Irrigation is the artificial application of water to the soil usually for assisting in growing crops. Agriculture that relies only on direct rainfall is referred to as rain-fed farming.

Sources of irrigation water can be groundwater extracted from springs or by using wells, surface water withdrawn from rivers or dams, or non-conventional sources like treated wastewater, desalinated water or drainage water.

Irrigation systems typically being used in South Africa today include:

  • Canals
  • Flood irrigation
  • Draglines, quick-coupling lines
  • Pivots
  • Sprinklers
  • Micro irrigation
  • Drip irrigation

These irrigation systems can be defined under the following types:

  • Static (micro and sprinkle) – these systems remain static while water is applied.
  • Moveable (quick coupling; dragline; hop-along; big gun; rotating boom) – these remain static during irrigation but are moved, manually or mechanically, between irrigations.
  • Moving (centre pivot; linear and travelling irrigator), which move by themselves during irrigation.
  • Flood (basin; border; furrow; short furrow) – water flows over the soil surface for spreading and infiltration purposes.
Source: (adapted); “Irrigation Basics”, an article by Johannes Maree (contact him at johannesmaree [at]

Irrigated agriculture plays an important role in stabilising the production of food and eventual food security. Although it uses 60% of the available water in South Africa, it does not do so at the expense or the detriment of any other sector of the economy. Yet no farmer would disagree that the demand on our scarce water resources makes the efficient use of all water in South Africa a necessity.


Source: Johannes Möller, previous president of Agri SA

Commercial Farmer Points of Interest

Software for Farmers

Irrigation scheduling is defined as the correct amount of water being applied to a crop at the correct time. We have only a limited resource of water, which should be utilised in the most efficient way possible. By optimising scheduling principles we can:

  • Prevent over and under watering
  • Facilitate crop manipulation
  • Prevent unnecessary crop stress
  • Create ideal air-water balance
  • Manage soil water buffer
  • Optimise salinity management
  • Prevent soil compaction
  • Save on energy costs
  • Promote root development
  • Improve fertiliser uptake
  • Maximise harvest potential

Water legislation means that a farmer has to budget for how much water will be used. By using scheduling software the farmer can tell exactly how much water he used so that he can estimate how much he’s going to need for the next year as required. Some software companies have addressed the new regulations by developing software solutions that can successfully keep track of water budgeting information and spray records.

One module uses climate and soil moisture information to generate irrigation recommendations. It will also help predict water requirements. By loading this information, you will be able to make use of a second module which controls the irrigation in the field. This module also can determine when to irrigate in order to prevent frost or to cool down the plants by keeping track of temperature readings. By means of radio or of wired links, the pumps and valves in the field are controlled.

Source: DFM Technologies

Precision irrigation means that land can be differentially irrigated according to variations in soil type, topography, soil-water capacity, yield potential. Accepting these differences (and irrigating according to them) translates into less wastage of water and fertiliser.

For the newcomer

Over-irrigating wastes water, and fertilisers and soil nutrients are diluted to below the root zone. And them more fertiliser is used! This leads ultimately to algal blooms and eutrophication downstream.

The Network on Irrigation Research and Extension for Smallholder Agriculture (NIRESA) was founded in 1996 to facilitate the exchange of ideas and practices about smallholder irrigation in South Africa. It is a platform for scientists, extension officers and students to exchange ideas, network and strengthen irrigation activities across the country. NIRESA is housed at the Water Research Commission. Contact Dr Sylvester Mpandeli at sylvesterm [at]

Find out about the support offered by the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation (DHSWS) to resource-poor irrigation farmers.

Drip irrigation is the ideal solution for small-holders. It uses specially designed pipes pre-fitted with advanced drippers. The irrigation system drips the exact amount of water and nutrients that crops need right at the root zone. Thus, every drop of water is effectively used to raise quality and increase year-round yields.


Why drip irrigation is so successful:


  • Keeps soil aerated
  • Reduces weed growth
  • Cuts down diseases and fungi
  • Uniform, efficient water distribution
  • Minimised evaporation and water run-off
  • Enables easy control of water consumption
  • Most efficient, accurate use of water and nutrients
Source: Netafim.

