Below the radar: Data, narratives and the politics of irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa

Jean-Philippe Venot
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement and University of Montpellier, Montpellier, France; jean-philippe.venot@ird.fr

Samuel Bowers
School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK; sam.bowers@ed.ac.uk

Dan Brockington
Sheffield Institute for International Development, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK; d.brockington@sheffield.ac.uk

Hans Komakech
Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania; hans.komakech@nm-aist.ac.tz

Casey Ryan
School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK; casey.ryan@ed.ac.uk

Gert Jan Veldwisch
Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands; gertjan.veldwisch@wur.nl

Philip Woodhouse
Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK; phil.woodhouse@manchester.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Emerging narratives call for recognising and engaging constructively with small-scale farmers who have a leading role in shaping the current irrigation dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa. This paper explores whether new irrigation data can usefully inform these narratives. It argues that, for a variety of reasons, official irrigation data in sub-Saharan Africa fails to capture the full extent and diverse nature of irrigation and its rapid distributed growth over the last two decades. The paper investigates recent trends in the use of remote sensing methods to generate irrigation data; it examines the associated expectation that these techniques enable a better understanding of current irrigation developments and small-scale farmers’ roles. It reports on a pilot study that uses radar-based imagery and analysis to provide what are indeed new insights into the extent of rice irrigated agriculture in three regions of Tanzania. We further stress that such mapping exercises remain grounded in a binary logic that separates 'irrigation' from other 'non-irrigated' landscape features. They can stem from, and buttress, a conventional understanding of irrigation that is still influenced by colonial legacies of engineering design and agricultural modernisation. As farmers’ initiatives question this dominant view of irrigation, and in a policy context that is dominated by narratives of water scarcity, this means that new data may improve the visibility of water use by small-scale irrigators but may also leave them more exposed to restrictions favouring more powerful water users. The paper thus calls for moving away from a narrow debate on irrigation data and monitoring, and towards a holistic discussion of the nature of irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa. This discussion is necessary to support a constructive engagement with farmer-led irrigation development; it is also challenging in that it involves facing entrenched vested interests and requires changes in development practices.

KEYWORDS: Irrigation, small-scale farming, remote sensing, water resource governance, data politics, narratives, sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania