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Drought and the Evolution of Well-Irrigated Wadi Agriculture


By Khalid A. El Amin

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 49-62]

Drought and the Evolution of Well-Irrigated Wadi Agriculture:  Implications for Sustainable Food Security Systems in Northern Darfur, Sudan[1]


The famine that struck the Sahel of Africa in the 1970s, and which recurred during the 1980s and the 1990s, has demonstrated more than ever before, the social and spatial marginalisation of the affected communities and the extent to which local peasant communities are vulnerable to consecutive rainfall failures. In Sudan and particularly for Darfur, Kordofan and the Red Sea regions, the consequences in terms of human loss, loss of livestock and environmental degradation have been dire. The limited success of the international relief operation, despite its high cost and military-like organisation, confirms the proposition that the aversion of famine disasters could primarily, though not solely, be achieved by enhancing the affected local communities' capacity to secure their own food.  It follows from this that ways and means have to be sought to rehabilitate, stimulate and strengthen local food production structures and cash earning activities in drought-affected areas as long-term aims of famine vulnerability reduction.

This paper deals with the food security implications of structural changes resulting from responses to drought.  In particular, the evolution of well-irrigated agriculture is a case of important agrarian change. In the first section, the major physical socio-economic characteristics of Northern region are examined. The second section deals with responses to famine and puts forward an attempt to draw a distinction between contingent responses to deal with the immediate food crisis and responses that have long term implications for present and food future security situation of households, local communities and the region in general. Section three is devoted to the presentation of a case study from the village of Abu Sakein[2] in which well-irrigated agriculture has recently evolved in response to drought. The conclusion shows the significance that small scale well-irrigated wadi agriculture has assumed.

North Darfur: Main Physical and Socio-Economic Characteristics

North Darfur is part of the arid African Sahel zone, in which the far northern areas form part of the great Sahara desert. The patterns, forms and spatial distribution of economic activities in Northern Darfur region are governed mainly by four physical or natural characteristics. These are: a) the level and spatial distribution of rainfall; b) the dominance of the sandy goz soil; c) the existence of seasonal streams (wadis) with shallow underground water aquifers and alluvial clay soil that inter-penetrates the sandy goz soil in the water course of seasonal streams; and d) the spatial distribution of water points[3] and water yards.

Of these the most important is the rainfall pattern which is characterised by seasonality[4] and the decrease in rainfall levels from South to North to reach the minimal level of 100mm in the Sahara desert. With the exception of camels and sheep nomads in the far Northern part of the region, rain-fed millet-dominated subsistence production on goz land is the major economic activity for almost all communities of North Darfur. While mainly produced for subsistence (direct production for direct consumption), millet surpluses are sold for cash during normal rainfall years.  Some other crops like watermelons, groundnuts and sesame are also grown on small-scale both for consumption and for the market. The sale of these cash crops and small millet surpluses helps peasant households acquire cash to buy other family subsistence needs; i.e., purchase implements, sugar, tea, and to meet the needs of social occasions and other social obligations.

With the exception of the far Northern and Southern parts of Darfur where the practice of pure nomadism dominates, animal rearing is combined with farming in almost all parts of Darfur. Peasant farmers who cultivate millet and other cash crops on goz soil; on plots varying in size between seven and twelve mukhammas[5], also rear sheep and goats to meet household needs and these are also sold when peasant households are in need of cash. In the far north, nomadic Meidob and Zyadyah tribes (Abala) rear the desert-adapted sheep and camels. In the much richer Savannah vegetation of the south, cattle are reared by the (Baggara) nomads. In addition to the consumption of animal products, pastoralists also depend on millet surpluses produced by peasant farmers for a significant part of their food, which they acquire through the sale of animals and animal products.