Local business environment

  • Consult the South African Irrigation Institute (SABI) website,
  • Downloading the latest Agricultural Outlook by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) and doing a search for “irrigation” will bring the reader to relevant passages across all crops where irrigation features. Find the document at

National Strategy

Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS)

  • Selecting the “Document Library” and “Projects & Programmes” menu options on the website will provide a spread of available information, including reports and strategic plans.
  • Section 26 of the National Water Act (36) of 1998, requires that the abstraction of water for irrigation of crops should be limited, monitored, measured and recorded. Find out more about the Act on the general “Water” page or at
  • Industries with the largest potential contribution to job creation in agriculture are mostly irrigation-based, and so employment could be increased through the expansion of irrigation. The country irrigates some 1,5 million hectares of land and produces about 30% of total output on this land, which is only 10% of our arable land. The National Development Plan (NDP) targets bringing an extra 500 000ha under irrigation. It shows that even expanding the irrigated area by 14 000ha would create some of the million jobs that the NDP looks for in agriculture.

Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD)

  • Directorate: Water Use and Irrigation Management Ms Mary-Jean Gabriel Tel: 012 846 8567/9 MaryJeanG [at], DWUID [at]
  • Directorate: Infrastructure Support Tel: 012 319 846 8502





The Irrigation Strategy for South Africa set a target of an increase of more than 50% of irrigated land in South Africa. For future scenarios, the DWS assumes that the amount of water allocated for agriculture will remain the same; all land reform projects and revitalisation of smallholder irrigation schemes will use the same amount of water as before. An increase in irrigation will be effected through water use efficiency, and selected new development …


Source: An excerpt from the second chapter, “National Strategic Imperatives”, of the country’s National Water Resource Strategy 2 (NWRS2).

Further reference:

  • Find the document Irrigation Strategy for South Africa on the internet, or approach DALRRD for it.
  • Download the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA) “Guidance on South African Legislation” document, available on its website, Water usage is one of the chapters.

Agribook.Digital’s Featured Partners

DFM Technologies – Manufactures and markets highly specialized end–user applications for the agricultural markets.

Agrico – Designs and supplies all types of irrigation systems.

Click here to become a featured partner and have your Agribusiness listed here.

Role players


Associations involved

SA Irrigation Institute (SABI) Tel: 021 850 8220

SABI members include designers, engineers, soil scientists, crop experts, economists, irrigation farmers and companies. The companies manufacture and/or supply irrigation equipment.


Other irrigation-related associations and Industry Organisations:

  • The Borehole Water Association of SA
  • Landscape Irrigation Association
  • Network on Irrigation and Extension for Small-scale Agriculture (NIRESA) Sylvester Mpandeli, sylvesterm [at]
  • The South African National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage (SANCID) represents South Africa at the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID). Details of SANCID representatives may be found on the website,
  • Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (Sappma)
  • Southern African Regional Irrigation Association (SARIA)
  • Southern African Plastic Pipe Manufacturers Association (SAPPMA)
  • Water Research Commission


Training and Research

  • The Agricultural Colleges present short courses on irrigation for small scale as well as for commercial farmers. These include a basic introduction to irrigation planning, examination of soil, economics and irrigation scheduling. Taung Agricultural College is accredited to offer Diploma in Irrigation Management course at NQF level 6. Find contact details on the “Agricultural education and training” page.
  • Included in the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)-accredited qualifications which AgriSETA oversees are titles like Maintain basic water quality; Monitor water quality; Maintain water quality parameters; Operate and maintain irrigation systems; Operate and maintain specific irrigation systems; and Schedule the operation and maintenance of irrigation systems. Consult Find details of training providers on the same website and on the “Agricultural Education and Training” page.
  • ARC-Agricultural Engineering (AE) Felix Reinders and Adriaan van Niekerk Tel: 012 842 4017 reindersf [at] For the development, testing and evaluation of irrigation equipment in world-class laboratories, in-field evaluations of irrigation systems, improvement of existing designs, practices and established irrigation methods as well as the rehabilitation of irrigation schemes. Training courses cover aspects of irrigation scheduling, soil water management technologies, soil water balance calculations, water quality and leaching, irrigation system operation and maintenance. Several guidelines can be purchased from the ARC (see “Websites & publications” heading) and /or downloaded from their website.
  • ARC-Tropical and Subtropical Crops (TSC) Tel: 013 753 7000 The TSC has run courses in the past: irrigation practices and systems for subtropical crops; Irrigation Scheduling.
  • The Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) has done studies on irrigation in South Africa. Visit
  • Companies involved provide training on practical aspects of irrigation, such as installation, maintenance and management of irrigation systems.
  • Institute for Natural Resources (INR) Tel: 033 346 0796 The INR has done studies into Entrepreneurial Development Paths for establishing smallholder irrigation farming businesses
  • IrrigationWise Academy – see SABI below
  • Nelson Mandela University Department Civil Engineering Tel: 041 504 3297 Designing of various types of irrigation systems
  • SABI, as the recognised representative organisation of the irrigation industry in South Africa, organises and facilitates a series of training courses each year through its training entity, IrrigationWise Academy. The SABI courses are accredited by SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority), and are thus recognised as part of the registered NQF (National Qualifications Framework) learning programme. Irrigation Designers complete the SABI National Exam and are bound by the SABI ethical code to designing irrigation systems that meet the SABI design norms. To find updates go to the “Training” option on
  • Stellenbosch University (i) Department of Soil Science Dr Eduard Hoffman Tel: 021 808 4789 (ii) Water Institute Tel: 021 808 4793
  • University of the Free State (i) Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension Tel: 051 401 2163 (ii) Department of Agricultural Economics Rapids Group Tel: 051 401 2824
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal Bioresources Engineering Tel: 033 260 5490
  • University of Pretoria Department of Plant Production and Soil Science Tel: 012 420 4585 Martin.steyn [at] A short course in irrigation management is offered
  • Water Research Commission Tel: 012 330 0340 / 9053


