Neckartal holds much promise for intensive cultivation

Neckartal has become a sort of buzzword in our offices. For the past two years the Economist editorial team has speculated a lot amongst ourselves to try and get our minds around the enormous opportunities this reservoir will eventually offer.

We are fond to refer to this activity as spiffballing, a description of the mind at work to brainstorm to capture all the anticipated elements of large projects or developments.
Therefore, it was very exciting to us as a team when this week, for the first time since the project started, we got empirical, reliable information from the contractor itself. The dam wall itself will be 80 metres high, 518 metres from end to end with a volume of 950,000 cubic metres. This massive obstruction in the flow of the Fish River will create a reservoir of 857 million cubic metres or roughly four times the capacity of the Hardap Dam. The water will be sufficient to irrigate 5000 hectares of agricultural land.
“A crossing will be built 13 km downstream of the dam, 360 metres long and 9 metres high, as well as a pumping station with corresponding intake structures. The water will flow through an 8.7 km steel pipe with a diameter of 1100 mm to reach a reservoir with a capacity of 90,000 cubic metres, also part of the project” reads some of the additional technical information from the contractor.
This part we assume is the feeder side of the irrigation scheme that will be developed on the land east of the dam and west of Keetmanshoop. Of all the impressive facts about Neckartal, the one that has us most excited is the size of the arable land that will eventually come under irrigation. From the very first formal studies to determine the scope of the project, for instance the Environmental Scoping study done by Knight Piésold Consulting in 2009, up to the most recent project breakdown, it is apparent that a very substantial area of dry Karoo soil will be turned into fertile, productive agricultural land.
In the Namibian context, a 5000 hectare farm is not very big but neither is it small. It is sort of average and we are used to a land ownership structure where all of this land belongs to a single individual. With land under irrigation an entirely different ownership model becomes practical because a relatively small parcel of highly productive land can produces enormous yields, compared to what we are used to under our conventional dryland farming practices.
For a comparison, it is necessary that we look at other similar irrigation schemes, and also at land productivity in the North.
At both Vaalharts and Hartebeespoort in South Africa, 12.5 ha is considered a so-called economical unit. Given that maize under irrigation can produce up to 16 tonnes a hectare, a smallholder farmer on one of these plots can grow about 190 tonnes of white maize in a year. At R3000 per tonne, that would give the owner of the 12.5 ha plot, an annual income of N$570,000. This is not an insubstantial income for a family, hinting at the enormous potential this project holds to establish many farming families with a substantially above-average income.
On 5000 hectares, if the 12.5 ha model is followed, it creates 400 individual farming units. This in itself is a possibility not to be shunned.
However, if we look closer at home and use the annual agronomic awards as a guideline, we see that small mahangu and maize producers are those planting only 2 ha or less. A farmer that plants 5 ha under irrigation is considered medium and those who plant more than 7 ha are considered large.
Therefore, if you take Neckartal and divide the available land by 7 ha plots, you get 714 plots. If it is the agriculture ministry’s intention to go for the smaller plots, the potential annual income is reduced to around N$300,000, but again, this is still quire substantial. There are many thousands of households who will view it as a blessing to earn only half of that income.
Our team loves to play around with figures in this way, that is why we spiffball. It unlocks for us the potential value of any new undertaking, and it puts the future income potential into perspective. Often it also alerts policymakers to the huge potential encapsulated in certain projects. Neckartal is one of those.