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Growing Vegetables Amid Water Scarcity in Refugee Settlements in Uganda

Posted On: March 22, 2023
two people fill water containers at a water tap in Uganda
Filling up watering cans in Uganda.

Uganda hosts more than 850,000 refugees from South Sudan, its neighbor to the north. The majority live in refugee settlement areas in the West Nile region. Each family is given a small plot of land on which to live, grow crops, and raise animals, but lack of sufficient water makes all of these activities more difficult. 

East-West Seed Knowledge Transfer Foundation has been working with South Sudanese refugees in West Nile since 2019, teaching them how to set up home gardens to improve their nutrition and food security. 

“One of the challenges facing the refugee settlements is water scarcity,” Joshua Mwanguhya, EWS-KT Knowledge Transfer Manager for Uganda, explains, “and we know that water is very essential in vegetable production.”

A woman with a baby on her back waters her tomato plants
A woman in one of the refugee settlements watering her well-mulched tomato plants.

The communal water tap points in the refugee settlements have an unreliable supply of water, especially during the dry season. Because the water table is low, the tap operators release water for only a few hours each day, and there is not enough water to serve the needs of all the farmers and their families. In fact, some water taps can go for as long as a week without providing any water at all.

Unable to rely on the water taps, families find it difficult to obtain clean drinking water. Many resort to collecting river water, but it is also used by domestic animals and so is not safe to drink. Since residents use it anyway, health facilities in the settlements have reported an increase in waterborne and zoonotic diseases. 

Women and girls in Uganda carrying water from the river
Women and girls carrying water from the nearest river, which is about 3 kilometers from their homes, in the Omugo zone of Rhino Refugee Settlement.

Despite limited water availability, resilient vegetable cultivation techniques shared by EWS-KT are enabling settlement residents to become small-scale farmers, improving their families’ nutrition and providing the opportunity to earn some income. 

One tip for dealing with water scarcity is not to have too large an area to irrigate. The ideal home garden size in the refugee settlements is about 45 square meters—large enough to produce a good quantity of vegetables but small enough to properly manage and water. 

EWS-KT field staff guide residents through all phases of vegetable production, with extra attention to water conservation techniques. Residents learn about drought-tolerant crop varieties that require less water, and participatory training sessions show them how to raise seedlings under shade covers, protecting the young plants from the drying sun. Mulching crops with locally available materials such as thatching grass helps to keep the soil moist and suppresses weeds, which compete with the vegetable plants for water.

A woman demonstrates to assembled trainees how to water a ground nursery for onions
Demonstrating watering techniques on a ground nursery for onion plants in Imvepi Refugee Settlement. After watering, shade was placed over the nursery bed.

Farmer training sessions also cover how to irrigate efficiently. Advice includes checking the soil moisture to make sure watering is needed, watering in the early morning and in the evening, and watering each plant directly—and slowly. Using raised beds to grow crops is another water conservation technique; as the plants are grown closer together, a raised bed reduces the land area to water.

To avoid running out of water for their crops, some farmers have begun to collect extra water from the river or, when available, at the communal water taps. They then store the water in tanks or containers for future use in their home garden. 

For the last few years, EWS-KT has promoted home gardens as a way to supplement the food distributions provided to refugees and to improve families’ nutrition through consumption of fresh vegetables. As food rations have been reduced, and are likely to be reduced still further, home gardening has taken on even greater importance.

At a recent farmer Field Day, South Sudanese refugee Christine Drusila described the impact of the EWS-KT intervention on her family. “Because of the kitchen garden, our children can no longer get malnourished,” she said. “We are earning money by selling to communities too.” 

Beyond the current economic and nutritional benefits to settlement families, our work in West Nile has huge long-term potential. The refugees trained by EWS-KT are learning sustainable and profitable vegetable cultivation techniques to bring back with them to South Sudan—a country that currently imports almost all its fruits and vegetables and desperately needs the knowledge and know-how that these farmers have acquired.