Although pastoralism in the far southern and far northern parts of Darfur is practised almost in pure forms, in most cases pastoralism and peasant farming are combined in differing proportions. Some pastoralists cultivate pieces of land to obtain grain for their own consumption, while some peasant households keep small numbers of light animals (goats and sheep) for milk and other household needs. Nonetheless, the major economic activity in the central part of Darfur is subsistence millet production. Also peasant households practised the production of okra and tomato on small plots of wadi land for home consumption even before the drought. These crops were cultivated on saturated alluvial wadi soil with rare resort to digging shallow wells for  irrigation.

The northern Darfur rural economy is characterised by four major interrelated features of relevance to drought: firstly, interaction between the pastoralist economy and the peasant millet-based economy; secondly interaction and exchanges between the pastoralist and peasant economies on the one hand and the increasingly growing cash economy on the other; thirdly, the susceptibility of both peasant and pastoralist economies to the level and fluctuation of rainfall; and fourthly, the development of and the increase in importance of wadi agriculture following the 1980s and 1990s droughts.  Wadi agriculture includes both tru- and well-irrigation. (Trus are earthen embankments constructed by peasants along the wadis to conserve water to saturate the soil and make it suitable for cultivation). Vegetables like cucumber, watermelons and okra are planted on the wadi soil. Well irrigation is a recent phenomenon associated with the 1980s and 1990s drought

Millet, which is a necessary component for pastoralist households food consumption, is obtained by pastoralists using cash obtained from selling livestock and/or animal products (purified butter and recently milk) in the local markets. In addition, pastoralists purchase okra and other agricultural commodities[6] produced and offered for sale by millet peasant farmers. Peasant farmers buy animal products for consumption and live animals to rear for milk and/or keep as stored value to sell in times of need. These market exchanges have contributed to enhance and ensure the food security conditions of both groups of communities. Under normal circumstances, other than in distressful drought conditions, peasant millet farming and the pastoralist economies complement each other.

The relative isolation of Northern Darfur from food surplus producing areas in central and southeastern parts of the Sudan makes the success of millet production a necessary condition for the maintenance of the local peasant and pastoralists communities’ food security. Drought means not only the loss of animals but also the collapse of millet production that equally affects the food security situation of both peasants and pastoralists.

The second dynamic feature of northern Darfur’s rural economy is the intensification of interaction and exchanges through the cash nexus since the colonial period. The key to these exchanges and interaction is the change in consumption patterns, the destruction of local handicraft manufacturing and the compulsion to pay state tax levies and fees in cash. Consequently peasants and pastoralists have gradually started to acquire cash to meet some of their commodity needs, e.g., sugar, coffee, tea, clothes and other requirements. The inclusion of commodities as necessary requirements for household domestic consumption created the need for cash. This need is met in the case of peasant households by the sale of grain surpluses, the production of rain-fed cash crops or migration to work as agricultural wage labourers on the cash crop producing schemes in central Sudan; particularly the Gezira.

The gradual change in the national economy towards more commoditisation and export orientation, has stimulated, facilitated and intensified Northern Darfur peasant adoption of cash crop cultivation; including water melons (for the fruit and the seeds), groundnut and the collection of gum Arabic from the hashab trees (acacia senegal) to sell for cash. As millet remained, under normal conditions, the major part of peasant households’ food needs, peasant households used to maintain greater autonomy from the market as long as goz millet cultivation produced a harvest sufficient for subsistence needs. Although the sale of millet surpluses and other cash crops was maintained for the acquisition of cash to purchase needs other than millet, reliance on the market to meet food needs has remained for a long time, partial and marginal.

Pastoralists' incorporation into, and interaction with, the cash economy have been mediated through their interaction with the local economy by selling animals, animal products and some handicraft manufactures in rural and urban markets to buy grain, dried okra and dried tomato produced by peasant millet producers. Pastoralist households also purchase commodities brought from outside the local economy, i.e., sugar, tea, coffee, and other necessities. Like other Northern Darfur peasant communities, pastoralists largely remained partially self-sufficient and autonomous.

