Algeria plans to irrigate fourth of its arable land by next year

Algeria’s arable land could be expanded to 30 million hectares despite the severe climate conditions if there were more support for farmers.
Sunday 01/04/2018
Workers harvest wheat in a field on the outskirts of Berouaguia, south-west of Algiers.  (Reuters)
Essential commodity. Workers harvest wheat in a field on the outskirts of Berouaguia, south-west of Algiers. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Algeria, the world’s third-largest wheat importer, will have 25% of its arable land irrigated by the end of 2019, Agriculture Minister Abdelkader Bouazghi said. This is a bold objective by Algeria, which is listed among the countries most affected by water stress.

The irrigation scheme is a part of a plan to develop and modernise the farming sector to help the country reach self-sufficiency in durum wheat, help Algiers cut food imports and create jobs as it copes with low oil prices.

The farming sector contributes up to 10% of Algeria’s GDP and employs about 14% of the country’s nearly 40 million people.

Bouazghi said Algeria will have 2 million hectares under irrigation by the end of 2019. The country has 1.3 million hectares irrigated now. Algeria, the largest country in Africa, boasts about 8 million hectares of arable land, about 3.5% of its total area.

Algeria’s agriculture is mostly rain-fed and often suffers droughts that have worsened in recent years because of climate change.

The National Union of Algerian Farmers said Algeria’s arable land could be expanded to 30 million hectares despite the severe climate conditions if there were more support for farmers, including the development of irrigation resources.

Agricultural experts said even the target of irrigating 2 million hectares by next year would be a tough test for the government’s heavy bureaucracy.

“Algeria has less than half of the threshold set by the World Bank for annual water scarcity of 1,000 cubic metres per inhabitant,” said Mouhouch Brahim, an instructor at Algiers’s High National School for Agronomy.

“To achieve its food security, Algeria ought to mobilise between 15 billion and 20 billion cubic metres of water per year from the levels of 4 billion-5 billion currently,” he said, adding that the farming sector consumes 70% of the total water supply.

Bouazghi said: “Algeria is expanding the capacity of its water resources to free itself from the water stress level and go beyond that level in the near future. The country has built dams and is building more reservoirs with significant capacities along with 11 desalination plants and 176 waste water treatment plants.”

He said Algeria has 76 dams with a total capacity of 8.2 billion cubic metres. Eight additional dams will push capacity to 9 billion cubic metres by next year.

Also, the construction of 11 desalination plants and wastewater treatment facilities have allowed for reallocating the water in dams to the farming sector, Bouazghi said. Additional desalination and water treatment plants are to go online this year and there are 75,000 water drilling projects under way.

Arezki Mekliche, an agronomy researcher at the Algerian High National Agronomy School, said additional conditions must be met for the irrigation project to succeed.

“Irrigating 2 million hectares in 2019… supposes the needed amount of water is already filling the dams, that the areas to be irrigated are already identified and equipped,” he said. “Everyone knows that, unfortunately, building dams take a long time and when they are built the authorities forget for another long time to put in place the water supply systems.”

The government said the irrigation plan was part of a broader strategy to improve yields to 7 million tonnes of cereal a year and become self-sufficient in durum wheat next year.

Algeria is focusing on developing durum wheat, which accounts for the largest share of planted area, followed by barley and bread wheat, official figures indicate. Algeria’s Farming Ministry said 3.5 million hectares were seeded to wheat and barley for the 2017-18 season. About half of the land was planted with durum wheat.

“It is within our reach to attain self-sufficiency in durum wheat. We can achieve this goal in the short term,” said Mohamed Belabdi, head of the government’s arm to import and develop farming of grain-producing areas.

“The soft wheat is a variety of grain that needs high levels of rains and is moisture-sensing during the sowing period. We need more time to select the variety that adapts to our climate environment. We will continue to import soft wheat.”

Algeria imported 8.4 million tonnes of grain worth $1.7 billion in 2017 versus 9.1 million tonnes the previous year, Belabdi told Algiers state radio.