Climate change prompts Bura Irrigation Scheme to diversify from cotton production

An agronomist at the Bura irrigation scheme inspects a cotton farm. Inset, a26km gravity canal under excavation from Korakora in Tana river county on January 19. / LEWIS NYAUNDI

Climate change and Global warming have changed weather patterns in the country, the changes have prompted Bura irrigation scheme explore different plant options from the original cotton.

The scheme suffers a big challenge of inadequate water despite getting its supply of water from the biggest river in Kenya. Tana River.

Just like any other mass of fresh water, the river has been associated with ever reduction of water propelled by the universal global warming effect and the increased drought in the area the scheme is located. Tana River County.

Tana river supplies 80 per cent of Nairobi’s water needs, and accounts for 70 per cent of Kenya’s hydroelectric power generation and 38 per cent of the country’s power supply apart from serving other communities living along the river.

The river basin has fertile highlands for food production and cash crop farming in the upper region, while the downstream region along the Tana Delta offers vast opportunities for irrigation which prompted establishment of Bura irrigation scheme.

The irrigation scheme started in 1980 was originally founded to grow Cotton which was then used as a raw material in the Rivertex East Africa a textile plant in Eldoret.

However, following the collapse of the textile plant led to a market void for the cotton farmers leaving them with no choice but to stop growth of the plant.

According to Mama Musa Who moved to the scheme in 1981, the climate at that time was conducive and there was plenty of water to irrigate their farms.

Mama Musa moved to the scheme in 1981 with her family from Kitui and settled at the scheme.

Like many she was pushed by the unending food challenge in her homeland that prompted to her moving to Bura.

She said she had seen the ‘bitter and sweets’ of the schemes, she has seen her life graduating from one phase to the other in the scheme.

“I have been here for over 35 years and I have seen a lot I saw the scheme go down the tunnel and coming back again, I have had a family and children in this scheme it has become part of my life,” she said.

Upon arrival, she was allocated 5 acre piece of land where she kicked off commercial cultivation of cotton.

Apart from the five acres, the scheme further allocated her a piece of land to conduct her subsistence farming.

She explains that the farmers then received good returns from the crop despite their being no established board to financially aid their

The produce then was rich and plenty as the soil was still very fertile and there was adequate water for irrigation from river Tana which by then she describes it as swollen.

“Back then we used to use very little fertilizer as the soil was still very rich and received high produce, water from Tana River was more than enough back then as the river was swollen and sometimes they even had to close the pumps since the water was more than the demand,” she said.

However, over the years many things have changed Mama Musa said, among them is the collapse and rehabilitation of the scheme.

The rehabilitation that took place in 2005 to revive the scheme after its collapse in 1989.

The region that was once scarcely populated has grown in numbers to accommodate 2245 farmers households residing in 10 villages located within the scheme.

Each farmer has a farm holding of 1.25ha (3acres) for farming this has greatly reduced the amount of water required for irrigation of the farms that have also increased in number.

The once swollen canals are now half filled with water pumped for 17 hours a day to meet the farmers’ demands.

Upon revival, the scheme has engaged in contract farming where seed maize, Commercial maize, cotton and horticulture crops grown as cash crops.

The holticulture include fruits, vegetables, onions, tomatoes, ground nuts and many others so an option to fill the void left by the cotton they no longer concentrated on.

The farmers receive their funding from the Agricultural Fund Board (AFB).

The board formed in 2013 provides the farmers with Sh48550 for every one and half acre of land under cultivation of horticulture and food crops.

However, those growing cotton receive 46000 for every one and half acre.

Each farmer is also allocated 0.05ha (0.125 acres) as maendeleo plots for subsistence farming of vegetables and fruit crops among others.

According to Engineer Felix Shiundu the scheme manager, they resolved to explore other options than the initial cotton due to both climatic and demand changes.

The biggest challenge being shortage of enough water that saw the scheme management under the National Irrigations Board carry out rehabilitation of the scheme infrastructure which included revival of a 50km long Main Canal, branch canals, drains and roads.

