By Diane MUSHIMIYIMANA, June 2020

In early 2000’s, Rwanda took an ambitious step to start the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation Project and the Rural Sector Support Project (LWH-RSSP) to improve agricultural production and improve lives.

The key aim of the projects is rural transformation through sustainable increase of agricultural productivity. The program involves development and rehabilitation of marshlands in different areas to support increased agricultural production and irrigation. The LWH focuses on sustainable land management and hill-side irrigation through among others construction of sand rivers.

The projects targeting farmers from the most water stressed areas especially in Eastern and Northern provinces cost over RWF 20 Billion under the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI).

With the East African nation struggling with food insecurity and low food production, Sand Rivers were introduced to help farmers get sufficient water for crop irrigation throughout the year but also provide water for aquaculture, animal rearing and clean water for human use.

With this in mind, authorities envisaged increased land productivity, improve household incomes, improved standards of living and increased use of technology in agriculture.

According to Statistics from MINAGRI, Rwanda has a potential of atleast 58,973ha of irrigation land. 63% of this land is on the hillside while 37% is in the valleys including marshlands.

According to the Project Coordinator at MINAGRI- Francine Tumushime, Sand Rivers have the capacity to store over 2 Million cubic meters of water to cater for irrigation throughout the year; allowing farming activities in different areas including the marshlands to continue throughout the year, especially during the dry season.

The sand river projects are spread in different areas with each targeting farmers in a given specialty. For example, the Rugende marshland project is designed to enhance rice and horticulture production, as well as fodder growing, the Muyanza project mainly supports legumes, fruits and grain farmers in Rulindo District, Northern Province.

Emile Ruzibiza, the head of department, of irrigation, land husbandry, research and technology transfer at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) says Sand River construction, irrigation schemes and marshland rehabilitation has led to increased water capacity, increased agricultural production and a significant rise in farmers’ incomes and livelihoods.

A new dawn in Rwanda economic development

Rwanda continues with the push for economic growth and poverty reduction. The Country’s vision is to become a middle income nation.  The country’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts have resulted in impressive economic performance, with GDP growing at 8.3 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. The poverty headcount ratio dropped from 58.9 percent in 2000/01 to 56.7 percent in 2005/06 and further down to 44.9 percent in 2010/11.

Agriculture has been a fundamental driver of earlier progress but government insists that the sector must modernise going forward.

Agriculture contributes over 30 percent of the country’s GDP and employs millions but over the years, it has been mainly subsistence. With the current focus on modernization of the agriculture sector, Rwanda is stimulating the greatest potential of lifting people out of poverty and promoting economic growth.

Communities used to struggle to get water for domestic use before sand rivers

Sand rivers improve agriculture in Mukura sector – Huye District

Huye is one of eight districts that make up Rwanda’s Southern Province.

In this area, government has established six sand rivers, serving organised communities of mainly rice farmers.

Individual farmers form a sector. In one of the sectors of Mukura, farmers are enthusiastic about the use of technology in agriculture especially the adoption of modern irrigation methods. Rice farmers’ cooperatives say this has increased productivity with more output now compared to when they were using old methods of using watering cans.

The Director of Agriculture in Huye district Nsengiyumva Reine Aimable says agriculture productivity has increased from 35 percent to 80 percent due to the use of sand rivers and technology in agriculture.

Huye district Mayor Sebutege Ange says people are now reaping the benefits of irrigation using sand rivers through increased production and food security adding that the district has a plan to set funds aside to cater for maintenance of sand rivers and agricultural sector ICT infrastructure.

Productivity of rice in the area before irrigation and use of technology was 5.5 Ton/Ha but this has now increased with experts saying this can even increase two- fold; if farmers keep the high standards and adopt best farming practices. 

Domithila Mukamana, one of the 400 Mukura sector rice farmers says ICT in agriculture is one of the area sustainable development projects that are changing lives. “Before technology accessibility, we carried out irrigation using watering cans. This was hard and time consuming. Using sand rivers for irrigation is easing our work,” she says. 

Jerome Munyangaju a farmer from Mukura Sector also says there is a need to scale up access to irrigation technology to enable all farmers revolutionalise their farming practices.

Still in Huye district, coffee farming has increased due to sand rivers and irrigation. John Kalisa, a coffee farmer in the area reveals that irrigation with water from the sand rivers is helping farmers utilise the time available to get the best out of their pieces of land. The increased coffee production is contributing to household development.

