Update on program to improve agricultural production and water management in Central Mali

The Ikidia Saving for Change group holds a weekly meeting in Domba, Mali.

The Ikidia Saving for Change group holds a weekly meeting in Domba, Mali. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America.

In August 2010, Groundswell launched a three year program – Saving for Change Plus Agriculture (SfC Plus Ag) – in partnership with Oxfam America. It responds to requests for agriculture training by many of the 350,000 women in Oxfam’s Saving for Change community finance groups across Mali. They wanted to learn how to solve their other most pressing problems: low agricultural production (caused mostly by rapidly deteriorating soils) and water scarcity (both for domestic use and agriculture). Through SfC Plus Ag, 26,000 women living 200 rural villages in Mali are learning to sustainably improve their agricultural production by introducing simple technologies to improve soil fertility (using nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops), seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.

Below are excerpts from Groundswell’s Mali program coordinator’s, Roland Bunch, second progress report covering November 2010 through April 2011.

“The domestic water problem is basically caused by the fact that the water tables in central Mali are sinking at the rate of something like a meter every year, meaning that old wells and pumps no longer reach the water.  All too often, when the villagers try to dig the wells deeper, they encounter a layer of impenetrable rock, meaning that they have to find some other place to sink a well.  In time, of course, the water table (except within a few kilometers’ distance from the major rivers) will sink so low that hand-dug wells and hand pumps will no longer be feasible.  Then a truly serious water crisis will grip the nation.

Replenishing water tables is fairly easy, especially if it is done by adding organic matter to the people’s fields.  This process will soften the soil, make the surface rougher, and prevent crusting, thereby allowing perhaps 50% of the area’s rainwater to percolate through the soil, rather than about 15%, as is the case now.  This increase in infiltration would go a long way toward stopping the constant sinking of the water table.

But adding organic matter to the soil is also the key to raising Mali’s agricultural productivity.  For centuries, if not millennia, African farmers maintained the continent’s soil fertility by fallowing the land—that is, allowing the land to “rest,” so that the forest would grow back and drop its leaves on the soil surface, thereby dramatically increasing the organic matter in the soil.  Because of population growth and the resulting decrease in land per family, farmers all over Mali, in the last two decades, have been forced to quit fallowing the land in order to have enough food to eat.  As fallow periods were  gradually reduced from the traditional ten to fifteen years to eight years, to five years, and now most recently, to zero to two years (with most farmers having abandoned fallowing all together), the soils have been mined of their organic matter, and productivity is dropping by ten to fifteen percent a year.  Widespread famine will be the inevitable result, unless we act fast.

The action to be taken is the use of green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs, which are basically any plants, including trees, that fertilize the soil).  These species of plants can be grown in farmers’ fields as the farmers plant their crops.  Thus, in effect, instead of having one area of land in crops, and another being fallowed, farmers can have fallow species right in their fields.  That is, they can produce crops and fallow their land at the same time.  We call this technology “simultaneous fallowing.”

Thus, fortunately, the easiest and most efficient way of maintaining rural Malians’ access to water over the long haul, as well as the easiest and most efficient way of maintaining their soil’s productivity, is to increase the soil’s organic matter content.

This is, of course, a simplified description of all the myriad factors involved, but the basic truth is nevertheless accurate: both the water and food production problems of Malian women will largely be solved through one and the same action: adding organic matter to the soil.”

Read excerpts of the rest of the report, which is organized according to the program’s main measurable objectives: introduction of appropriate short-cycle seeds, improved water management, improved soil fertility, and capacity building.

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