The third dynamic feature that characterises the rural economy of Northern Darfur  - and one that is relevant to this study - is the heavy reliance of both peasant and pastoralist economies on precarious, unpredictable rainfall levels for their food needs. Peasant millet production and the rearing of animals depend directly on rainfall. The decline, unpredictability, fluctuation and spatial variability of the distribution of rainfall, which results in changes in production and unequal spatial distribution of economic activities, all intensify interaction and interchanges between the peasant and the pastoralist economies, because the drought intensifies (non-food) commodity production, circulation and exchange.

The recent 1970s, 1980s and 1990s droughts have exposed the fragility of subsistence production and the vulnerability of food systems as a result of reliance in their operation on uncertain and unpredictable rainfall and rainfall levels. The attempt by communities near wadis to seek a more secure source of food, in response to the declining and unreliable rainfall levels, has led to the evolution of small-scale well-irrigated agriculture, which has recently become another important distinguishing dynamic feature of the Northern Darfur regional economy. This development that accompanied the 1984 drought has had implications not only for communities near wadis that adopted this form of production, but also for farming communities far way from wadis, for pastoralists and for Northern Darfur region in general.

Drought Impact on the Economies and Communities of North Darfur

The drought has impacted differently on various peasant and pastoralist communities in North Darfur. The survival strategies adopted by drought-affected local communities differ from one location to the next and within a particular local community combinations of survival strategies differ from one household to another, depending on a mix of complex factors, forces and variables.

The most important of these sets of strategies are those in the pursuit of which the local communities have begun to rely mainly on the acquisition of cash to buy food from the market.  Many households have  resorted to the collection of wild food for sale, the collection and sale of grass, firewood, and charcoal as temporary activities to acquire cash to buy food, but others migrated and abandoned subsistence millet production altogether. In the quest for cash many village communities in the proximity of Wadis in North Darfur have also resorted to digging wells to utilise shallow underground water for the production of vegetables and fruits not only for their own consumption but mainly for sale to acquire cash to buy food.

A large number of communities and households migrated from their villages to Southern Darfur, into cities and towns in Northern Darfur region, and to other parts of the Sudan and outside the country, mainly to Libya. Migrants to Southern Darfur and urban centres in the region joined the informal sector as tea sellers, street vendors, beggars, domestic labourers and wageworkers to earn cash and survive. The pattern of migration, age and gender composition of migrants is beyond the scope of this paper. What is relevant and significant in the context of our topic is that these former peasant (subsistence producer-consumer) migrants have become reliant on cash to purchase and access food and send cash and commodities into Northern Darfur.

A greater involvement in the cash economy has also been marked by a change in consumption patterns from millet to other food items as a result of millet scarcity and rocketing millet prices.  The massive relief operation mounted by the international community (though not sufficient and timely enough to avert the problem of food shortage) plus what migrants to Libya send back home, brought into the Northern Darfur region new food items including wheat flour, sorghum, rice and macaroni. Millet scarcity compelled individuals and households to accept the consumption of food items other than millet, which in turn has further enhanced changes in consumption patterns.  Migration to Libya has led to significant inflow of resources not only in the form of cash, food items and other consumer goods but also in the form of some means of production and transport. This has been clearly manifested in the importation of water pumps for well-irrigated wadi agriculture and some trucks for transport.

The inflation of regional cities and rural towns by the drought-displaced, the intensification of cash earning activities and the movement of cash, under conditions of food scarcity, together with the change in consumption patterns have all maintained the demand for food items other than millet, including vegetables and fruits.

The development of well-irrigated agriculture, the importance of cash transactions for the acquisition of food and the acceleration of trade in food items have all led to the emergence, around wadis, of two-day rural markets in what formerly used to be small villages. These provided venues for the sale of vegetable and fruit crops brought by well-irrigated wadi peasant farmers and facilitated their purchase of light livestock, grain and other food items brought in by peasant producers and traders.  They also served as sources of new ideas and innovations.

