In-depth: Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis
BURUNDI: Pierre Ndikumangenge, Burundi’s minister of agriculture and livestock
NAIROBI, 20 September 2006 (IRIN) - Pierre Ndikumagenge was Burundi’s minister of agriculture and livestock during its post-civil war transition period, which ended with general elections in 2005. He is now a consultant at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
QUESTION: Does Burundi have enough water?
ANSWER: Burundi has more water than needed. The dry regions of Burundi record levels of rain nearing 900ml per year. Some zones have even more than 1,200ml of rain per year. Burundi geography is also favourable to the mastery of water, as many rivers' sources are at about 2,000m of altitude. All the rivers that pour into Lake Tanganyika take source at the Congo Nile peak.
In other words, water comes from more than 2,000m of altitude and runs down to 1,300m in the north and about 800m in the west. That entire curve offers many potentialities for the use of water if need be. Burundi is therefore one of the rare countries in Africa where the availability of too much water has become a problem. In March and April 2006 for instance, rainfall has been a serious problem to Burundi and destroyed several infrastructures.
Q: If the problem is too much water, why do some people lack even drinking water or face a food crisis after only one year of drought?
A: It is a problem of conception and planning. All those rivers crossing Bujumbura capital, for instance, should be diverted upstream and their waters used. But following bad agricultural techniques, the deforestation, the erosion by water runoff, all the forest cover is swept away all along those rivers’ paths.
If it was possible to cut the water current upstream so that water passes through the irrigation channels and then returns to the riverbed, there would be no problem of erosion downstream as we witness on the outskirts of Bujumbura capital, and Lake Tanganyika would not be full of sand as it is now. And even more, it would allow Burundians to dig their gardens all the year long, 12 months out of 12.
Q: You’re saying that water exists but is not well used, then?
A: It’s very badly used. Take the example of the land where the rice-growing company in the Imbo region, (SRDI) is growing rice now. It was initially a dry and arid area. With a dam at the River Gatura, the whole area is now irrigated. There are many other rivers in the area, which should also be used in the same way, instead of destroying the infrastructure in the rainy seasons.
Q: Do you mean the implementation of the national water policy would change something?
A: Absolutely. With the increasing population, even with regular rains we are no more able to produce enough food for Burundi’s population. If we wait for rains to plant and then go on vacation during the dry seasons, we could not face the situation.
It is therefore important to ensure that we use the water even in dry season. It is the only way we can nourish all the Burundians.
Q: Do you mean the food crisis we have witnessed these last years in the north and east of Burundi could have been avoided?
A: It should not exist. People tend to believe that the region of Bugesera covering a part of Muyinga and Kirundo provinces has not enough water, but it is not true. The region has many rivers – eight to be exact – which constitute a permanent sheet of water. We have also good rainfall and a geography favouring large-scale irrigation.
All it needs is to ration the water and use it all along the year to curb the food crisis. We should even go beyond this, since we don't only need to put an end to the food crisis but also allow agriculture to be a sector allowing people to earn money - not just to produce for self-sufficiency. If people invest money in the sector, it will not be for growing sweet potatoes or cassava, but crops allowing them to earn money. It is a matter of financial means and planning.
Q: You were minister of agriculture for sometime. What did you do in this capacity?
A: I sent some government agents to learn agricultural techniques in Egypt and Israel. I also led a delegation of Burundi experts to Burkina Faso to see how they manage without rains. I wanted to propose that starting in 2005 we test all the irrigation techniques seen in those countries - such as water pumps, the different kinds of dams - to see what is suitable for Burundi.
Next, a study was to be carried out to know what could be done for better water management in the whole territory.
Unfortunately, the whole team is no more in place. The whole operation has been suspended.
Q: People go but policies remain. Why is it not implemented now if it is a good strategy? Is it a matter of lack of will or means?
A: Here in Burundi, we lack a long-term vision. We should have a framework so that if people leave their post, the successors do not have to begin afresh. We have the impression to be turning around, because there is no clear orientation to follow.
Newcomers first take stock of the situation, acquire experience in the field, etc. By the time they are settled, they sometimes move, are called to other tasks or simply go to look for better working conditions abroad. Experts in this sector, for instance, are working in neighbouring Rwanda, not because they do not like their countries but because they are better paid there. This bears a serious prejudice to water management.
Q: What are the concrete proposals?
A: I believe the first step should be to make an inventory of all water resources, to know all the areas favourable to great-scale or small irrigation. The next step could be the training of people in water management or to give refresher courses to others.
Since so few techniques are in use here, it would be to identify all the appropriate techniques for a better management of water to ensure that water arrives where we want it at whatever time we need it. Finally, we should choose crops liable to profit farmers.
Parallel to this, Burundi should think about stopping the brain drain and improving workers' conditions. Many of the experts have gone where they are better paid.
Q: Do you think Burundians would be open to the new techniques?
A: In the overcrowded regions as Ngozi and Gitega, wetlands have been prepared for farmers to grow rice. When they saw that rice was bringing in money, they totally adopted rice farming. Everywhere water is available; they now grow rice and vegetables. Some have even switched to rice and vegetables to the detriment of beans because rice and vegetables are more profitable to them. So farmers could also adopt the new techniques to ensure them food security.
Burundi is emerging from a civil war. It is the best time for investment. That is the time when the international community has a keen interest in Burundi. The Burundi government should seize the opportunity to bring donor countries to support the agriculture sector to ensure not only food self-sufficiency to Burundians but also to get those millions of Burundians living on agriculture to improve their living conditions.