Op Ed: How Water Technology Can Reduce Rural Poverty

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Jeremy Bird is the Director General of the International Water Management Institute.

We hear a lot of concerns about food security these days and little wonder – an estimated 870 million people worldwide are undernourished, or one in every eight people.

More than half of those live in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Most of them live in rural areas, eking out a subsistence living largely by farming.  To a great extent, they still depend on the vagaries of the weather – at great risk.

There is hope. The quality of the lives of tens of millions of poor people could be improved through appropriate irrigation technologies and access to water, according to recently-completed research led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a CGIAR Consortium Center.

More specifically, targeting small-holder farmers can provide a large opportunity for boosting food security in those regions. That’s what our researchers found as part of a three-year project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

IWMI researchers have examined agricultural water-management challenges and recommended solutions since the center’s founding more than 25 years ago.  Particularly, the AgWater Solutions Project studied the most promising water management options for poor and marginalized smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Our partners included the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and U.S.-based iDE, a development NGO.

Researchers found that innovative technology can boost crop yields by as much as 300 percent in some areas.  (The project developed a simple calculator that shows how agricultural yields increase when money is invested in various technologies. )  In sub-Saharan Africa alone, improved access to motorized pumps could benefit 185 million people and generate $22 billion of additional agricultural revenue, researchers estimated.

In Ghana in West Africa, for example, only a small percentage of the farmland is irrigated.  That makes farmers overly reliant on rainfall, which is naturally very unpredictable and will become increasingly so because of climate change.

Farmers interviewed in the hot, low-lying area near the Volta River in Ghana expressed the magnitude of the risk relying just on nature.  “If our plants don’t get water for three days, they will die,” Patience, a chili pepper and onion farmer, said.

As the researchers expected, women farmers face more constraints – they are less likely to have access to credit, the equipment rental market, business training, and so on.

But women farmers hold great promise. In many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, women control their own plots. That puts them in an ideal position to be leaders in adopting new irrigation technology.

The focus among investors continues to be in large-scale irrigation projects in sub-Saharan Africa. While such infrastructure investments are indeed warranted, they are expensive, reaching only smallholder farmers who can access the systems. These investments overlook the opportunities to boost a sector that could increase food security for the rural poor.

The reality is that large-scale public sector irrigation projects also have been beset by poor performance and poor investment returns – another reason it makes sense to focus on small-scale irrigation schemes.

That isn’t to say that’s an easy solution either – even small-scale projects require capital investments upfront and vigilance in operations and maintenance. The AgWater Solutions Project identified ways to support the market, such as through micro-credit financing, equipment rental schemes, and training. Using and strengthening existing agricultural networks are paramount.

Viable agricultural water management (AWM) solutions already exist, such as small motorized pumps, water-saving drip irrigation and on-farm ponds.  But there’s room for improvements in efficiency. New technologies also offer potential, such as solar pumps and the use of satellite images to analyze groundwater resources, crop yields and climate-change impacts.

The research project was completed last year. But already we are seeing evidence of its continued impact.

In Tanzania, the project research has been a factor in the government’s decision to increase national investment in agriculture by USD 6 million.

In West Bengal State in India, government officials followed project recommendations to relax permit requirements for small pumps and provide low-cost electric connections.

It is through efforts like these that we have a chance to make significant reductions in the extreme rural poverty facing the world today.

– Jeremy Bird

Photo: International Water Management Institute

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