Ancient African Irrigation Systems

Irrigation systems have been an essential tool used by Africans in agriculture due to the continent’s unreliable rainfall and constant droughts. It is widely believed that the earliest use of irrigation systems took place along the banks of the Nile River in Ancient Egypt.

According to scholars, the Nile River used to flood during the summer and leaves behind a significant amount of silt when the water recedes in early fall. This led for Egyptians to create a system known as basic irrigation which primarily involves the classification of land along the river into massive basins with walls. In short, the water filled the basins during the flood.

Subsequently, this enabled the farmers to grow their crops in the wet soil that was left behind. It is, however, important to take into account that farmers who made use of basin irrigation was only limited to plant one crop a year on their fields since it could not control the size of the flood.

Other than Egypt, irrigation systems were also a popular commodity in Mali as it was utilized to support crops in the Niger River. In fact, farmers in the region employed a technique called flood cropping wherein they choose to plant rice close to the river in July and August. As the river floods in the fall, the water covers the land and helps the rice to grow.

Niger river

Adjacently, the farmers harvest the rice when the water recedes between December and February. Similar to the Nile River, the extent of flood waters in the Niger River is often unpredictable which forces farmers to plant a wide variety of crops that can adapt to both dry and hot weather conditions. By means of this process, ancient African farmers are able to ensure that one of their crops can survive regardless of the size of the flood.

Even though flood cropping and basin irrigation helped farmers grow crops, both systems depended on river flooding which can differ from year to year. In order to overcome this problem, farmers managed to develop technology that enabled them to attract from rivers for irrigation and to hoard water for use during drought seasons.

Interesting Facts about Ancient African Irrigation Systems

  • The first two barrages of the Nile River were built by Egyptian viceroy Muhammed Ali Pasha between 1833 and 1843.
  • The Nubi people of Ancient Africa utilized a waterwheel-like tool called sakia as a form of irrigation.
  • At present, basic irrigation systems that are found in Africa are operated by animal power and simple pumps to distribute large quantities of water.
  • The Sennar Dam was built in 1925 on the Blue Nile in Sudan to provide water to irrigate the Gezira plain which is located in the south of Khartoum.
  • The Gezira system subsequently became a model for large-scale irrigation programs across Africa due to its success. Presently, the Gezira irrigation system covers 0.88 million hectares.
  • Cotton is the primary crop that is grown using the Gezira irrigation system.
  • The Aswan High Dam on the Nile which was used for irrigation and in producing hydroelectric power was built in 1960 by the Egyptian government.
  • The water from Niger River was also utilized to irrigate approximately 100,000 hectares of flat alluvial plains in the region of Mali.

The irrigation canals of the Gezira Scheme as seen from space

What are crops grown using the Gezira irrigation scheme?

Crops that are planted using the Gezira irrigation scheme include cotton, vegetables, wheat and sorghum.

How many farmers in Africa use the Gezira irrigation system?

The Gezira irrigation system is dubbed as the biggest irrigation scheme in the world with more than 100,000 farmers.

Where did irrigation start in Africa?

Irrigation was believed to have started along the banks of the Nile River.

How important were the first two barrages in the Nile River?

It enabled Egyptians to control the flow of water in the Nile Delta and uplift the space of land under irrigation.