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Water harvesting technologies increase productivity in Jamaica

The Ebanks family has been farming in Flagaman for over 50 years (© CARDI)
The Ebanks family has been farming in Flagaman for over 50 years
© CARDI

Flagaman district, in Southern St Elizabeth lies in the rain shadow area of Jamaica. The Northeast Trade Winds deposit their moisture in the mountainous interior, so are dry when they reach the south of the island. Planting traditionally coincides with the rainy seasons of May or October, but once crops germinate, a struggle normally ensues to keep them watered. Often this means sharing domestic water supplies with the plants, and in periods of severe drought, crops frequently fail. The Ebanks family has been farming in Flagaman for over 50 years and, with help from the Jamaican government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has gradually developed a reliable water-efficient method of food crop production.

Mernel Ebanks, now 80 years old, recalls that in her early days of farming, water was drawn from the house tank, transported to the field to fill a 200 litre drum, and then placed at the root of every plant in the field using a watering can. This was time consuming and laborious. After a number of crop failures in the 1970s, the Ebanks discovered that if they used cut guinea grass (Panicum maximum) to cover the soil before planting, there was less evaporation from the soil, drastically reducing the water required. Guinea grass is still used as mulch throughout Southern St Elizabeth, with the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) promoting this system as a way to enhance crop production in other dry areas of the Caribbean.

Sourcing economic water supplies

The Ebanks' have developed a reliable water-efficient method of food crop production (© CARDI)
The Ebanks' have developed a reliable water-efficient method of food crop production
© CARDI

The laborious process of applying water to each plant with a watering can was still being practised until the Jamaican government introduced gravity drip irrigation across the country in 2003. This allowed for cultivation of larger areas, but still required the purchase of water, to supplement harvested rainfall. Costing about US$100 for 4,000 gallons, this could not be sustained.

The solution to the high water cost was the construction of a water harvesting and storage system in 2007. The capital cost of about US$3,000 was high but, by not having to pay for water to be trucked to the farm, the Ebanks say that the system paid for itself in three years. And help to meet the initial costs is available to farmers through the Jamaica Social Investment Fund on the submission of a business plan. The Ebank's system consisted of a 243m3 concrete water tank which was filled from the house roof and a 405 m2 concrete catchment area. Filled twice a year during the rainy seasons, the system is able to support two crops on 1.2 hectares.

Initially, water from the tank was pumped to the field using a diesel pump, but with increasing fuel prices, this became a serious constraint. In 2009, the FAO Small Scale Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting Project chose the Ebanks family to demonstrate how solar pumps could work alongside the gravity drip irrigation system, to improve water management and water use efficiency on farm. FAO rehabilitated the water collection and irrigation systems, and provided the solar pump, all at a cost of about US$8,000. "The system is effective for subsistence agriculture," one FAO official states. "It adds significant income to the household."

Many benefits

The new solar pumping system provides energy to move water from the concrete storage tank to two elevated 4.5 m3 plastic tanks to which a drip irrigation system is connected and which serves the entire farm. The pumps require little maintenance, but staff from the National Irrigation Commission have been trained to service them. So far 53 farmers, or about five per cent of the farming community, have taken up various components of the system, including solar pumps.

The new solar pumping system provides energy to move water from the concrete storage tank to two elevated plastic tanks (© CARDI)
The new solar pumping system provides energy to move water from the concrete storage tank to two elevated plastic tanks
© CARDI

Mernel Ebanks estimates that with successive improvements in irrigation and water management her yields have increased fourfold in the last 50 years, and there is less risk of crop failure. For example, a cantaloupe plot, which yielded about 12,000kg per hectare less than ten years ago, now produces 38,000kg. "With the increased yields obtained over the last two years I have been able to renovate my house and I now have my kitchen and bathroom facilities inside the house," she reveals.

These innovations have resulted in a more reliable and sustainable crop production system, higher yields, more efficient use of water and energy, and a better standard of living for the Ebanks family. As a result, the Jamaican government is promoting water saving technologies across the island, while CARDI is advocating the system in the rest of the Caribbean.

Written by: Leslie Simpson (CARDI Jamaica) and Stanley Rampair (Senior Irrigation Consultant)

Date published: July 2012

 

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