Irrigation is important for crop production in the Limpopo River basin as rainfall can be unpredictable and variable in intensity and distribution. FAO (1997) estimated an irrigation potential of 295 400 ha in the basin: the current net irrigated area is 244 000 ha (Merrey 2008).

Current Limitations in Irrigated Crop Production

Serious salinity and sodicity problems exist in the lower Limpopo River basin and salt water intrusion affects the River mouth. Irrigation schemes never have enough water to meet their potential in any given season.

Source: FAO 2004


Approximately 1 400 ha of Botswana's land area is under irrigation and the FAO estimates a total irrigation potential of 5 000 ha. There are four sub-categories of farming in the irrigation sector in Botswana:

  • Private irrigated farms owned by individuals and ranging in size from 1 to 100 ha (with the smaller farms being more common). These farms mostly grow high-value food crops for the local markets;
  • Group schemes developed by government and donor agencies to provide livelihood alternatives to local people. These consist of 10 ha schemes divided into individual plots.
  • Institutional schemes owned and operated by government organisations.
  • Company-owned schemes owned and operated by companies such as the Botswana Development Corporation, which has 570 ha in the Tuli Block, Mogobane and Kasane.


The irrigation potential in the Limpopo River basin in Mozambique is estimated at an upper limit of 148 000 ha (UNESCO-UNDP 1984 in FAO 2004). The Massingir Dam alone provides the Lower Limpopo River with an irrigation potential of 90 000 ha (Merrey 2008). To meet the estimated potential, additional storage capacity and cooperation with other basin countries would be required to ensure water is available during the months that the Limpopo River is not flowing in Mozambique (FAO 2004). Until recently, irrigation developments have largely been the responsibility of inefficient government estates that were established during politically unstable times. Now however, the focus is on smallholder irrigation schemes.

Irrigation methods employed depend on the nature of the crop, topography and soil (FAO 2004). Surface irrigation is used for rice and in furrows where maize and vegetables are grown. Sprinkler irrigation is mostly used for sugar cane, fruit and vegetable and citrus crops. Sub-irrigation is used by smallholders in floodplains or dambos and is largely inefficient.

The Chokwé District Irrigation scheme is the most prominent irrigation scheme in Mozambique, and in 1968 it covered 27 447 ha--the equivalent of 42 % of the national area under irrigation. In 1983 the government recognised the importance of family enterprises and redistributed 30 000 ha of scheme land. By 1989, scheme land was largely occupied by family enterprises (40 %) with private individuals (28 %), the State (24 %) and cooperatives (8 %) occupying smaller shares.

Irrigated agriculture in in the Olifants Water Management Area, South Africa. Source: LIMCOM 2004


South Africa

In South Africa, 198 000 ha are irrigated in the Limpopo River basin and the scope for further development along the main stem of the Limpopo River basin is estimated at 4 000 ha (FAO 2004). The amount of water used for irrigation varies from one Water Management Area (WMA) to the next. In the Crocodile (West) and Marico WMA only 35 % of water used is for irrigation, in the Limpopo WMA and Luvuvhu and Letaba WMA 75 % is used by irrigation, in the Olifants the requirement is 57 %.

Limpopo Province Case Study

The Provincial Growth and Development Strategy for the Limpopo Province indicates that poverty eradication, food security and rural development will be dependent on the agricultural sector (Tapela 2008). The province, through the Limpopo Provincial Department of Agriculture, has therefore set aside R 224 million for the Revitalisation of Smallholder Irrigation Schemes (RESIS) programme. The RESIS programme aims to ‘structure, train and empower smallholder farmers to run their scheme profitably and sustainably’ in 126 existing irrigation schemes (De Lange 2004; Tapela 2008).

Many of the existing irrigation schemes in the Limpopo Province were developed following the publication of the ‘Socio-economic Development of the Bantu Areas within the Union of South Africa’ in the Tomlinson Commission report (1955). In the report it was advised that an irrigated holding of 1,3 to 1,7 ha would be enough to sustain a family (Perret 2001; Tapela 2008). These holdings became dysfunctional when state subsidies were withdrawn by the post-apartheid government after 1994. The RESIS programme is viewed as an attempt to undo the consequences of previous decisions made by the government, to increase water-use efficiency and to reduce the ‘transaction costs of operating state-sponsored irrigation schemes’ by implementing commercialisation and transferring management to farmers.

Water is diverted for crop production in Silalabuhwa, Zimbabwe. Source: Schaefer 2010



In Zimbabwe the irrigation potential of the Limpopo River basin is estimated to be 10 900 ha, of which over a third (3 950 ha) is currently under irrigation. Of the area currently under irrigation 1 550ha is smallholder irrigation, 1 900 ha is large-scale commercial farm operations and 1 500 ha is under the Agricultural Rural Development Authority. In the absence of irrigation, communities only reap a successful crop once in every five years. Irrigation types include sand abstraction systems (water is pumped from rivers through well points sunk into riverbed sand) and dam-fed schemes. Plots vary in size from 0,1 to 0,5 ha/household.

Current ongoing initiatives.

LIMCOM's current ongoing interventions being undertaken