Sweat trickles down Benoit Koundou’s face. The 60-year-old market gardener blocks off the small irrigation canal that leads to his plot, then turns back to the bag of fertilizer he’s preparing to apply to his young tomato seedlings.
Even though he’s wearing boots, he must walk slowly through the mud and water that flows through the ridges. Eventually, the market gardener takes a break and says, “The field is sufficiently irrigated for today, or else I might flood the whole field.”
Mr. Koundou grows tomatoes off-season near the Tantigou dam, in Dapaong, northern Togo, 640 kilometres from Lomé, the capital city. Gardens stretch for much of the way beside the dam along a three-kilometre irrigation system.
Almost 200 market gardeners irrigate their fields of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and other vegetables with water from Tantigou dam. Mr. Koundou has four plots of land of about 400 square metres each. During the rainy season, he produces rice for family consumption. After harvesting the rice, he prepares his land to plant tomatoes.
The irrigation system is downstream of the dam. A valve is periodically opened and farmers take turns opening smaller irrigation canals leading to their fields.
Mr. Koundou describes how he irrigates his plot: “This is where all the action takes place. As soon as I need water, I open the secondary channel system, and when the plot is sufficiently irrigated, I go back and close the hole.”
With a good location and easy irrigation, Mr. Koundou can grow tomatoes for six to seven months a year—even in the dry season—and receive a stable income. He earns about 800,000 CFA francs ($1,425 US) a year selling tomatoes.
But the dam and irrigation system—covering 80 hectares and built in 1967—is old and poorly maintained.
For some years now, the Tantigou has been drying up between late February and May, leaving the market gardeners in trouble. So Mr. Koundou and his colleagues dig small wells on their plots to get water for their crops. The wells are five to six metres deep.
They use motor pumps to get the water to the surface, “which naturally consumes a lot,” says Mr. Koundou regretfully. The motor pump uses gasoline, and he uses six or seven litres to fill the machine for about two days of watering. A litre costs 500 CFA francs ($0.90 US), so the pump can absorb up to 10% of his profits.
Papa Mawuko is from southern Togo, but has been living in Dapaong for many years. He is also a market gardener, and grows vegetables on a plot about five kilometres from the dam, particularly dry season cabbages. He waters his plot mainly with well water.
He says: “I have done this for five years. But I need a motor pump to irrigate. I have three wells on the two hectares that I farm. I have enough water to irrigate throughout the season, but it is expensive.”
Lare Monoka is the director of the Institute of Consulting and Technical Support (Institut de Conseil et d’Appui Technique) in Dapaong. He says that silting causes the dam to dry up: “The dam was built a very long time ago and it has never been cleaned out. This is why, at the end of February, the water dries up completely. We have already implemented many cleaning projects, but we didn’t get funding to clean out the dam.”
The dam is filled with sand and waste, which has piled up over the years, meaning that the dam holds less water. Just like gutters in cities, the dam needs to be cleaned periodically. But it’s a very big area, and requires appropriate machinery. Once it is cleaned, the dam will be larger and deeper—big enough to store sufficient water for the market gardeners, who will then be able to irrigate their fields for a longer period.
Mr. Monoka does not recommend that farmers dig wells. He says it destroys the structure of the soil. He explains: “The problem is that when the rainy season comes, you must close these wells again to grow rice or sometimes maize while waiting for the dry season to dig new wells. This destabilizes the soil and causes erosion. This method is inappropriate; the Tantigou area is meant to be irrigated.”
Mr. Koundou and the other market gardeners want to stop digging makeshift wells. But until they have an alternative to the dry Tantigou dam, they will continue, even if it is time consuming and costly.
Photo: Benoit Koundou’s field.