Coffee production in Huye District and other areas has increased due to increased irrigation . Photo by Diane MUSHIMIYIMANA

Rachel Dushimimana, the representative of Huye mountain coffee explains that coffee production is playing a huge role in area development and people’s welfare. 

According to Mayor Sebutege, coffee farmers must play a leading role in sand river maintenance to continue getting water for irrigation in different sectors like Kigoma, Maraba, and Simbi sector.

Eastern Province pride: Sand rivers boost fish, food and cash crops farming

In the Eastern province, government has established the Rugende sand river project.  Located in Rwamagana District, the project area is categorized into 140 hectares for rice farming, 130 hectares for fodder production and 115 hectares for vegetable growing – with farmers clustered into self-help groups and some in the cooperative to ensure guided and proper utilisation of the water for maximum gain.

Sand rivers are huge water retaining structures and can keep a lot of water during the dry spell for irrigation. This stored water also helps in aquaculture.

Rugende marshland that straddles three districts of Kicukiro, Gasabo and Rwamagana, was developed and is used for multiplication of maize seed, cultivation of rice, vegetables and growing fodder for cows.

Francine Uwamahoro, a farmer in Rugende marshland, Rwamagana says fish and vegetable farming is now possible and profitable in the area.

She notes that locals can now supplement their feeding with fish which is nutrient-rich especially for the children. Fish farms are common with Limnothrissa miodon which is one of the most nutritious fish species. With fish farming, the fight against malnutrition is reinforced.  

Stored water is also used in aquaculture. Photo by Diane MUSHIMIYIMANA

According to USAID, Rwanda has made significant progress in the fight against malnutrition. Between 2010 and 2015, rates of stunting among children under 5 years, decreased from 44 percent to 38 percent. However, the current rates are still high, and the country is committed to reduce stunting to 19 percent by 2024.

According to Rwamagana district Mayor Mbonyumuvunyi Radjab, Fish farming has become the main focus for most residents after realising the potential and benefits of the venture.

However, the fish sector in Rwanda remains on a small scale but Mbonyumuvunyi believes the Country has very good potential for increased fish production if commercialised and linked to sectors such as tourism.

He adds that “an enabling policy can also inspire increased fish production for both local and regional markets.”

Sand rivers driving development agenda for Kayonza, Rulindo and Gasabo districts

Most parts of Rwanda, especially in the Eastern Province, are drought prone. Seasons are nolonger predictable and this in the past discouraged many residents from practicing large scale agriculture. With the construction of sand rivers, this is slowly becoming part of the past as agricultural production continues to improve. Valerie Kabalisa, a farmer in Rukara sector in Kayonza district says that sand rivers have contributed to lessening of soil erosion and improved rain water harvesting. “We now have enough water for irrigation in the morning and evening and this has increased our crop production,” she elaborates.

The benefits of sand rivers are spread across all provinces where such rivers are. In Rulindo, the Muyanza irrigation Dam is transforming the area into the country’s centre for fruits and vegetable production.

However, maintaining these facilities remains a challenge but a must do. According to government authorities, beneficiaries through their groups and cooperatives must look after these facilities for sustainable use. Government is also scaling up awareness and sensitisation of the population about adaptation to climate change impacts through integrated land and water management.

Nyabarongo river catchment project was introduced in 2010. Photo by Aimable Twahirwa

Innocent Musabyimana, Single Projects Implementation Unit Coordinator at the Ministry of Environment (MoE), says that sustainable management and maintenance of Sand river infrastructures is very important for the transition of Rwanda towards a green economy.

It remains to be seen how much sand rivers will contribute to development of Rwanda in the medium and long term but the country is on a clear growth path.

During the 14th RPF party Congress on December 21, 2019; President Paul Kagame said talking about development is not enough if people cannot find meaning in numbers being quoted. “When we say 12 percent growth, they are not just numbers, they reflect people, and how their lives are being affected. When we say that our economy has been growing, we should ask ourselves questions like; do more people now have clean water? Do they have electricity? Do citizens have access to banking services, bank loans at good rates?” he explained adding that “Our security and stability results from the fact that our development numbers reflect the reality of our people’s day-to-day lives.”

According to President Kagame, development doesn’t only mean moving from walking barefoot to wearing shoes but reaching a level where you are able to make the shoes you want to wear.

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development through Water Journalists Africa network.

Water Journalists Africa

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in 2011 in Cape Town South Africa with support from the UN-Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication.

WJA is legitimately registered as an NGO with Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs (NGO Bureau)

It is governed by a board of governors and an advisor body. The two bodies meet regularly to review the organization’s programs and projects.

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