Companies involved

Find the list of SABI members at



Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed earlier on this page.

From SABI:

  • SABI Magazine/Tydskrif is published by SABI every second month. It is distributed to irrigation farmers and associated professionals in South Africa. The publication gives the reader first hand information and a range of topical and technical articles on the irrigation industry in South Africa. Visit for more information and to subscribe to the magazine.
  • Newsjet is the newsletter of SABI. Find a copy on their website.
  • Irrigation Design Manual – usually given as part of the Irrigation Design Course. Contact SABI for a copy.

The Water Research Commission has numerous relevant publications. One of these is Irrigation water measurement – Guidance for water user associations. Water user associations (WUAs) will be assisted greatly by these guidelines addressing the choice, installation and management of water measuring devices for canal, pipeline and river distribution systems. This and many other publications are available from the Water Research Commission. Call 012 761 9300, email orders [at] after viewing

One of the reports by the WRC looks at possible water treatment techniques for farmers employing irrigation water from rivers that are increasingly polluted. Download “Scoping study on different on-farm treatment options to reduce the high microbial contaminant loads of irrigation water to reduce the related food safety risk” at

SUSFARMS, the Sustainable Sugarcane Farm Management System, deals with irrigation. Contact the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) for more information. Call 031 508 7500 or visit

Watch the videos on irrigation at

Call 012 842 4017 or email iaeinfo [at] for the following publications, available from the ARC-Agricultural Engineering:

  • Irrigation design manual (Planning and design of irrigation systems)
  • Besproeiingsontwerphandleiding (beplanning en ontwerp van besproeiing stelsels)
  • Besproeiingsbedryfshandleiding (installering, bestuur en instandhouding van besproeiing stelsels)
  • Irrigation User’s Manual (installation, management and maintenance of irrigation systems)
  • Besproeiingsontwerphandleiding / Irrigation Design Manual on cd (pdf-format)
  • Besproeiingsbedryfshandleiding/Irrigation Users’ Manual on cd (pdf-format)
  • The efficient use of labour in sprinkler irrigation systems
  • The effects of wind on sprinkler irrigation
  • Aspects to consider when selecting sprinklers for use in irrigation systems
  • Critical elements which influences the efficiency of small-scale farm sprinkler irrigation systems
  • Ingenieursaspekte betrokke by ondergrondse drupbesproeiing
  • Engineering aspects of sub-surface drip irrigation
  • Laedruk vloeibeheerklep
  • Treatment of low quality water for drip irrigation systems
  • The performance and care of drip irrigation emitters
  • Ondersoek na materiale vir kanaalbelyning
  • Investigation into materials for lining of canals
  • Petrol-aangedrewe besproeiingspomp vir beginnerboere
  • Petrol-driven irrigation pump for emerging farmers
  • An evaluation of some irrigation methods for small vegetable gardens in remote rural areas
  • Handleiding vir die evaluering van besproeiingstelsels
  • Manual on the evaluation of irrigation systems Irrigation made easy (training manual)
  • Practical water conserving techniques applied to small-scale irrigation
  • Alternative small-scale irrigation technologies for domestic utilization and production use


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