Within the context of these developments well-irrigated agriculture, mainly oriented to the market, has evolved in the Northern Darfur region in areas that previously only cultivated vegetables on wadis for home consumption. The following is a description and analysis of the case study done in Abu Sakein. It documents and details some of the conditions under which irrigated agriculture has evolved, the socio-economic developments that have accompanied it and its implications for food security.

 Abu Sakein Case Study[7]

The adoption of well-irrigated wadi cultivation on a significant scale is most clearly manifested in Abu Sakein, a small village that lies around 70km slightly  west of north from El Fashir. Traditionally, millet cultivation on goz land was the major economic activity and the main source of subsistence. In addition, karkade (hibiscus), sesame and watermelons are also produced on goz land for family consumption and cash. There was small scale wadi cultivation and till the 1980s wadi land in the proximity of Abu Sakein was used for the cultivation of millet and okra to satisfy family needs on small patches of land varying in size between half and two mukhammas. Peasant farmers also cultivated some other crops like tombac (a kind of tobacco) after the inundated Wadi land dried up. Cash returns from tombac and other cash crops that were produced on a small scale were mostly spent on the acquisition of other family requirements. Excess cash was turned into light livestock for milk and as a means to store value to be turned into cash in times of dire need.

However, despite the production of these cash crops, the sufficiency of goz millet farming to meet family food needs, during the period preceding the drought, made the need for cash to purchase millet (the main staple diet), marginal. The limited need for money was reflected in the modest land size cultivated for cash crop production both on goz and wadi land. The production of tombac for money and some vegetables for family consumption remained, before the drought, a subsidiary activity. Thus tombac and vegetable crops cultivation was pursued on wadi land as a supplement to goz millet subsistence production without the need to utilise underground water or adopt modern means of water lifting for irrigation.

The continuous failure of goz millet cultivation, following the drought, to meet family food needs has increased the significance of wadi cultivation. Rather than just cultivating inundated wadi areas after the wadi had dried up, shallow underground water has now been widely utilised; using both traditional and modern methods of water lifting, as a reliable means of producing cash crops. The gradual shift in importance from goz millet cultivation to vegetable and fruit well-irrigated wadi cultivation is accompanied by changes in the scale of wadi cultivation, the methods of production, the adoption of new crop varieties, the adoption of irrigation technology, labour use and labour allocation. As small-scale well irrigation assumed more importance with the failure of millet production, more families have started to rely almost wholly on the production of vegetable and fruit cash crops to indirectly satisfy their food needs.

The relatively rapid expansion of small-scale well-irrigated agriculture in Abu Sakein, and other wadi areas, concurrent with the 1980s and the 1990s droughts, has occurred over a short time span. The digging of wells and the adoption of adad[8] for lining and dalo[9] for water lifting have started since 1984 (the year when one of the worst famines in North Darfur history struck). The number of wells in which dalo - the traditional means of water lifting - is used had reached 2000 wells in 1994, each irrigating around half to one mukhammas. The use of pumps for water lifting started in 1990 and increased rapidly since then to reach around 500 pumps in 1994[10]; irrigating an estimated area of around 750 mukhammas[11].  The digging of wells for poor peasant farmers using adad and dalo is carried out through nafir[12] and for the better off peasant farmers hired labour is used. The cost of digging a well of a depth of 6-13 metres increased rapidly between 1992 and 1994, indicating an increasing demand for well diggers and the increasing importance of cash.

Most peasant farmers in Abu Sakein are amongst the poor, who could not afford the cost of purchasing and running modern water pumps and who consequently use the traditional means of irrigation to farm small plots to earn cash for bare survival. However, there are a few who are able to invest in cement-lined wells, petrol-powered pumps and other production inputs. Capital invested in small-scale well irrigation in Abu Sakein has been accumulated from a number of sources. On the basis of information we have gathered from the field, the sources of initial capital could be categorised as: profits from cash crop productions by traditional means,  sale of land, sale of livestock, investment by traders from El Fashir, and remittances or investment from local people who go to work in Libya.

