SEATTLE, Washington — Feed the Future’s Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) is a five-year project to improve use of scarce water supplies in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania. The project focuses on the infrastructural, economic and societal constraints on water use in addition to those imposed by the natural environment.
The program hopes to not only reduce poverty and improve nutrition, but also have a socially-equalizing impact. Like the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Ethiopia, the project is about transforming the lives of smallholder farmers.
A large part of implementing small-scale irrigation opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa is technology provision. The availability and sustainability of groundwater irrigation systems, river and stream pumping, rice water capture systems, reservoirs and dugouts are essential to the effectiveness of this program. Solar-powered irrigation pumps have been introduced in several regions of Ethiopia as a green alternative to motorized pumps.
Farmers in Ghana and Ethiopia have also been introduced to wetting front detectors, devices which help farmers detect when the soil has been sufficiently watered and thereby encourage responsible water management. ILSSI has also organized workshops on financial literacy, which will facilitate small loans for irrigation technologies.
Technological innovations and educational opportunities in small-scale irrigation not only improve food security by boosting crop yields and household revenues, but they also have a broader social effect. Gender equity in irrigation has become a key element in the ILSSI project. In March and April 2016, ILSSI hosted three gender and irrigation workshops in Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania to help build gender equality into irrigation reforms.
Cultural norms surrounding gender and water must be taken into account if irrigation improvements are to benefit all the members of a community. For instance, women in Tanzania are prohibited from going to the source of the irrigation water because men swim naked to open and close the floodgates. In all three nations, cultural restrictions on speaking in public limit women’s participation in communal decision-making about water use. Revelations such as these have motivated the irrigation engineers at the workshops to consider water use practices not just an engineering problem but a social one.
The gender and irrigation workshops revealed some disparities which Feed the Future intends to address through the ILSSI project. ILSSI plans now include conducting participatory needs assessments with men and women about irrigation technologies. Altering the discriminatory bylaws of water user associations (WUAs) was also suggested, for many WUAs require land ownership, forbid the participation of a husband and wife in meetings, and disregard childcare provisions in scheduling.
ILSSI also intends to offer financial literacy training for women, facilitating access to credit and to irrigation technologies, and plans to design water-lifting and storage technologies that anyone can effectively use.
Feed the Future’s small-scale irrigation project in sub-Saharan Africa will help to stabilize food and water supplies, bolster household incomes and enhance livelihoods. Mutually improved water access should also promote social parity and the agency of the individual. Breaking the poverty cycle has to potential to necessarily advance social and gendered equity across communities.
– Robin Lee