Africa / Article / Biodiversity / CRP11 / Drought / Drylands / ILRI / Livestock / Livestock-Water / PLE / Vulnerability / Water / West Africa

Indigenous knowledge the missing link in water management

Sabine Douxchamps

While numerous technical solutions have been developed and are available, adoption and adaptation of Agricultural Water Management (AWM) strategies remains limited in the Volta Basin. As such, future research and development projects should concentrate on understanding the factors limiting adoption and enhancing system productivity while ensuring healthy ecosystem services for long term sustainability. This is the key recommendation from a just completed study that sought to understand the evolution of AWM in the Volta Basin.

The authors Douxchamps, S., Ayantunde, A. and Barron, J., recommend that a system-wide perspective will be best to improve water-crop-livestock interactions, to develop off-season cultivation options and market access, and to balance gender benefits.

Sabine Douxchamps and Augustine Ayantunde are based at the People Livestock and Environment Theme  of ILRI and are working in the Volta Region.

These recommendations are made in their recently published paper Evolution of Agricultural Water Management in Rainfed Crop-Livestock Systems of the Volta Basin; published by the Colombo based CGIAR Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF). In their research, Douxchamps et al sought to synthesize existing knowledge, interventions, lessons, and gaps in knowledge regarding AWM in the Volta Basin. The questions that their paper addressed include (i) who did what, how, where, with which results and why, (ii) what are the lessons learned for longer term development efforts and interventions and (iii) what are the knowledge gaps, with focus on the Volta Basin. Key resource informants were interviewed and more than 250 documents were consulted, from peer-reviewed research papers to grey literature and project documents, from 1969 up to now.

Learning from the failures of the past, researchers and development practitioners interrogated the participatory approach and gave increasing importance to indigenous knowledge. This emphasis on participatory approach led to improvement of indigenous technologies, development of new technologies tailored to smallholders’ needs in various agroecological zones of the basin, and studies on farmers’ perceptions, adoption drivers and local institutions. The concept of AWM then became more and more integrated and it evolved from “sustainable land management” to “land husbandry” which includes the socio-economic context. To address all these complex facets research-for-development projects became multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder oriented.

They observed the need for a landscape perspective, to understand ecological landscape processes and trade-offs between ecosystem services derived from AWM strategies and an institutional perspective to facilitate management of AWM structures and to raise awareness. They also noted the need for a long-term perspective, to foresee the best strategies for adaptation to climate change and manage risk in the variable environment of the Volta Basin. Finally, there is a need for an impact perspective, with a continued assessment of actual benefits and effectiveness of large-scale international research for development programs.

“Local capacities and agendas should be better accounted for when promoting AWM strategies or low-cost irrigation technologies. Participatory management of the water infrastructure should be carefully planned through integration of maintenance costs in project budget, capacity building of actors towards assumption of more responsibility, and ways to deal with turnovers within management committees. Farmers’ capacity building is definitely a key asset for enlightened risk management and constant adaptation to new variable conditions” the authors observe adding that the scope for improvement lies in the coordination, collaboration and communication among various institutions and organisms active in the AWM sector.

In response to demographic pressure, environmental degradation, priorities of development actors and needs of smallholders, AWM strategies along with related concepts have evolved with time. First linked to erosion control in the 1960, AWM strategies were promoted for cash crop production in large scale state projects relying on technology transfer as a means of dissemination.

Following the first wave of droughts of the 1970s and the related food shortages, the focus moved to staple crop production and promotion of soil and water conservation techniques through large scale projects. However, the approaches were too much top-down, with experts as exclusive actors, projects were too short with “silver bullet” solutions, there was a lack of consideration for farmers’ preferences and traditions. Hence, when the second wave of droughts struck the basin in the 1980s, the smallholders were not better prepared and once again they were severely affected by loss of yields and income.

The paper is published by the CGIAR Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF)

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