It is important to mention here that a gradual change in social values and social attitudes has accompanied the recurrence of the drought, the collapse of goz millet farming, and the gradual change to well-irrigated cultivation. This has influenced migrants' expenditure patterns and the tendency of migrants to invest in small scale well- irrigated agriculture is encouraged by the now higher social value assigned to the acquisition of pumps and cement-lined wells rather than to luxury goods. Expensive clothes, carpets, cassette recorders, mats and other costly goods are now given lesser social value than used to be customary in the past.

Although there are no statistics available on the amount of land that has been put to cultivation in Abu Sakein, an estimated area of around 1500 mukhammas have been developed during the period of 1984-1994.  The size of a well-irrigated farm plot in Abu Sakein ranges between 1/2 and 5 mukhammas.

Land tenure on small-scale well-irrigated wadi agriculture in Abu Sakein is not very dissimilar to other wadi areas in which well-irrigated agriculture has recently developed in North Darfur. Although all land is considered government land according to the 1970 Unregistered Land Act, permanency of occupation has, according to the local custom, given the land occupants what amounts in practice to private freehold ownership. Private individual right of control over a piece of land could be transferred to others through inheritance, sale and temporary lease for cash or kind. Small pieces of land are leased for one year to migrants coming into the village from drought and famine-affected areas which are not in the proximity of wadis.  They may be leased as free gift according to the ukul gum tradition[13].

Land is cultivated annually (a practice made possible by silt accumulation that renews soil fertility) and, with well irrigation, continuously. Intensive utilisation of wadi alluvial soil for cultivation has brought with it the adoption of methods of crop husbandry formerly unknown to these isolated peasant communities. Camel-driven ploughs are introduced in Abu Sakein for land preparation in addition to the already used hand tools, the torya and the koreig, together with one tractor brought in 1994.

There are two types of land found in Abu Sakein. One is light clay soil found in areas close to the wadi watercourse where it is possible to use hand tools and camel-driven ploughs. The second is heavy clay soil that dominates land away from the wadi watercourse.  For this type of soil, which is hard and compacted, only the tractor could be useful for land preparation. Both the camel plough and tractor are hired out by owners to peasant farmers.

New methods of land preservation and land improvement techniques have also been adopted. To enhance land fertility and boast yields, both natural organic manure and chemical fertilisers are applied. Poor farmers use animal dung, and it is only the better off who can afford to buy chemical fertilisers. The price of a 50kg chemical fertiliser sack increased rapidly between 1992 and 1994. Insects and pests which damage crops are combated by the use of insecticides for better off peasant farmers, while the majority of poor peasant farmers use smoke by burning animal dung to rid their crops of insects.

Much of the produce is sold to merchants in the village at low prices to be marketed in El Fashir, the capital of the region, and in Melleit to the north east of Abu Sakein.  Taking advantage of its proximity to El Fashir and the relatively lower transport cost involved, Abu Sakein is now competing with Kutum, El Fashir's traditional fruit and vegetable supplier. Better off peasant farmers who can afford the transport cost, market their produce themselves and earn higher cash returns. Alternatively, some peasant farmers use traditional transport means –camels and donkeys – to reach the neighbouring villages of Greiban, Surfie and Majdoub and sell their produce at better prices.

Some farmers with the financial ability started to include crops that are less perishable or could be stored for some months in order to fetch higher prices during the off season. Crops like onions, potato and beans have been newly introduced and adopted by better off farmers at the expense of the perishable radish, carrots, okra and other similar crops[14].   Most of the poorer peasant farmers cultivate vegetables that do not take a long time to grow and mature, because of their urgent need for cash. They are unable to store crops to take advantage of higher prices in times of shortage.

