Performance of large-scale irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa

Thomas P. Higginbottom, Roshan Adhikari, Ralitza Dimova, Sarah Redicker, Timothy Foster

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After a 30-year hiatus, large-scale irrigation projects have returned to the development agenda in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, the magnitude and drivers of past schemes’ performance remains poorly understood. We quantify the performance, measured as the proportion of proposed irrigated area delivered, of 79 irrigation schemes from across SSA by comparing planning documents with estimates of current scheme size from satellite-derived land-cover maps. We find overwhelming evidence that investments have failed to deliver promised benefits, with schemes supporting a median 16% of proposed area, only 20 (25%) delivering >80% and 16 (20%) completely inactive. Performance has not improved over six decades and we find limited relationships with commonly stated causes of failure such as scheme size and climate. We attribute these findings to political and management frameworks underpinning irrigation development in SSA. First, an emphasis on national food security promotes low-value crops, reducing economic viability. Second, proposals are unrealistically large, driven by optimism bias and political incentives. Finally, centralized bureaucracies lack the technical expertise, local knowledge and financial resources to ensure long-term maintenance. Our findings highlight the need for greater learning from past investments’ outcomes if improvements in agricultural productivity and water security across SSA are to be realized.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNature Sustainability
Early online date18 Jan 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jan 2021

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute
  • Manchester Environmental Research Institute


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