armers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have always had to deal with an unforgiving climate. The relentless cycles of drought and downpours that characterize much of the region have shaped agricultural practices for generations. Moreover, weather patterns look set to become even more unpredictable as climate change takes a firmer hold. F
Smallholder farmers from the Cape through to the Sahel are often poor and, therefore, they lack the resources and capacity to adapt to changes. This is especially true when it comes to water management: just 5% of arable land in SSA is irrigated. As the weather becomes more and more erratic, relying on rainwater alone becomes more risky. “It has become increasingly clear that with the unstable nature of the climate, one cannot depend on rain-fed agriculture,” says Gideon Amatey, a Ghanaian rice farmer. “It can fail you at any time.”
Therefore, it is not surprising that interest in groundwater irrigation is growing. In some cases, irrigation has been shown to treble farm yields. An estimated 400 million rural people in Africa already rely on groundwater for their domestic needs. Although groundwater is not widely used for irrigation, it is nonetheless abundant in many areas and perennial in nature. This makes it well suited to small-scale development.
However, despite this, Africa’s farmers continue to rely almost entirely on rainfall. Of the small area of agricultural land which is irrigated in SSA, only 10% comes from groundwater.
So, why do smallholders not make more use of groundwater?
“The constraints on groundwater irrigation do not seem to be directly linked to groundwater availability,” says Paul Pavelic, Principal Researcher – Hydrogeology, at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI),as smallholders could sustainably add over 13 million hectares of irrigation across SSA.
A two-part special issue of the journal, Water International, and edited by IWMI’s Paul Pavelic, Karen Villholth and Shilp Verma, provides the first
comprehensive analysis in recent years of the challenges of intensifying groundwater irrigation in SSA for improving smallholder livelihoods. The second part of the special issue has just been published. The first paper in part 2 of the special issue looks at policies and institutional factors that might explain why smallholders abstain from using groundwater.
Policies and institutions
“Based on two case studies from Ghana and Ethiopia, and other information from a larger set of country studies, we examined the possibility of increased groundwater irrigation in SSA,” says Mark Giordano, Associate Professor of Environment and Energy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, USA. “We looked at policy and institutional challenges associated with direct factors, such as groundwater and irrigation policy, and then other indirect factors, such as commodity price controls, which may also impact groundwater adoption.”
Based on the findings, the researchers were able to situate these challenges in a broader political economy of SSA, explaining how irrigation development priorities are set. Their findings showed a variety of reasons that explain the low levels of smallholder groundwater irrigation. “For instance, our research suggests that policy and institutional factors are, at least, partially the reason,” says Giordano.
The researchers found that water and irrigation policies often tend to ignore groundwater. However, they also identified that, even if groundwater is considered, these policies are somewhat biased against its development, focusing only on how to regulate its use. Certainly, precautionary measures make sense as groundwater tends to be easily overexploited. However, one might ask, why not promote groundwater use mainly
in areas with high poverty rates and little groundwater use?
Other factors found by the researchers also suggest that farmers might not see the point of investing in groundwater irrigation. Trade barriers and poor rural electrifications make access to groundwater and operational costs just too expensive. Poor supply chains and weak market linkages reduce the value of goods produced with groundwater, a large proportion of which are likely to be high-value crops. High costs of credit make access to technology difficult, and land tenure makes investments in groundwater wells risky.
What is needed?
“Our study clearly shows that groundwater irrigation needs to be given more consideration,” says Srinivas Chokkakula, co-author of the report. “Of course, the conditions under which groundwater may or may not be a choice depends on location, but we need to make sure groundwater is at least part of the discussion. What’s needed is a closer examination of the indirect policies which may be holding back groundwater development, and creating an environment in which farmers can profitably invest in groundwater where it is applicable.”