Better off farmers with improved irrigation facilities have also now resorted to the planting of fruit trees including mangoes, guava, lime, grapefruit and date palm trees. The date palm tree in particular is preferred among peasant farmers;,particularly the poor, because: i) dates can be consumed by family household members and thus contribute to meet family food needs in times of food shortage; ii) surplus dates can be dried up and stored for home consumption or for sale at higher prices in the off season; iii) date palm leaves can be used for a variety of domestic purposes, including hut construction and the handicraft manufacture of a number of useful articles for domestic use and for sale and; iv) the date palm tree has low water needs and it is minimally affected by the drop in shallow underground water level during prolonged periods of drought.

The village has now developed into an important rural centre with a two-day-a-week market (Sunday and Thursday) crowded by buyers and sellers from the surrounding villages. Not only has Abu Sakein started to change as a result of the adoption of well-irrigated fruit and vegetable farming but it has also become a centre of diffusion of innovation and change into formerly isolated surrounding villages. It provides goods, a market for commodities and crops, information and new ideas.

The above developments have halted out-migration from Abu Sakein and other wadi areas adopting well-irrigated farming during and after the recent 1984 and 1990 droughts. The dislocation of other local communities as a result of the drought has been manifested in the increasing process of migration, mainly of able-bodied males. Migration of individuals, whole families and communities seeking subsistence elsewhere has been predominant amongst most peasant communities in North Darfur. What is important in this context with regard to the rapid development of horticultural production in Abu Sakein, and other Wadi areas where well-irrigated agriculture has developed, is that migration from well-irrigated areas to acquire subsistence elsewhere outside the local community is almost absent. Most of the few migrants from Abu Sakein travelled to Libya to work as unskilled labourers. Migrants to Libya spend between two to three years to save some cash to marry, send cash and pumps to their families in Abu Sakein or invest in irrigated farming when they return.

Thus rather than sending migrants, Abu Sakein and other areas of well-irrigated wadi agriculture have become centres of attraction for migrants from other drought-affected communities.  Migrants who work on fruit and vegetable farms for wages are mostly women whose husbands have migrated to towns in the region or other parts of the Sudan. Because of the lack of other alternative sources of cash income to purchase food, women work for very low wages to feed children and the elderly who have been left behind. The abundant availability of cheap labour provided by needy females contributes to the economic viability of the relatively larger-sized vegetable and fruit farms run by better off peasant farmers and merchants as profit-making enterprises.

Family members provide most agricultural labour on the small farms of the majority poor farmers. For some better off peasant farmers who run larger plots family labour is not sufficient. Better off peasant farmers obtain labour from day labour or sharecropping arrangements, using the drought-displaced landless families from neighbouring areas.  For day labourers, the working day, under drought conditions, normally starts at 6.00 a.m. and continues till 6.00 p.m. for an average payment of around LS 200, in 1994, which amounted only to one and a half kilos of grain. However, it provides a significant source of food to avert starvation during the famine period.

Differentiated communities with better off and very poor peasant farmers have started to emerge. Poor peasant farmers, who constitute the majority wadi peasant farmers (using dalo and cultivating one or half a mukhammas), produce vegetables for sale in order to purchase grain. The food security situation of this group of peasant farmers is subject to fluctuations in the price of the vegetables they sell as well as to the prices of grain and other food items they buy. With little or no capital investment, poor peasant farmers are less dependent on the market for production than for consumption. Low cost farming for this category of wadi peasant farmers, which mainly depends on their own family labour, enables peasant farmers to continue production even under adverse market conditions of low producer prices. However, low crop sale prices depress poor peasant farmers cash income and contribute to lowering their purchasing power, with the consequence of less food being bought. Poor peasant farmers thus intensify their labour input and that of their families on the farm to increase output and compensate for the loss in cash earnings resulting from the drop in producer prices, the increase in food prices or both. When the drop in vegetable prices is coupled with an increase in food prices, poor peasant farmers' purchasing power is lowered even further with their food security situation being further threatened. However, the consumption of part of the produce and the little cash earned, which are both made possible by irrigation, contribute to avert starvation and famine.

