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Images of Southern Africa - Irrigation project

Irrigation Project, Herzog-Fairburn

South Africa has a broad agricultural sector and is a net food exporter in most years. About 15 million hectares, or 12% of the land area, is under cultivation and about 10% of this is under intensive irrigation.

Under apartheid, white farmers controlled more than 80% of the arable land. There were similar discrepancies in farm size: white-owned farms averaged 1300 hectares, whereas black-owned farms averaged 5.2 hectares. With nearly 80% of the population restricted to less than 20% of the land, most land farmed by blacks was severely overused. This led to soil erosion and low productivity. As a result many black farming families were supported by at least one person engaged in non-agricultural employment.

Cereal and grain are South Africa’s most important crops - occupying more than 60% of area under cultivation in the 1990s. Maize (corn), the country's most important crop, is a dietary staple, a source of livestock feed and an export crop. As with all non-irrigated crops, maize production is closely related to the amount of rainfall. In years of good rainfall, production exceeds 10 million tonnes; in poor years it can be as low as 3 million tonnes. Production in 2002-03 was, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, 9.2 million tonnes. Maize yields were 2.6 tonnes per hectare - relatively high for a less developed country.

The dry winter of 2003-04 was preceded by a period of below-average rainfall in summer 2003. This has left soil moisture, groundwater and reservoir levels much lower than normal. As a result production in 2004 is likely to be below average, necessitating considerable imports of grain.

Fruit, including grapes for wine, bring in up to 40% of agricultural export earnings. Over 100,000 hectares are planted with vineyards, and one of the most obvious signs of the end of international sanctions was a dramatic increase in demand for South African wines after 1994.

The photograph shows a drip-feed irrigation system in the Herzog-Fairburn area being used to grow cabbages for the commercial market. This project is one of several being run by a local black community co-operative with funding from the European Union. The community buys the seedlings and sells the cabbages to a retailer who then sells them in local markets.


Ideas for further exploration:

  • In what ways is the EU-funded irrigation project an example of aid money being used positively?
  • Why is drip-feed irrigation more efficient that flow irrigation where water is pumped from a nearby river or lake?
  • In what ways might schemes such as this one help improve the quality of life of members of the local community?
  • Why do you think the community has decided to grow crops such as cabbages, strawberries or flowers, rather than maize?

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