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How climate change put a promising water-food project on hold

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FDW Rwanda Derk de Haan farmers header

It was about to become one of the most promising projects: adapting the floodplains of the Nyabarongo river in Rwanda. The project aimed to make the plains suitable for sugar cane cultivation. But after 3 consecutive floods between 2018 and 2021, the project partners decided to stop the project and change its location. Derk de Haan, programme advisor for the Sustainable Water Fund (FDW) programme, explains how climate change severely impacted this promising water-food initiative.

"In 2018, a consortium of public and private partners completed a new sugar cane plantation in the floodplain of the Nyabarongo river. The drainage work with inlets, canals and outlets were an important part of the construction," explains Derk. "The project was perfectly on schedule and within budget. We were anxiously awaiting the first sugar cane harvest in the autumn. But, the 2018 rainy season was exceptionally severe, flooding the plantations to unexpected levels for several months. When it rained for almost 3 months, the river flooded. Sugar cane thrives in areas with moderate flooding. But it starts to rot when it is stood in water for months."

Optimistic, but for how long?

Soon after the flooding, the project partners started repairing the damage. "The rains had flooded whole areas, but the project partners were still optimistic," Derk remembers. "It had been a 1 in 50-year flood event; nobody expected it to reoccur for decades. We made plans to restore the damaged inlet and outlet, dig out the blocked drainage canals and remove the debris. But, before we completed these repairs, the 2019 rainy season set in, followed by the severe 2020 rainy season. The valley would be flooded for much longer than in previous years. We realised that climate change was our new reality. We had to stop the project and abandon the idea that this was a suitable location for a sugar cane plantation. One of the project partners is now looking for other locations to expand its activity."

A low to moderate risk?

In the upstream floodplains of the Nyabarongo River, farmers already had sugar cane plantations. Further downstream, the river runs together with the Akavera river, considerably increasing Nyabarongo's flow rates. There, the river runs through some valleys, which is where the project decided to put the new plantations. "During project preparations, we considered a low to moderate risk of severe flooding, with a high impact on food production. But, in the case of extreme rainfall, the river's discharge capacity is limited. As a result, the water remains in the floodplains for several months, even after the monsoon. We did not consider the potential impact of climate change with the increased flow rates and the subsequent consequences for this particular part of the river," Derk admits.

Even with adjusted drainage works, this location was no longer suitable for cultivating sugar cane. According to Derk, the risk evaluation done before the project started should, in retrospect, have included the risk of climate change more explicitly. "The river simply needs the downstream flood plains for temporary water storage during and after the rainy season."

'Room for the River'

The idea to further optimise the agricultural use of the Nyabarongo floodplains draws parallels with the Dutch water management programme 'Room for the River'. This programme restored the floodplains of the Rhine river in the Netherlands by lowering their levels, relocating levees, creating buffer strips, and constructing flood bypasses. This increased the discharge and created new nature and recreational areas. "Canalisation of the Nyabarongo river is not an option. The floodplains will likely remain full of water for extended periods. This makes it impossible to cultivate a 2-year crop." Still, Derk sees options for many uses of the floodplains. "The possibilities for agriculture are limited, but pastoralists can keep their goats there," he adds.

A hard decision and an important lesson

"When I visited the flooded plantation in 2018, I was impressed with the enormous river discharges and realised the impacts of climate change. Initially, the project partners remained optimistic. The idea was that, with a little luck, it would be decades before the next severe flood would happen. It was hard to put the project on hold because the consortium and the farmers had put so much effort into it. New farmer cooperations had been formed, and everybody was eager to see the first sugar cane harvested. The farmers and the sugar refinery companies are now looking for new locations, but I doubt it will be in the floodplains again," concludes Derk. "This has been an important lesson on climate change and how it can affect promising water-food projects."

More information on FDW

For more information on public-private partnerships, read our project summary. Would you like to learn more about FDW or one of its projects? Although the facility is closed, we are happy to share relevant information and advice. Please email us, and one of our advisors will contact you.

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