown.
Little did they know that the water from the river could be a source of much-needed income when they used it in irrigation?
It was not until recently that the local leaders mobilized them to start irrigation using the same water that farmers embraced the practice.
“I started irrigation using buckets to fetch water from Akagera River, and it was so tiring; I used more energy; I used to grow vegetables and some fruits,” she says. That was about three years ago. Nyiransabimana owns the land of about a hectare.
Two years ago, she learned about the district’s plan to offer generators in a subsidized scheme and rushed there to get it.
“When I heard that the district offered a generator on a subsidized scheme, I went there; I paid only 103,000 Rwandan Francs to get it, and the district covered the rest,” she says.
“I now use the generator to practice irrigation using Akagera river water; the generator pumps water from the Akagera River. We use the water to grow vegetables such as carrots, onions, bell peppers, cabbages, etc.,” she says.
And life has changed since she started irrigation using the generator that pumps water. She sells the produce to the refugees hosted in the neighboring Mahama refugee camp.
“We have a big market as the camp hosts thousands of refugees who come and buy vegetables,” she says.
“Akagera river water is essential for us; life has changed since we started practicing irrigation. We grow and irrigate, and we no longer depend on rain to grow. We grow whenever we want, and the harvest is good,” Nyiransabimana says with pride. More has been achieved so far.
Nyiransabimana is one of the hundreds of farmers who practice irrigation around the Akagera River using its water. She says that a lot has been achieved thanks to the practice.
“I have managed to pay mutually de sante for my children, and I can feed them; I have built my own modern house worth 1 7 million Rwandan francs of 30, and I also bought a plot of land worth 1,2 million Rwandan Francs,” she says.
She is also grateful for the central government, especially the district that assisted her in getting the generator on the subsidized scheme.
“I am grateful to the government for offering the generator; without it, life would be worse,” she says. “I am committed to working hard to get more returns; I hope my future is better thanks to the Akagera river,” she adds.
Jean Paul Nzabonimpa, also from the Mahama sector, says he practices modern agriculture using a generator to pump water from the Akagera Riv. He says he harvested crops that he sold Rwf2,5 million last season. He currently has crops grown on three hectares and looks for more yields.
“I practice irrigation using generators, and this has changed my life; I employ casual workers to plant and irrigate; we are grateful that the Akagera river is no longer a threat to us but serves as a water source for us to irrigate,” he says. “We now don’t have worries of seasons and droughts that used to hit the areas,” he adds. According to Bruno Rangira, the Kirehe district Mayor, the eastern province part, especially that bordering Tanzania, is prone to disasters.
He said that farmers benefit from the Akagera River and practice water irrigation.
He says that the district gave generators to individuals on subsidy, and “It has paid off as all of them get improved yields compared to before when disasters could not allow them to harvest,” he says
He added that the district has encouraged farmers to join cooperatives and apply for subsidized generators rather than as individuals for support.
Making groundwater sustainable
Most of Rwanda’s water is stored in lakes (around 80%), followed by groundwater (19%). Households, agriculture, and water utilities lead to groundwater abstraction (taking out), with around 45%, 22%, and 19%, respectively.
In the year 2000 planting season, farmers in the Bugesera district went to their farmland as usual. They planted seeds. However, months went by without a drop of rain. Farmers there vividly remember the period.
The situation here had been as such since the 1970s when forests in the area were destroyed for firewood and charcoal. The disappearance of forest cover in Bugesera was the same in the entire eastern region.
According to FONERWA, a national environment fund, the different lakes in eastern Rwanda were slowly drying up because there was no rain to replenish them. The groundwater table was, without a doubt, affected. The situation was so dire government had to do something.
In 2001, the government secured USD 48.16 M (Rwf 50 billion) funding from the African Development Bank for planting 567.56ha of trees around the Bugesera area, Lake Muhazi, and other lakes to cover 149,487ha.
Bugesera region has visibly changed today. It is greener, produces more food, and gets some rain – a notable impact of the tree planting scheme from many years ago. During 2007 – 2008, although lakes in east Rwanda had begun reviving, a new threat emerged; the destructive water hyacinth weed. It created a new threat to fish survival.
The year 2013 was for action. The government hired more than 1,000 local villagers, including fishers and their families, to clear the weed from the lake in Bugesera. The weed is still there on some lakes, but the scale is much smaller.
Lake Cyohoha, for example, whose fish had disappeared completely, is said to currently contribute at least 35-50 tons of fish annually to the national annual production. Experts note that preservation of surface water bodies like it was done with the eastern Rwanda lakes helps “recharge” (increase) groundwater reserves.
A call for more groundwater data.
As the situation stands, there is a need for a comprehensive database on groundwater in Rwanda. This, they argue, will enable better planning for the sustainable use of natural resources.
The lack of data on the depths and volume of aquifers could pose land degradation risks.
Some estimates, like a 2021 World Bank-commissioned study, suggested that in terms of annual water volumes, Rwanda has about 6 to 7 billion cubic meters of surface water, 4.50 to 5 billion cubic meters of groundwater, and 27.50 billion cubic meters of rainwater.
The government has partnered with UNICEF for a groundwater mapping project. A call for consultancy services to carry out the study was issued in October 2021, with the tendering process planned for completion by October this year. Despite efforts by Rwanda’s government, reads the call in part, considerable gaps remain with regard to groundwater resources.
A similar study was planned in 2018 by a joint team of Rwandan and Dutch experts funded by the Netherlands. The advertised tender said the study would assess the availability of groundwater, depth of potential aquifers, possible yields, and water quality, in addition to recommending the optimum sites for long-term production boreholes. The results are yet to be released.
The latest interest comes from the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries, with Rwanda as one of the members.
NBI’s five-year (2020-2025) project – ‘Enhancing Conjunctive Management of Surface Water and Groundwater Resources in Selected Transboundary Aquifers, aims to strengthen the knowledge base, capacity, and cross-border institutional mechanisms. The USD 5.3 million project will further build and expand understanding of groundwater resources through detailed mapping and assessment of the three aquifer systems.
It will also aid the national achievements and reporting of water-related Sustainable Development Goals; and will be supportive of environmental protection while enhancing the socio-economic development of the Basin’s population. The three aquifers under study are Kagera Aquifer shared by Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania; the Mt Elgon aquifer shared between Kenya and Uganda; and the Gedaref-Adigrat aquifer shared between Ethiopia and Sudan.
The Global Environment Facility funds the project (GEF), implemented by United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and executed by NBI.
InfoNile supported this article with funding from Nile Basin Initiative.