Better off peasant farmers are more exposed to the market than poor peasant wadi farmers. Unlike poor peasant farmers, better off peasant farmers are highly dependent on the market for the acquisition of production requisites and inputs (i.e., pumps, spare parts, diesel oil, seeds, pesticides, insecticides, and wage labour) the availability of which influences productivity and output. Better off peasant farmers are, moreover, subjected to the fluctuation of market prices for their crops which affect revenue and cash returns. Nonetheless better-off farmers are in a better food security position than poor ones and their food security position is not threatened even when there is a rise in production costs and/or a drop in market prices for crops. Other resources at the disposal of this category of farmers ensure access to enough food from the market. Enabled by the resources at their disposal, better off peasant farmers normally buy and store grain. However, the economic viability of their wadi farms, which are run as economic enterprises for profit, comes under increased pressure and further investment in wadi irrigated farming is curtailed.

Moreover, and also because of their economic resources, better off peasant farmers enter the market on better terms than poor peasant wadi farmers do. Access to transport enables better off peasant farmers to avoid intermediaries and sell their produce directly in central markets at higher prices than those offered to poor peasant families. The ability to produce non-perishable crops (e.g., onions, beans and okra) which could be stored, plus fruits, also contribute to increased cash returns.

By relying on well-irrigated agriculture sharecroppers and wage labourers can also secure some food under drought conditions. However, the extent to which they can secure food depends on the degree to which better off farmers are subject to changing market conditions.  Wage labourers' exposure to the market is even greater than the sharecroppers'. Sharecroppers receive cash advances from landowners, consume part of the produce and get half of the cash returns when the produce is sold. Wage labourers (mostly women) on the other hand, work on a daily basis and have no guaranteed work and earnings. In addition, under difficult market conditions better off farmers attempt to lower wages to keep farms economically viable. Uncertain low wages when coupled with high food prices create real difficulties for wage labourers to purchase enough food and survive.


The adoption of small-scale well-irrigation for the production of vegetable and fruit crops has intensified the commoditisation process and contributed to the concentration of market exchanges in rural towns and facilitated market penetration deep into the countryside. The former relative autonomy of peasant communities and peasant households (near and around wadis) enjoyed before the drought has been lost. The compulsion of the need for adaptation to the distressful survival conditions imposed by the drought has intensified the incorporation of almost all peasant households into the market economy. While this provided them with the opportunity to escape famine, it at the same time made them vulnerable to the market forces, as has been the case in the Sahel, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The most vulnerable are poor peasant households with small plots of land and lacking capital resources or those households whose members work as agricultural labourers.

Given the region’s potential in alluvial soil and underground water resources, both shallow and deep underground water, small scale well-irrigated agriculture emerges as a possible reliable alternative source of food security for the famine-susceptible North Darfur peasant communities in the face of the frequent recurrence of drought. Moreover, with an improved system of storage and marketing the development of well-irrigated farming could improve the diet of people in the western Sudan regions of Darfur and Kordofan. Ample supply of vegetables and fruits at reasonable prices could make them affordable to most sections of the population including the poor. Income from vegetables and fruits would enable peasant farmers and labourers earn to have access to food imported from outside the region.

The success of a food security strategy and the sustainability of a food security system for drought and famine susceptible North Darfur needs to build on community initiatives and community responses to food shortage. If the expansion of vegetables and fruit produce, is to be encouraged in order to provide for the western region’s food needs and produce surpluses for markets in and outside Sudan, further studies have to be conducted to recommend the appropriate measures to be taken on:

  1. the socio-economic impact of further development in irrigated agriculture and its environmental impact in relation to millet production;
  2. regional specialisation and integration, between different regions of the Sudan and Northern Darfur, on the basis of comparative advantages of specialising in commodity production possibilities and integration between the different parts of the country;
  3. the measures to be taken to balance local food needs and the export of food surpluses and;
  4. the possibilities of food processing and the development of agro-industry based on the production and processing of fruits and vegetables.



