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Agricultural water management technologies for small scale farmers in Southern Africa: An inventory and assessment of experiences, good practices and costs
April 2006
Douglas J Merrey
International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

Executive Summary

This study was carried out using funds received from the Investment Centre of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Southern Africa Regional Office of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, United States Agency for International Development. In the former case it is intended to support the preparation of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Agricultural Water Management for Food Security Project to be supported by the African Development Bank; and in the latter case it is intended to provide guidance for improving the effectiveness of current programs on micro-agricultural water management (micro-AWM) technologies implemented largely through NGOs.

The methodology involved several activities: we designed a terms of reference and inventory format for obtaining country-level data through partners in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The partners interviewed key informants, reviewed local literature, and drew on their own experiences. We commissioned an in-depth impact assessment of treadle pumps in Malawi. We commissioned a study to carry out a more global literature review through the internet; and we carried out literature reviews and some field visits. Therefore, except for the Malawi treadle pump study, this is an extensive review, not an in-depth field work based assessment. Our basic findings are as follows.

  1. Low average rainfall that is seasonal, highly variable in time and space, and increasingly unreliable is the major impediment to farm households increasing their production of food, cash crops, and livestock products in Southern Africa. The impacts of this unreliable and inadequate water supply are compounded by many other problems, both natural (for example poor soil fertility) and humancreated (for example lack of support services and infrastructure and deteriorating health). Improving the reliability of water supply for agriculture is therefore a necessary though not sufficient condition for reducing poverty and malnutrition and generating faster agricultural growth.

  2. There is reasonable though not conclusive evidence that some of the micro-AWM technologies reviewed in this study, under the right conditions, do lead to substantial improvements in households’ food security and incomes, and that they do so in a cost-effective manner. This is especially true for treadle pumps, but there is enough case study and anecdotal evidence to suggest that the statement also applies to low-cost drip kits, clay pot irrigation, conservation farming practices that integrate nutrient and water management, and a variety of in-situ and ex-situ water harvesting and storage technologies.

  3. There are many actors and many projects involved in studying and (especially) promoting a large number of different micro-AWM technologies and practices in Southern Africa. However, there has been little or no systematic analysis of their effectiveness, impacts and sustainability, or attempts to understand what strategies work and why, and what does not work and why. Undoubtedly the same mistakes are being repeated needlessly throughout the region. While a multiplicity of effective local and international NGOs is to be encouraged, it would be useful to find out systematically what are the main strengths and weaknesses (comparative advantages) of each, and develop mechanisms for better coordination and sharing of experiences and lessons learned. For example, International Development Enterprises (IDE) and KickStart have specific models for trying to establish viable micro-AWM technology supply chains and in IDE’s case, linkages of smallholder farmers to profitable output markets. Perhaps other NGOs who at the moment focus largely on provision of technologies could learn from their experiences and thereby improve their long term developmental impacts.

  4. The tremendous diversity of conditions in the SADC region must be acknowledged. Even within districts, there is such diversity in soils, microclimate, cultures, and access to markets that what works on one farm may not be appropriate next door. This means there is no possibility of generalizing, no cook book approaches or sure-fire universal panaceas that will work everywhere. Unfortunately, it appears that there are cases where micro-AWM technologies not really appropriate to local conditions and needs are promoted (and rejected). Further, there has been a failure to take an integrated approach, in several senses: recognition of the multiplicity of household water needs given the diversity of livelihoods (for example integration of livestock, crops, brick making, etc.); recognition of the potential synergies of integrating micro-AWM technologies, for example combining treadle pumps with efficient application technologies with soil conservation practices; integrating water and nutrient management; and pursuing implementation strategies that integrate attention to support services (inputs), attention to production processes, and to outcomes on the demand side in terms of both household food security and nutrition and access to wellfunctioning markets.

  5. Following from the diversity of the region, it is no surprise that there are no cases of successful massive scaling up and out of specific micro-AWM technologies and practices. Adoption, adaptation, or rejection decisions are a function of many factors including lack of information or access, lack of fit between the technologies on offer and the capacities and needs of households, inefficient promotion strategies, flawed assumptions about households’ needs and capacities and the real costs and benefits from their perspectives (for example the assumption of surplus labor availability), ineffective targeting, lack of capacity to manage projects offering a large array of small-scale technologies to thousands of poor households, and lack of credit.

  6. An issue that already requires attention in some areas and will become increasingly critical is the potential mismatch between the supply of water resources and demand for water, especially on small watersheds and dambos during the dry season. With increasing intensity even of the use of small treadle pumps, communities may need assistance to develop appropriate mechanisms for regulating equitable access to diminishing water supplies.

  7. Government policies are often either unfavorable or contradictory vis-à-vis micro-AWM technologies. On the one hand, there is a tendency of governments to favor large-scale infrastructure investments, especially when there are pressures to spend –and be seen to be spending—large budgets on time. In some cases policies are contradictory: for example, in Malawi while some institutions have promoted programs to encourage local manufacture of treadle pumps and provided subsidies or credit for small farmers to purchase them, more recently the government has initiated a program to hand out thousands of such pumps (mostly imported) free of cost. Such a policy may undermine efforts to develop an effective and sustainable market-based supply chain (including local manufacturing) for pumps and spare parts. This reduces the potential synergies from linkages between agricultural growth and the growth of agri-based industries. On the other hand, a case can be made for a consistent limited-period policy to kick start such industries by making large numbers of technology available at a subsided rate, then encourage local support services and manufacturing for replacement pumps.

  8. The SADC region is highly inequitable in terms of distribution of income, with evidence that the poor are getting poorer (for example declining levels of calorie consumption). This state of affairs is compounded by the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, high rates of malaria and other illnesses, all further compounded by malnutrition, especially among small children. In many rural areas of the region, there is currently a vicious cycle underway which is undermining resilience, creativity, and labor availability, leading to long term deleterious impacts on the potential to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the region. Indeed, most observers now agree SADC cannot meet the MDGs. There is a quiet crisis underway whose long term consequences will be immense unless concerted efforts are made to reverse these trends.

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