Electrification plan for Cuban irrigation

Much of the antiquated irrigation equipment in use in Cuba is rusty, very inefficient and environmentally damaging. Linda Cechura of the OPEC Fund for International Development describes how the Government's 10-year plan to electrify the nation's irrigation systems has already benefited farmers in Ciego de Avila province.

As the long, graceful boom of the irrigation system came closer, farmer Felipe Garcia Diaz said, "These are the first potatoes we've planted since our cooperative got the new electric pivots, and this time, with a little luck, we're going to have a good harvest!"

It did not take much to convince Felipe and the other campesinos on the state farms and agricultural cooperatives in Cuba's rural Ciego de Avila province that it would be a good idea to replace the aging Soviet-built Fregat irrigation equipment standing in their fields with modern, electrically-powered, centre-pivot systems. After all, more than half of the Fregats were over 20 years old, double the operational lifespan for such equipment.

"The old Fregats have caused us nothing but trouble and delays for a long time now," Felipe said. "The flow of spare parts dried up when the 'Special Period' started back in 1990, and ever since we've had to beg, borrow and improvise to keep these rusty, old things running. It takes all our time and energy to squeeze something out of them, and sooner or later, even our most talented mechanics have to give up."

He continued, "Most of the large farms around here used to produce three irrigated crops a year, but for about eight years now, we've been lucky to bring in two harvests. Mostly, we could only manage one. Why? Because even when the old Fregats were working, we couldn't get enough diesel."

"Seed potatoes must be imported, too, you know, but that investment is simply wasted, if the fields aren't irrigated. It's not just the money, mind you, it's the lost work! It's so frustrating to put all that effort into planting and weeding, and then watch a promising crop get stunted for lack of irrigation."

Felipe explained that the old Fregats have many other flaws, too. Besides being unreliable and expensive to operate, they are "diesel-guzzling stinkers" that pollute the air more effectively than they irrigate the crops. Also, since they are high-pressure sprinklers, the Fregats "throw a lot of water around," causing soil compaction and erosion.

National Plan
Happily, the Fregats will soon be history. In 2001, the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture responded to the irrigation crisis by launching the National Plan for Electrification.

According to this high-level directive, all the old diesel-driven irrigation systems were to be replaced by electric centre-pivots within 10 years. The National Plan was motivated by many objectives: electric irrigation systems would help Cuba reduce its dependency on imported diesel, conserve its water resources, increase irrigation efficiency and provide insurance against erratic rainfall or drought.

Most importantly, by helping to stabilise agricultural output, the new systems would boost productivity in several essential food crops. The Plan called for 900 irrigation systems to be replaced, difficult for a country with limited foreign currency reserves and no access to international capital markets.

Moreover, it was still struggling to recover from the abrupt loss of its trade with the former socialist bloc countries, rock-bottom sugar prices, and Hurricane Michelle - not to mention four decades of US economic sanctions. Indeed the irrigation technology came from the Alkhorayef group in Saudi Arabia but the sale was 'packaged' through the Spanish firm Tusa in order to bypass the Helms-Burton Law, which the US unilaterally applied to Cuba.

Modernisation
Encouraged by the atmosphere of friendly cooperation that characterised its first project with the OPEC Fund in 2002, Cuba turned to the Fund for additional financial assistance. In June 2003, the Fund approved a US$10 million loan to co-finance a project that would modernise irrigation capacity at 18 agricultural enterprises in two predominantly rural provinces, Matanzas and Ciego de Avila.

Restoring irrigation capacity in these provinces was high on the Government's agenda. Both are key agricultural areas where deep, well-drained, friable soils and large, flat fields provide ideal conditions for large-scale irrigated cultivation of a wide variety of crops.

These provinces support 22% of Cuba's total area under irrigation and the country's highest concentration of overhead irrigation systems. Together, they contribute around a quarter of all vegetables and grains produced in the country. Most important, 80% of their combined irrigated area is dedicated to Cuba's main staple, the potato.

Both provinces are also near large consumer markets, a distinct advantage in a country determined to minimise transport and distribution costs. Boosting productivity in Matanzas is regarded as particularly desirable because of its proximity to Havana, which, with 2.2 million inhabitants, is Cuba's largest market.

During the early 1990s, investment in new irrigation systems ceased completely and maintenance began to lag for lack of spare parts. As the old Fregats became more and more unreliable, the amount of land actually irrigated dwindled.

By 2002, the Fregat-irrigated area in Matanzas and Ciego de Avila provinces had shrunk from 10,900ha to 6000 ha, a 45% decrease, despite the heroic efforts of local farm mechanics. The Fregat systems, once a source of pride, had become a liability.

New systems
Project implementation got underway in late summer 2003. Many of the small civil works were carried out by work crews on the recipient farms directly, and thanks to their skilled and enthusiastic support, the project was completed almost a year ahead of schedule.

In all, 110 electrically-driven, centre-pivot systems, with all the necessary pumps, transformers, motors and instrument panels, were assembled and brought on-line. In addition, wells and water pipes were overhauled and repaired, 47km of electric lines were laid, service sheds built, and seven sub-stations installed. In all, 4380ha of prime agricultural land can now be cultivated to full advantage in Matanzas and Ciego de Avila.

The new centre-pivots offer a long list of impressive features and refinements, from a hydro-module that regulates the flow rate to special tyres that prevent rutting. Robust and dependable, the new systems are easier and more economical to operate and maintain than their predecessors.

They distribute water with superior uniformity and can be used to apply plant nutrients or pesticides simultaneously. They need less time and fewer workers to get the job done. In short, the new systems are worthy representatives of the kind of advanced irrigation technology that better situated farmers take for granted.

For potato farmers in the US, the centre-pivot systems now gracing the fields at Felipe's cooperative are nothing special, just "industry standard," but for Felipe and his comrades, they are "simply beautiful" and represent a major change in their everyday lives and expectations, a hint that years of hardship and rationing may be coming to an end.

"Next year our potato yield is going to top everything you ever saw," says Felipe proudly.

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