Challenges and opportunities for revitalising smallholder irrigation schemes in South Africa
South Africa is classified as a water-scarce country, and depends on agriculture for food production. The irrigation sector is the largest consumer of water in the country, accounting for about 62% of water utilisation, but also losing 30–40%. Given the threat of drought and climate change, efficient irrigation systems have become a necessity, especially in the smallholder farming sector where most losses occur. Smallholder irrigation schemes (SIS) were developed to improve rural livelihoods through sustainable food production for food security and poverty alleviation, but these development objectives remain largely unfulfilled. The objectives of this review were to assess challenges facing SIS and explore opportunities for revitalising the schemes. The focus was on government policy and strategies to support smallholder farmers. A review of government policy showed that although the needs and interests of smallholder farmers are high on the national agenda, there is insufficient financial support to the sector, suggesting that smallholder agriculture is not really seen as a potential driver of the economy. The core focus of the government on repairing irrigation infrastructure while neglecting the soft components relating to capacity building has partly been blamed for the failure of SIS in South Africa. Capacity building is one of the missing links in smallholder irrigation development and many failures have been attributed to lack of adequately trained farmers and extension staff, particularly in irrigation water management. Land tenure insecurity has been singled out as a major institutional challenge leading to poor performance of irrigation schemes. The diversity of schemes means that different kinds of interventions are needed to respond to varying farmers’ needs, resources and agricultural contexts. These findings point to the need to balance the soft and hard components of the irrigation schemes for sustainability. It is therefore evident that the government needs to review its priorities in revitalisation of SIS. Land tenure policies allowing increased access to arable land need to be developed urgently, together with the promotion of alternative cropping systems that are suitable for the smallholder farming sector.
Keywords: water-use efficiency, land tenure, policy, extension services, institutions, training