Senegal: Limited access to water hurts market gardeners

May 12, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

Fary Diop sits under a baobab tree at the entrance to Mbidiem Lébou village, filling small bags with grilled groundnuts. The 50-year-old concentrates on her task so intently that she seems indifferent to the dusty wind blowing through the village, which is in located in the commune of Djender, 70 km from Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

She puts up with the wind, dust, and dirt because she wants to sell her groundnuts to passersby to earn enough for her daily expenses. Mrs. Diop is a market gardener, but is now a vendor because she no longer has access to enough water to support her family by farming her small plot of land.

Just a few years ago, the water table in this area was 7 to 15 metres below the ground. Now, it’s 35 metres down. This could be in part due to climate change, but it’s also because there are no less than 14 boreholes that pump water from the water table in the Niayes region to supply Dakar.

Mrs. Diop fondly remembers that, just a few years ago, she was able to cultivate her market garden year-round. She only had to dig a few metres to find water to irrigate her field without using a pump, so she and her neighbours were not solely dependent on rainwater. But today, they depend on wells dug ever deeper to reach the water table, an option that is not available to everyone.

As well as year-round planting, the harvests used to be continuous. This allowed market gardeners to sell produce almost all year long, making them financially independent.

Mrs. Diop says it has been three months since she earned any money selling vegetables; her cabbage didn’t grow well due to a lack of water. Discouraged, she stayed at home and sold groundnuts while she waited for the rainy season, which has been less and less generous recently.

Market gardeners in Niayes zone are negatively affected by a state policy that favours water for domestic use, despite this being the country’s largest horticultural region. The region provides 60% of the fruits and vegetables produced in Senegal, according to statistics from the Fédération des agropasteurs de Djender, which brings together more than 3,000 farmers in this commune.

The boreholes in the area can pump 30 million litres of water a day. In just 16 days, they supply the equivalent of the annual water needs of the agricultural zones of Djender and Kayar, according to the report of an information meeting in Djender.

But in addition to supplying Dakar with drinking water, the area also includes industrial operations that pump groundwater. Ibrahima Seck is coordinator of the Fédération nationale des agriculteurs biologiques, which promotes organic farming in Senegal. He says the Dagnote cement plant uses a vast amount of water to cool its machines.

Ami Samba is also a market gardener in this region. From her plot of land, one can see neighbouring fields with tall, dried-up grass. Under the hot sun, she labours on, walking back and forth between a well and her parsley plants. Beside her plot of land are the remains of peppers that have completely dried out in the sun. According to Mrs. Samba, the owner of this plot of land became discouraged and doesn’t come to the field any more.

In order to water part of her plot, she must pay people to dig even deeper. But even with this solution, she must wait until the water table rises in order to water her plants.

Some farmers wait a whole day for the water levels to rise. Others share the little water that remains in one farmers’ well. Resigned to their situation, the women in Mbidieum Lébou are not convinced that the government will help them return to their fields. While waiting, they try other activities—but the young men in the area are more likely to move to urban centres or even foreign countries.

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.