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Four reasons small farms are running out of water – and how we can fix it

by Meredith Giordano, Olcay Ünver and Jennie Barron | International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Thursday, 31 January 2019 10:16 GMT

Irrigation system is seen at a farm in Eikenhof, South of Johannesburg, South Africa, November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By 2050, four billion people could be experiencing severe water stress, putting global food supply in jeopardy.

Meredith Giordano carried out this work as a Principal Researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Meredith now works with the Peace Corps.

Olcay Ünver is the Deputy Director of Land and Water Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and a member of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

Jennie Barron co-leads the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) flagship program and is a professor in agricultural water management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). 

From Cape Town to California to the wheat fields of Europe, water-related crises grabbed headlines in 2018. However, a quieter – but no less menacing – crisis has been striking rural areas for years. And it’s hitting smallholder farmers especially hard in the Global South.

Water scarcity is a top risk to global food production. Estimates call for a need to double the production of food by 2050, but water scarcity might spur a future food crisis because smallholder farmers, who are especially at risk, produce a significant share of the world’s food.

Many poor smallholders already do not have enough water to meet their needs; and by 2050, nearly four billion people could be experiencing severe water stress. Yet, past efforts to address this scarcity may have largely missed the mark by focusing too much on technological fixes. Tools like wetting front detectors, for example, help farmers apply water more efficiently, saving time and water and improving crop yield and quality. However, transportation costs and import restrictions often limit adoption.

In a new book chapter, we argue that this narrow focus on technologies fails to tackle the complex and unexpected dynamics causing water scarcity on small farms. So what are the real sources of water scarcity for smallholders?

1) Competition – and one group wins

First, physical water scarcity can occur when there is simply not enough water to meet all demands – when use outpaces replenishment. This results from increasing demands for water, spurred by challenges like climate change, urbanization, dietary changes and industrial development.

However, in some cases, enough water is technically available, but increased competition over it causes local or intermittent scarcity. For example, when an upstream irrigation scheme consumes too much water, downstream farmers are left to do without.

2) Not everyone has access to the technologies

Sometimes technologies to fight water scarcity exist, but the people who need them most are left out by inequitable or otherwise flawed institutions. Women farmers are particularly disadvantaged: while women are taking on greater and more varied responsibilities in farming, they are often under-represented when it comes to ownership and management of irrigation systems. They are also not always able to provide the labor that such systems require, hampered by physical constraints or cultural barriers.

3) Market inefficiencies exacerbate the issue of access

Famers often do not invest enough in technologies due to poor market conditions. Weak supply chains, high transaction fees and lack of information on best practices mean that farmers have few incentive or options to seek out new or improved technologies. This hampers potential productivity gains even where water is technically abundant, such as in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

4) Uncoordinated spread of technologies

Finally, the uncoordinated spread of, for example, small pumps can in itself have unintended, adverse consequences. To avoid these, water management decisions need to be made with water and soil quality—as well as the needs of other users—in mind. In Burkina Faso, for example, vegetable farmers ‘informally’ pumping from reservoirs upstream are causing declining water quality in downstream irrigation canals.

Solutions to scarcity? The right investments

Water scarcity on small farms is thus not simply a matter of ‘not enough water’. Rather, addressing this scarcity also requires overcoming issues of access, equity and siloed thinking. The right business models can support smallholder farmers to address water scarcity.

For example, investments in developing businesses through training, stronger supply chains and credit access could encourage more entrepreneurs to invest in new technologies such as solar irrigation pumps. They are a ‘greener’, more versatile alternative for smallholders who can’t access the power grid or expensive diesel. Solar technology is used in India and elsewhere. Newly developed business models for Ethiopia underscore its potential in sub-Saharan Africa and for including even the poorest farmers. 

Another option is to invest in increased water storage, such as on-farm ponds. Experiences from India show that farmer investments in on-farm ponds can lead to significant improvements in the availability of irrigation water, a revival of the agricultural economy of the region, and substantial increases in farmer incomes and livelihoods.

Such investments in new business models should be encouraged and complemented by public policies creating beneficial synergies, such as between the water and energy sectors.

Policy change in combination with investments in innovative business models is a promising option for alleviating water scarcity. Only with this winning combination can we protect small farms from water scarcity and take the essential steps toward food security.