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Senegalese Farmers Hope A Trickle of Water Can Help Them Flood Agricultural Market


Rising food and fuel prices around the world are forcing people to curtail consumption of basic items. But in poverty-stricken West Africa, where millions live on less than a dollar a day, these price hikes can mean going hungry. Experts say to prevent future crises, these countries need to produce more food at home. Naomi Schwarz visited Dap Dior, Senegal, where some farmers are using a new irrigation technique to try to do just that.

Fresh off one of the rainy season's first downpours, Senegalese farmer Moussa Ngom has hit the fields.

The 37-year-old, with more than 30 years farming experience, is laying seeds for his cash crop, peanuts.

Ngom says when the rain starts, he knows it is time to plant. Because he does not water his plants, he relies on the rain. It all depends on God, he says.

If all goes well, Ngom should be able to harvest his peanuts in a few months time. But a short walk away, a fence encloses a small field where the peanuts are just days away from being harvested.

Water trickles directly to the roots of the plants through drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is one of the most common types of irrigation in richer countries. But this version is specially adapted for developing countries, like Senegal. It requires very little water pressure and is inexpensive to install and maintain.

Mamadou Diouf is one of the farmers growing peanuts here.

He describes what happens as he turns on the tap next to a blue barrel on a meter-high pedestal.

He says water drips out of black pipes, laid across the field.

The holes in the pipes are so small they are nearly invisible. But with the help of a high-tech plastic device inside the pipe, they deliver a uniform trickle of water right where it is needed, without letting much evaporate.

It means Diouf can grow crops all year long. He does not have to pay much for water, because drip irrigation is very efficient.

And unlike traditional methods for watering plants, which often require carrying heavy watering cans, sometimes over long distances, all Diouf has to do is turn on the tap.

He says even small children can do it.

The drip irrigation system Diouf is using was installed by the Israeli embassy, in partnership with local and international aid groups.

It is one part of the country-wide effort to alleviate poverty by increasing local agricultural production.

Although most Senegalese people are farmers, agricultural experts say the country still imports more than half of its food.

It is the reason they say Senegal, like many other West African nations, has been so hard hit by the global food crisis. For example, the price of rice, mostly imported from Asia, has more than doubled in the past year.

Diouf's wife, N'dieme Faye, pounds millet for her family's lunch.

She says life is too expensive now, and that her family can no longer afford rice.

Eyal Yaron is the commercial officer for the Israeli Embassy, and is overseeing the installation of these drip irrigation systems in Senegal. He says he hopes drip irrigation will mean families like Diouf's can make enough money to not worry about food prices anymore.

But this is not the first irrigation system that has been installed in Dap Dior by charity groups. Leftover parts of sprinkler systems lie unused next to empty concrete water basins. Projects tend to fail when the organization that built them stops managing them directly.

Yaron says he believes this project will be sustainable over the long term. "In the other systems, there was high maintenance costs and high maintaining generally. You had to fix something all the time to make sure the water is running. This system can work for five years with no maintaining, nothing," he said.

Yaron says the farmers work and profit as individuals, so even if half the farmers stopped using the system, the others could continue.

He says the most promising sign that this project is making a difference is that farmers are taking the money they have earned to buy the same drip irrigation equipment for their other fields.