Feature: No ordinary irrigation in The Gambia

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Innovative solar-powered technologies are securing access to water for rural communities

Across many parts of rural Gambia, women farmers often start their days before dawn to ensure that they have enough water to irrigate their gardens and to cook, clean and bathe at home.

“Some of us would wake up as early as 3.00 a.m. to 4.00 a.m. just to get water. Hyenas attacked us on three different occasions,” said Salla Bah, a vegetable farmer in the Central River Region in the north of the Gambia. “We had to endure all these challenges to be able to water our crops and find time for chores at home.”

Like most residents in her village, Salla depends on one of three deep water wells in her village. You can never be too early, and arriving at the wrong time could cost you an entire morning and the day’s wages. The vegetable farms are vital sources of income, allowing the community members to support their households with food and income.

In collaboration with the Gambian Ministry of Agriculture, FAO started an initiative in 2013 funded by the European Union and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to provide boreholes for water-deprived community gardens. However, these are no ordinary boreholes; they are equipped with solar-powered pumps that fill reservoirs kitted with filtration systems, providing clean water for irrigation and, critically, for household use and livestock.

FAO has implemented 34 solar-powered water systems to irrigate community vegetable gardens and provide livestock watering points in villages all over the Gambia. This is creating a greener future for over 6 600 community members, 90 percent of whom are women. There are an additional ten solar-powered water systems for livestock that are in advanced construction in the northern part of the River Gambia, where there is severe land degradation and deforestation.

“Before the installation of the solar systems and boreholes, we always had water challenges. Now that is in the past,” said Foday Jadama, a farmer in the community. “We now have water in abundance to grow anything we desire.”

Supporting climate mitigation and adaptation

With the effects of climate change ever-present, water access is increasingly critical to the survival of communities in the Gambia’s arid rural areas. “Aside from the economic benefits, this project is also very important when it comes to climate change,” said Dodou Trawally, the national focal person for the GEF in the Gambia.

“Managing the effects of climate change is about two things,” he continued. “It is about mitigation and adaptation. This solar-powered system addresses both, hence its importance and significance to the Gambia.”

With the off-grid systems irrigating the land, farmers such as Salla and Foday, are leading the charge in climate adaptation, setting an example of how green solutions can be a building block in climate action.

Ownership equals sustainability

The local communities are taking pride in these solar-powered systems. They have a sense of ownership and are partners in the systems’ development and maintenance. Community members also contribute a small monthly amount to support the system financially, a stipulation implemented through the community’s by-laws.

“I am responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the solar panels,” Jalamang Touray said proudly. “With the help of two women, we clean the solar panels every Friday.”

While other men predominantly work with millet or cowpea farming, Jalamang works on the vegetable garden with the women and youth. Together they tend to the five-hectare, GEF-funded vegetable garden. Jalamang received training on fixing basic faults in the system, cleaning the solar panels regularly and monitoring the water flow into the overhead galvanized water storage tank.