“The canals that were used to supply water to the farms had completely been blocked by the ‘Mathenge’ plant and silt that had accumulated following failure in maintenance,” the scheme manager said.

The NIB further ensured expansion of area under irrigation which increased to 12,000 acres in the year 2011/2012.

The board further installed four pumps in place of the old axial pumps to guarantee reliable irrigation water supply despite the reduced water supply.

“The new vertical submersible are more powerful and can pump more water compared to the old axial pumps which faced a tall order to spply water to the ever increasing population at the scheme.” Shiundu said.


One of the crop that has been greatly embraced since the revival of the scheme is the Water melon fruit which has opened up businesses for hundreds of farmers in Bura.

The high temperatures in Bura is also said to be the secret of good yields as the plant was originally a tropical fruit.

The melon in Bura is grown for local market at the coastal region.

Despite the plant demand for lots of water, it has quickly gained track in the regions for its fast maturity and heavy returns associated with it.

According to scheme agronomist, the plant takes thirty days from planting to day of flowering and another 30 days from flowering to maturity totaling to 60 days before the plant is ready for harvesting.

Currently, the scheme has 300 acres covered with water melons.

During harvesting, the plant goes at between Sh 15 and Sh30 per kg of the melon fruit.

According to … a melon farmer in the scheme, the fruit had fetched him Sh280000 in the previous harvest that had lasted for one and a half months.

“This fruit was a game changer to farmers of Bura we did not have much because we are poor but at least with this we can cloth our children they can go to school and take care of ourselves,” he said.

However, the fruit faces some risk among them is the lack of ready market it is also sensitivity to pest. If you cannot be able to manage the pest you risk losing the farm.


Commercial maize farming has been gaining track in Bura irrigation scheme.

The farmers include Seed maize for Kenya seed company Commercial maize for the County government of Tana River Seed green grams for Simlaw Seed Company.

Currently there are around 2,500 acres of seed maize and 300 acres of commercial maize under plantation.

Mama Musa told the star that in the previous year (2015) there was a good produce of 37,500 bags of

seed maize and 3,400 bags of commercial maize however, they were hit by a blow after the maize was discovered to contain aflatoxin.

In efforts to achieve vision 2030, the scheme is set to increase production of maize to 6000 bags in this seasons yield in order to address the countries food security.


Over the years, Bura Irrigation scheme has been receiving its source of water from Tana River.

The water is pumped using diesel driven generators through canals and later to their farms but this is about to change as the scheme is set to benefit from a 7 billion project aimed at improving water distribution in their farms.

The scheme that has been using the diesel driven pumps to irrigate farms will be replaced with a less costly Gravity system.

The project that is set at Sh 7 Billion aims to draw water from the source upstream and let water flow through gravity to the canal and finally the farms is set to end its first phase of construction in March.

However, the system will continue undergoing development and assessment until 2018 where they will fully implement it as the main irrigation system.

Bura Irrigation Scheme manger,Felix Shiundu, described gravity system as a game changer in the scheme project.

“Initially we used to spend more than 100000a day to pump water to the farms but with gravity we will only be worried with removal of silt from the canals,” Shiundu said.

The gravity water flow is set to be installed at Kora kora, 25 kms upstream where the pump station is situated.

The pump which generates water for 17 hours in a day, consumes approximately 1150 litres of diesel during operation of the pump.

Completion of the canal that will allow gravity flow is set for March before they roll out tests of operation.

The 25 Km canal is almost complete.

The gravity system will cut a total expenditure of Sh3000 per Acre to all farmers which initially was the amount used in running and upkeep maintenance of the pump.

With the gravity flow, Shiundu explains, the scheme will have capacity for expanding the area under irrigation, stabilize irrigation water flow and reduce the operation and maintenance costs.

“We know that upon implementation of this system, their will be a big change in operation and make it more affordable for farmers to carry out operations as it is cheaper,” Shiundu said.

In 2008, the Government commissioned two new Generators to boost the irrigation water flow as the demand of water increased out of the increased population.

The gravity system was a pioneer plan of the irrigation scheme in 1980 which was stalled due to cost overruns, escalating costs and cashflow problems that faced the project at the start of implementation.


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