From rocks hemming in water on farms to large surface reservoirs for irrigation, farmers in northern Burkina Faso, where recent good rains have turned dry fields into lush croplands, are being encouraged to use low-cost techniques to boost output and ride out recurrent droughts.
Furrows and ridges channel and hold water on farms around Ouahigouya in the country’s arid North Region, where subsistence agriculture is the main source of income.
“We have to work on productivity… Much of the land needs to be restored. It needs compost and water catchment measures,” said Amidou Ouattara, director of the Association for Rural Development and Training (AFDR), a local NGO in the region.
“Rainfall is erratic. Sometimes it’s too much and other times it’s not enough. It is also poorly distributed.”
AFDR has trained hundreds of farmers in Ouahigouya to revamp simple traditional methods to capture and store rainwater. Ouattara said farmers using the techniques have seen their yields improve.
“Many of our trainees who used to produce 400-500kg of millet per hectare in a good year now produce a ton. Things will definitely improve as other farmers look at their neighbours and become eager to invest in their fields,” he said.
“People around here didn’t harvest much last year. I have been lucky. I have been able to fill my granary,” said Ousmane Sawadogo, a farmer in Ouahigouya. But luck is not exactly what made Sawadogo’s field more fertile than his neighbours’. “I have put in a lot of work in my field and it worked out,” added Sawadogo who uses different water catchment methods learnt from AFDR.
Some two million people have been affected by severe food shortages and high food prices in Burkina Faso in 2012. However, this year’s growing season is estimated to be better than average in most of the regions and average in a few, USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) said.
Terre Verte, another NGO in the region, rallied around 50 farmers through the World Food Programme (WFP) cash-for-work programme to build two large surface reservoirs that can store enough water to irrigate fields throughout the eight-month long dry season.
“Water catchment is difficult. Rainfall varies from one year to another, but what threatens harvest is that people don’t know how to store rainwater. Heavy rains don’t make a difference if you don’t know how to channel and store it,” said Pamoussa Sawadogo of Terre Verte.
“You also need to have plant varieties adapted to the situation. But we need training, coordination and a lot of work to do that.”
Ariane Waldvogel, WFP’s deputy director in Burkina Faso, told IRIN: “We are in the third phase of the food crisis and the most critical - the lean period. We need to feed the population until the end of the harvests in October now that food reserves have been depleted.” WFP feeds some 1.7 million people in Burkina Faso.
“We had some fears at the beginning of July. But now, the first signs are positive. There has been sufficient rain, but production will not necessarily yield [a] surplus.”
The Permanent Inter-State Committee on the Fight Against Drought in the Sahel (CILSS) on 7 September predicted a general good harvest in most of the West Africa region following the current rainy season, but also warned that floods in some countries could affect output and that low yields were expected in certain regions of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger.
The recent flooding across West Africa and the Sahel has caused worry that harvests could be affected, but the extent of the damage is not clear yet.
“This year I planted millet and beans. The harvest will be better than last year,” said Philibert Sawadogo, a resident of Kongoussi in Burkina Faso’s North Region. “But our fields are now flooded. I am worried about that.”
The Sahel food crisis has left more than 18 million people facing starvation. In addition to its own food crisis, Burkina Faso also hosts 107,929 Malian refugees forced from their homes by drought and conflict.
At a WFP food distribution centre in Namissiguima, a small town in the North Region, Ibata Maiga, whose family had been forced to eat wild plants for lack of food, said food was still unavailable in the local markets. “We are out of food. Last year’s harvests were very bad,” Maiga told IRIN.
“The Sahel remains one of the world’s most fragile regions and global warming is likely to pose even more challenges to the land and water supplies,” said Irina Fuhrmann, Oxfam’s regional media manager for West Africa.