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Dry spell mitigation to upgrade semi-arid rainfed agriculture : Water harvesting and soil nutrient management for smallholder maize cultivation in Machakos, Kenya

by Barron, Jennie

Abstract (Summary)
Improvements in on-farm water and soil fertility management through water harvesting may prove key to up-grade smallholder farming systems in dry sub-humid and semi-arid sub-Sahara Africa (SSA). The currently experienced yield levels are usually less than 1 t ha-1, i.e., 3-5 times lower than potential levels obtained by commercial farmers and researchers for similar agro-hydrological conditions. The low yield levels are ascribed to the poor crop water availability due to variable rainfall, losses in on-farm water balance and inherently low soil nutrient levels. To meet an increased food demand with less use of water and land in the region, requires farming systems that provide more yields per water unit and/or land area in the future. This thesis presents the results of a project on water harvesting system aiming to upgrade currently practised water management for maize (Zea mays, L.) in semi-arid SSA. The objectives were to a) quantify dry spell occurrence and potential impact in currently practised small-holder grain production systems, b) test agro-hydrological viability and compare maize yields in an on-farm experiment using combinations supplemental irrigation (SI) and fertilizers for maize, and c) estimate long-term changes in water balance and grain yields of a system with SI compared to farmers currently practised in-situ water harvesting. Water balance changes and crop growth were simulated in a 20-year perspective with models MAIZE1&2. Dry spell analyses showed that potentially yield-limiting dry spells occur at least 75% of seasons for 2 locations in semi-arid East Africa during a 20-year period. Dry spell occurrence was more frequent for crop cultivated on soil with low water-holding capacity than on high water-holding capacity. The analysis indicated large on-farm water losses as deep percolation and run-off during seasons despite seasonal crop water deficits. An on-farm experiment was set up during 1998-2001 in Machakos district, semi-arid Kenya. Surface run-off was collected and stored in a 300m3 earth dam. Gravity-fed supplemental irrigation was carried out to a maize field downstream of the dam. Combinations of no irrigation (NI), SI and 3 levels of N fertilizers (0, 30, 80 kg N ha-1) were applied. Over 5 seasons with rainfall ranging from 200 to 550 mm, the crop with SI and low nitrogen fertilizer gave 40% higher yields (**) than the farmers’ conventional in-situ water harvesting system. Adding only SI or only low nitrogen did not result in significantly different yields. Accounting for actual ability of a storage system and SI to mitigate dry spells, it was estimated that a farmer would make economic returns (after deduction of household consumption) between year 2-7 after investment in dam construction depending on dam sealant and labour cost used. Simulating maize growth and site water balance in a system of maize with SI increased annual grain yield with 35 % as a result of timely applications of SI. Field water balance changes in actual evapotranspiration (ETa) and deep percolation were insignificant with SI, although the absolute amount of ETa increased with 30 mm y-1 for crop with SI compared to NI. The dam water balance showed 30% productive outtake as SI of harvested water. Large losses due to seepage and spill-flow occurred from the dam. Water productivity (WP, of ETa) for maize with SI was on average 1 796 m3 per ton grain, and for maize without SI 2 254 m3 per ton grain, i.e, a decerase of WP with 25%. The water harvesting system for supplemental irrigation of maize was shown to be both biophysically and economically viable. However, adoption by farmers will depend on other factors, including investment capacity, know-how and legislative possibilities. Viability of increased water harvesting implementation in a catchment scale needs to be assessed so that other down-stream uses of water remains uncompromised.
Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:

School:Stockholms universitet

School Location:Sweden

Source Type:Doctoral Dissertation

Keywords:

ISBN:91-7265-843-6

Date of Publication:01/01/2004

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