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Every drop counts for Africa's agriculture

Africa's demand for water is rising fast (© FAO/Olivier Asselin)
Africa's demand for water is rising fast
© FAO/Olivier Asselin

The challenge of managing Africa's water more efficiently and allocating it more fairly was one of the topics for discussion at the recent Every Drop Counts conference. Green Ink's Elspeth Bartlet considers the implications for agriculture.

Africa's demand for water is rising fast, as population increases, and urbanisation, economic growth and climate change combine to exert ever-increasing pressure on dwindling supplies. Water shortages already threaten food production in many African regions, while the lack of clean water and sanitation leads to 1.5 million deaths a year from diarrhoea and cholera. Yet Africa has substantial water resources: its shortages are often the result of poor water management, low investment, inefficient use and wastage. Agriculture is a primary water consumer and pivotal to the debate. How can the needs of agriculture be met as it intensifies to feed a growing population? What contributions can a more water-efficient agricultural sector make to African water security?

As demand for water grows, major water management decisions increasingly need to be made at the river-basin level, but this is not easy in a continent where 90 per cent of the available water is in river systems that straddle country boundaries. Agreement at the trans-national level is needed to avoid conflict over water and to balance the demands of agriculture with those of industry, energy and consumers. The most effective dialogues seem to be those that form part of a wider foundation for cooperation and integration. For example, Lake Victoria's water is relatively well managed, with the support of policies set by the East African Community (EAC).

Improving infrastructure

Major water management decisions increasingly need to be made at the river-basin level (© FAO/Giulio Napolitano)
Major water management decisions increasingly need to be made at the river-basin level
© FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Africa's infrastructure for managing water lags way behind that of other regions. Irrigation is a prime example: only around 5 per cent of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, compared to 40 per cent in Asia. A CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems was launched in March, with a target to bring irrigation to millions of households in sub-Saharan Africa. "Irrigation offers huge scope for intensification of agricultural production in Africa," explains the program's director Simon Cook. "Shallow groundwater for irrigation is available over large areas of West Africa and surface water is available in parts of East Africa. But to be sustainable we have to ensure that development is balanced, that societal norms are protected, and that environmental needs are respected."

Large-scale public projects are far from the only way to improve water management. Much can be done at the farm or village level, arguably with better, and faster, results. The use of small-scale water collection and storage, known as water harvesting, gives farmers more control over their water supply. Modern technologies, such as the delfino plough, can be used to scale up traditional water harvesting approaches. "The dramatic gains that can be achieved with the delfino plough make it a deserving case for 'smart subsidy' by governments," says Ola Smith, formerly with the region's Desert Margins Program. 'Goutte-à-goutte' or drip-irrigation systems are highly water-efficient and have underpinned the development of vegetable gardens in Mali, Senegal and Burkino-Faso. Water run-off or evaporation can be reduced by optimising soil health and minimising soil disturbance with approaches such as conservation agriculture, used for example in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Choice of crops and need for loans

Choosing the crop that delivers the best return on the water available is a key decision for farmers. Climate change is increasing the need for varieties that can make the most of low or unreliable supplies. Chickpea, pigeon pea, pearl millet, sorghum and groundnut are species that are already adapted to tolerate hot and dry conditions. However, plant physiologist Vincent Vadez of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) believes they can become even more water efficient. "We have been screening our collections against combined heat and water stress and found a wealth of genetic variation across the dryland crop species," he says. "We think there is a mechanism that contributes to the plant's water conservation, which is only switched on when needed. It can lead to large yield differences in different crops." Crop scientists are also working on the major cereal crops; for example, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and partners are developing fast-growing, drought-tolerant varieties of maize, currently being trialled in East and Southern Africa by the Water-Efficient Maize for Africa project.

Drought-tolerant varieties of maize are being trialled in East and Southern Africa (© Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT)
Drought-tolerant varieties of maize are being trialled in East and Southern Africa
© Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

Attracting suitable investment is crucial to improving African water management. In Kenya, investment in water infrastructure has moved up the national policy agenda over the past four years. "The government in Kenya have realised the importance of making water a priority," says Charity Kaluki Ngilu, Minister of Water and Irrigation. "I've seen the budget go up nearly ten times. At the moment we have over US$500m for water." But governments and donors alone cannot provide all the investment needed to improve African water management. "Financial sustainability depends on appropriate combinations of all available sources of funding," says Monica Scatasta from the European Investment Bank. "Loans, possibly 'blended' with grants, spread the cost of investment over time. But their financial costs and the cost of operation, maintenance and infrastructure renewal can only be recovered from a combination of tariffs, budget transfers and grants. Water tariffs are sometimes controversial, but they play a role in ensuring the long-term sustainability of water and sanitation. However, proper consultation and regulation is important to ensure affordability through appropriate tariff structures or separate income support targeted to the poor."

At the Every Drop Counts conference, agriculture was identified as the sector where Africa can make its biggest water savings. Some of the measures discussed are difficult and controversial but, when every drop counts, Africa needs to consider all the tools at its disposal.

Written by: Elspeth Bartlet, Green Ink

Date published: July 2012

 

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