Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ukraine looks to irrigation to increase yields

Every so often Ukraine’s Ministry of Agriculture announces plans to rebuild their irrigation infrastructure in order to increase yields.

Then potential investors look at the cost benefit implications and the idea is quietly kicked into the long grass until the next time.

This week the ministry reported that in 2015 Ukraine irrigated 472kha out of a possible 1.7mha of land that could be irrigated (I assume they mean land with immediate access to water) citing the need to upgrade, modernise and invest in irrigation infrastructure.

To address this issue the ministry has launched a strategy (and presumably a committee or two) on the reconstruction and development of irrigation in Ukraine.

Not entirely sure what that all means but given the state of the country’s finances and the huge cost associated with repairing and replacing the canals, pumping stations and other paraphernalia then I guess the main goal will be to secure external funding.

The amount of investment required just to maintain the irrigation infrastructure must run in to many millions of dollars but even if they do convince a development bank or government aid department, is this the right way to go?

The ministry's argument for irrigation is an uplift in yield which is true enough but yield doesn’t equate to profit and the limitations of irrigation and damage that can be done often outweigh the benefit.

Politicians, development consultants and the like see irrigation as a simple solution to increasing yields, one that is easy to contextualise and understand; irrigated grain yield 4.9mt/ha, rainfed 2.5mt/ha (their figures).

But it was recently described to me by someone who has extensive experience of implementing large scale Black Sea region irrigation projects that “you have no idea the size of headache you unleash once you embark on such a task, you need very, very deep pockets”.  I paraphrase but you get the idea.

My advice would be to forget irrigation for now, certainly public sector irrigation projects, instead use development bank funding to undertake proper market based research aimed at improving yields through better crop husbandry.

Unfortunately I don't think politicians find soil management, nozzle selection and counting bugs as sexy as a big pumping station.