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Livelihoods from flood plains in Nigeria

Submitted by Nitya Jacob 2nd December 2022 5:04

Floodplains are excellent for farming


There are two types of farming on the flood plains of rivers. The first, which is widely practiced, is to plant as flood waters retreat. The other is to plant certain fast growing crops as flood waters advance.

About 10 million hectares of land in floods plains in Africa are under flood-recession agriculture. These are along the Niger, Zambezi, Senegal, Tana, Rufelji and Lufira rivers and their tributaries, around lakes, minor rivers and in natural depressions, such as dambo, as well as on the vast plains of South Sudan.

Despite this, flood recession agriculture has got little attention. Productivity can be improved with some basic water management techniques resulting in better livelihoods of the people depending on them. These flood plains are excellent natural wet buffers. Groundwater is available at a shallow depth and is replenished annually. Seasonal floods provide nutrient-rich sediment.


Simple methods can maximise livelihoods of people dependent on the flood plains.

Better water management through the use of dikes, inundation canals and drains to guide and  control water. Flood-based farming systems occur in different parts of the world and can sustain large populations. For example, in Bangladesh, a sophisticated system of bunds, dikes, canals and drains has been developed to spread water over a large area. This prevents stagnation and retains water for a long time. In Bihar, a state in India, canals and wetland are connected to rivers that flood annually, spreading their silt-laden water over a large area and facilitating rice and fish cultivation. In Mexico, raised beds are made to start cultivation earlier and use the flood water.

Shifting to flood-rise agriculture. In this method, rising flood water is used for the cultivation of fast-growing rice species which keep pace with the rise in inundation levels. For example, around Lake Tana in Ethiopia flood-rise agriculture has allowed farmers double cropping: growing rice on the rising flood and, subsequently, other crops, such as chickpeas, on the residual moisture. Flood-rise farming can can be used in other places depending on the pattern of flood rise where floating rice varieties can be grown, that are very fast growing varieties that keep up with the speed of the rising flood and can reach 3-5 m in height. They are cultivated in as Mali and Cambodia.

Use shallow groundwater. Groundwater is available at shallow depths in most flood plains. Dug wells or shallow tubewells can be used to pump this for farming. This irrigation allows for supplementary irrigation soon after the floods have receded. Some simple methods for pumping groundwater are the hand auger that can be used to a depth of 15-25 metres; sludging; and jetting. Unlike Asia the skills in manual drilling of shallow wells is not yet as widespread in Africa.

Diversification - fishery, livestock. Flood based farming system provide the basis for diversified livelihood systems – not just farming, but also fishery and livestock keeping. Fish for instance can be promoted by finger-ponds. Also, the wetlands in and around flood-based systems often offer opportunities for non-timber products, medicines and other products. Market chains are however not well developed. 

Development of the fadama flood plains

Found along Nigeria’s river systems, the fadama are the extensive flood plains and low-lying areas underlined by shallow aquifers. These were formed by the deposition of suspended material over the low gradient plans. Silt and other materials are suspended in stagnant ponds that settle in layers of silt, clay, sand and silty loam over the original sandy material. The relatively low permeability creates aquifers throughout the floodplain.

People have learnt where to dig shallow wells to get to this water. Failed wells mark clay-rich places that have become sites for brickmaking. The area gets 700 mm of rain. In the past irrigation started in November, after the plains were sufficiently dried to allow the re-excavation of the dug wells.

Since 1992, in a World Bank-supported project for developing agriculture, over 40,000 shallow tube wells, equipped with small engine-driven water pumps have been installed. This has made irrigation more reliable, covering a longer period and allowed for the cultivation of vegetables. Farmers, fishermen, hunters, pastoralists and gatherers were provided grants for small-scale productive activities such as fishponds, cold stores, feed mills, harvesting equipment and feeder roads, small bridges, culverts, rural markets, rural electrification as well as training and skills development.

But this has created tensions between farmers and militant outside pastoralist groups over access to land. Additionally, wells are used intensively for irrigation in the morning, they are sometimes not yet recharged in the afternoon when they are used for livestock watering.

(Excerpted from Transforming landscapes, transforming lives : the business of sustainable water buffer management).

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