22.03.2021 08:00

Farmers need better irrigation to offset disastrous droughts

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22.03.2021 08:00

As a reminder of global climate change, the summer of 2020 in Ukraine was so dry that it turned into a catastrophe for many farmers in the country’s southern regions.

Agriculturalists in Odesa Oblast alone lost around $150 million as 300,000 hectares of crops failed. Several farmers, who saw their entire harvest wither, committed suicide.

“People were in despair,” said Volodymyr Hvostov, a farmer from Kherson Oblast. According to him, this could never have happened if the country’s massive state-owned irrigation system of water channels, pipes, pumping stations and reservoirs had worked properly.

Built during the Soviet times and designed to water more than 2 million hectares of arable land from rivers and groundwater, the system covers only 530,000 hectares today, according to Ellina Yurchenko, a land expert at the Ukrainian Club of Agrarian Business.

The country loses up to $2 billion per year due to an outdated and neglected irrigation system, which belongs to the government and is 80% worn out. In Mykolaiv and Odesa oblasts, it is barely working, according to Pavlo Koval, head of the Ukrainian Agrarian Confederation.

As climate change escalates, 70% of all 15 million hectares of the country’s arable land may struggle from shortage of water by 2050. “There is an urgent need to restore and expand irrigated areas in Ukraine,” said Yurchenko.

Hvostov thinks farmers should have the legal right to install their own water supply system. Some farmers battling droughts risk investing in irrigation, even though most of them are lessees who don’t own the land and can lose their investment.

“Centralized water management only hinders investment and development of the business,” Hvostov said, adding that local farmers are waiting for a law to change that.


New hope

With the land market opening in July, a clear mechanism to water the land has become a top priority for Ukraine’s government. On March 4, lawmakers submitted a long-awaited bill to remove the state’s monopoly on irrigation and allow farmers to manage the water system themselves.

“The state realizes that this is the only way out of the problem,” said Andriy Dykun, chairman of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council. “Business will buy land if it knows that the land can be irrigated. People started to think ahead not for the coming year, but for the coming decades.”

According to Roman Leshchenko, agriculture minister of Ukraine, for the past five years, the state only had enough money to pay irrigation workers’ salaries — nothing was left for renovation. That will change, he promised.

“This year, we begin a large-scale irrigation project in Odesa Oblast,” he told the Kyiv Post. According to him, the state will allocate $92 million to the purpose.

“The adoption of the law will contribute to the country’s decentralization processes,” Leschenko said. If the bill passes, he expects the EBRD and the World Bank to give Ukraine $2 billion more.

Dykun from the Agrarian Council sees a deeper reason why the state did nothing for irrigation development previously — “total corruption.”

He observed it during the time of fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych, as well as during former president Petro Poroshenko’s tenure. Every state agency position that controlled the irrigation system was full of “their own” people who just “took money from farmers.”

As a result, farmers were forced to pay unreasonably high water tariffs, while not getting high-quality irrigation in return. Sometimes tariffs differed in neighbouring villages, depending on the greed of local officials.

“How could farmers compete if the basic resource is supplied at different prices?” said Koval.

With the new government, farmers hope that unfair water tariffs won’t be a problem anymore. “Time has changed, the power in the country has changed, and there’s a chance that everything will change,” said Dykun.

New law

The new law, if adopted, will allow farmers to create water user cooperatives, nonprofits with the right to manage and modernize pumping stations.

Cooperatives will be able to set optimal water tariffs to reach two goals at once — avoid overburdening farmers financially, while having enough money to invest into the irrigation system.

With new rules, crop yield may grow by 30–50%, farmer Hvostov believes.

At the same time, the irrigation system, as a strategic asset, will still be state-owned — it won’t be possible to privatize it. The state water agency will still operate main water channels and major water pipes.

Industry experts expect that the parliament will adopt the bill this year.

“Everybody understands that there’s a real need not to delay the adoption of the law,” said Koval. “There are still buildings and water canals, but if private investment does not come there under normal conditions, nothing will change” and they will stay outdated.


On his farm in Kherson Oblast, Hvostov has already spent $6 million on new irrigation equipment and water pipes for 3,000 out of 14,000 hectares his company operates.

“It’s expensive to do, but business realizes that it is necessary to increase productivity,” said Dykun. On average, agriculture companies pay $2,500–3,000 per hectare to make proper irrigation.

This investment comes with a risk. Since many farmers lease land, the owners can do anything they want with the water pipes, even dig them up from the ground.

The new law would eliminate this risk, since pipes will be officially registered and managed as a part of the irrigation system. “We just want to legalize what has already been done by private businesses,” said Dykun.

Koval believes that today, water for irrigation is becoming as valuable as land itself, especially, in central and southern regions, where Ukraine’s famously fertile black soil may soon degrade without proper care.

“Without water, land does not work,” said Koval.

IC UAC according to KyivPost

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