[1] I am greatly indebted to the Ford Foundation for extending the financial assistance that has made the fieldwork for this research, of which this paper is a part, possible.  Also, gratitude is extended to Mr.  Khalid Salih,Izz el Dein Abdel Hameid and A. Dirar for assisting with the data collection. To all those who offered information or aided in having access to it I remain particularly thankful; namely the peasant farmers of Fatta Barno, Abu Sakein, Gele and Kebkabiya who extended generosity and patience.  This paper has been shortened and for publication in the Bulletin.  Bibliographic references have been omitted for reasons of space.

[2]The fieldwork covered four case studies including Fatta Barno, Gele and Kebkabiya as well as Abu Sakein. Information on the three case studies confirms the findings in Abu Sakein.

[3]. Water points include turads, rahads and fulas. These are natural depressions in clay soil normally formed at the bottom of rocky hills. Some others are man-made and these include hafirs, which are depressions excavated by man, or wells. Both types of water points are used as the main sources of water both for human and animal consumption.

[4]. The precipitation period is confined to July, August, September and October. This is the wet season during which peasant farmers concentrate on the cultivation of their millet subsistence crop.

[5] A mukhamma is equivalent  to 0.73 hectares

[6]. There are variations in the types of commodities produced and exchanged by pastoralists and peasant farmers. While on the one hand and in some cases pastoralists sell peasant farmers some handicraft manufactures made of hides like goatskin buckets, leather bags and wool mats, on the other hand peasant farmers sell dried tomato, beans and okra to pastoralists. There are commodities and goods sold by settled peasant farming communities to pastoralists which are not produced within the local community. Shop owners and part-time peasant petty traders sell to pastoralists as well as to the local peasant community; sugar, soap, tea, coffee, salt, matches and other similar commodities.

[7]. The description and analysis in this section is mainly based on information collected from the field and relies heavily on intensive informal unstructured interviews with Sheikh Ibrahim, a peasant farmer and also Abu Sakein's Deputy Sheikh. It is based also on long group discussion with Wadi peasant farmers in May 1994, an informal interview with Abdalla Mohamed, a well-informed schoolteacher and wadi farmer, plus my own field observations.

[8] Adad is a wooden frame constructed inside the well to hold off the sand from falling into the well.

[9] Dalo is a goat skin bucket tied to one end of a rope and used to lift water from wells.

[10]  The first pump was brought in by one of Abu Sakein's migrants to Iraq. When his experiment proved a success, others followed suit. The number of wells in which cement lining is used is about the same as the number of those in which diesel fuel-powered pumps are used.

[11]. These are the researcher's own estimates based on the assumption that one pump irrigates one and half a mukhammas.

[12]. Nafir is a form of free communal labour interchange. It is a reciprocal social relationship amongst members of the community and those who call for nafir are expected, as a social obligation, to respond in the same way when asked for help by other community members. The individual member who calls for nafir normally provides food and beverages for the nafir group.

[13]. Ukul gum is a term which in Arabic literally means ‘eat and leave’. In this form of land tenure the land is temporarily given for free by the owner to someone in need from outside the village community who does not have the right to land use. The free lease is normally for one year or two, after which the tenant has to leave the land, either to revert to the landlord or for use by another. The arrangement ensures that the occupant does not establish permanent land occupancy claims, while providing those in need with land to cultivate to provide for some of their food requirements.

[14]. However, tomatoes are produced and sold by both poor and better off peasant farmers alike and when tomato prices fall drastically during the season they are dried and stored to be sold out of season at relatively higher prices.

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