World Water Day: Irrigation scheme in Malawi could transform lives of refugees

News Stories, 22 March 2007

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Kayora Senyange, a UNHCR water engineer, has marked out the course of a pipeline that could transform agriculture for the residents of a refugee camp in southern Malawi.

LUWANI REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, March 22 (UNHCR) A stream that has sliced a narrow channel down the side of a rocky plateau in southern Malawi represents the best hope for making the refugees of Luwani Camp self-sufficient.

If the UN refugee agency succeeds in finding the funds it seeks, a 15-metre-high dam will be built to block the gap through the extremely hard hornblende rocks and a portion of the Nkhombe River will be diverted into a pipe to transform agriculture at the refugee camp some 12 kilometres away.

The irrigation project, thought about for years but now planned in detail on the ground by UNHCR engineers, would supply year-round water for both the refugees and nearby Malawians who struggle to feed themselves. The World Food Programme not only provides monthly rations for the 3,000 refugees of Luwani, it often has to provide food to Malawians of the region.

"Next month this will be harvested and the land will be bare," Anderson Mbozi, the government's irrigation officer for the region, said as he stood atop the future water reservoir in the midst of a millet field. "These people are getting just one crop a year they have only two-and-a-half or three months a year of farming during the rainy season and the rest of the year the fields are idle. With irrigation they could get up to four crops a year."

UNHCR had once pumped drinking water for 250,000 Mozambican refugees living in the same region, but after they returned home in the 1990s the government had neither the expertise nor resources to maintain the system. This new US$376,000 irrigation project has been designed to be simple, economical and sustainable.

The 33.5-metre fall in height from the water intake to the storage tank beside the 75 hectares of fields that will be supplied, means the flow can be powered solely by gravity. The stream's narrow channel through the rocks means a US$86,000 dam only 50 metres wide at the top and 20 metres at the bottom will create a reservoir 15 metres deep and 400 metres long.

The water will be carried from the dam in 20 centimetre diameter plastic pipes, which will be buried to ensure they last a projected 25 years. At the farm plots, water will be distributed by small plastic pipes to individual outlets to prevent the water disappearing into the sandy soil.

"If we get this water, it will help both refugees and the local population," said Martin Mphundukwa, the state-appointed director of Luwani Refugee Camp. The local people are firmly behind it, they have asked for it for many years."

The local Malawians have demonstrated their support for the project and cooperation with the refugees by contributing the land that will be irrigated. Most of it will be used by the refugees.

The refugees, who at present farm small areas along a seasonal stream, are also anxiously waiting for the year-round water supply. At a gathering under a tree in the camp, men and women emphatically guaranteed they would dig the ditches for the pipes that will criss-cross the field to water the 0.15 hectare plots assigned to individual families. Some refugees with formal education in agriculture offered to guide the others as they expanded into new crops.

The farming will be done by the rural Rwandans and Burundians who form the bulk of the 9,000 refugees in Malawi, including those in Luwani. But everyone, including Congolese and others without a farming background, will benefit from extra domestic water and increased prosperity in the camp.

Kayora Senyange, the UNHCR water engineer who has marked out the entire course of the pipeline, sees even bigger potential. After a rough 400-metre walk up to the site he found for the dam, he points up the side of the gorge and says it could hold a dam nearly three times as high.

"What we are going to take is 24 litres-per-second, but using that rate will take less than 5 percent of the annual flow," Senyange said. Even the proposed dam could handle a larger pipe than the one planned, irrigating more of what is one of Malawi's poorest areas.

However, that ambitious plan is for a time when greater development funds are available for Malawi. Rather than delaying further, UNHCR's focus is on starting a scheme which may be modest but promises to deliver an immediate improvement in the lives of the refugees at Luwani and their neighbours.

"We need to show our gratitude to the local population who, despite living in an area with chronic food shortages, have generously helped refugees for years," said Haji Jama Abdulkadir, UNHCR representative for Malawi. "At the same time, this project will assist refugees with an agricultural background to become self-sufficient in what is a very difficult region."

By Jack Redden in Luwani Refugee Camp, Malawi