How local solutions to water access could deliver sustainable growth

Photo credit: IWMI

Water from a river is diverted to a small tank to be used in Ethiopia for cultivation – Photo Fitsum Hagos

Is small beautiful for Africa’s farmers?

More than half a billion Africans, or some two thirds of the continent’s population, depend on farming as their primary source of livelihood. While this number includes pastoralists and the landless, the great majority of these are smallholder farmers, 80 per cent of whom farm less than two hectares. [1] For many the one key factor constraining an improvement in their lives is a lack of access to water. This is not because the landscape lacks water – far from it: only a tiny fraction of the available water is productively used. The critical issue is one of timing…

Rainfall in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa is highly seasonal. This means that unless farmers can store water and then have the means to access it, they are limited to one harvest per year. Aside from natural surface stores like lakes and wetlands, water can be accumulated in ponds or reservoirs, or underground in aquifers. Then, of course, some form of pump is usually needed to get the water from where it is stored to where it is needed.

Early attempts to improve agricultural water access in Africa usually revolved around the construction of large publicly run irrigation schemes. But the results were generally disappointing: overall the large systems did not deliver the expected increases in crop yields or farm incomes. More recently the focus has shifted to smaller on-farm water access. Both approaches are important, but ceding control of water management to individual farmers has many advantages in countries where public institutions are often weak. If farmers can control their own water access, they have a much better opportunity to grow high value crops like vegetables during dry periods.

The situation is complex, however. Well managed public irrigation schemes can still deliver spectacular results. Individual farm innovations are popular with smallholders, but many do not have the resources to invest. In some areas a combination of the two can be the most appropriate solution to equitable and sustainable water management.


Read the full article: IWMI

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.