World Food Day: Agricultural cooperatives – key to feeding the world
Women with a basket full of green cucumber from her farm
Photo: Ikuru Kawajima
Agricultural cooperatives are usually thought of in terms of pooled resources to help plant, harvest and market crops. But equally important are the cooperative arrangements that help manage natural resources. Perhaps the most common of these are water user associations.
In the early years of agricultural development in the poor South, much emphasis was placed on big projects; huge publicly managed dams and irrigation projects that could catalyse crop production on a massive scale. Many of these were initially successful and are often credited with underwriting the "green revolution" in Asia.
But over time inadequate financial resources for maintenance and an increase in cropping intensity resulting inequitable distribution of canal water began to disillusion investors and farmers. Irrigation structures were neglected. One suggested solution was to develop more participatory irrigation management (often shortened to PIM) so that communities could control their own resources. Many villages were encouraged to set up water user associations (WUAs) to facilitate this. It was hoped that by ceding public control, problems of corruption, inefficiency and negligence could be overcome - after all it was in the farmers’ interests to manage the resource well.
But results have been mixed. Some WUA’s work well. Others have been hard to sustain and led to local conflict over resource access. In some instances association members have been reluctant to commit to maintenance work on shared irrigation structures, or become involved with the local collection of WUA fees.
So a new research report which looks at the management of small reservoirs in sub-Saharan Africa is timely. It suggests, in part, that WUAs can fail to deliver if they are not truly representative of a community. Women, for example, are often under-represented in WUA management committees and their voices can be ignored or dismissed. The authors urge greater transparency and inclusiveness in the development of WUAs if this is to be overcome.
Pond life: how community reservoirs in sub-Saharan Africa could catalyse rural development
Gauge point at Rib River - Multiple Use of water
Photo: Nilantha Gamage
Thousands of small reservoirs dot the rural landscape of sub-Saharan Africa. In a climate of intense, but highly seasonal rain they might appear to be the ideal community water store. Yet many development experts consider their contribution to improved agricultural yields and community resilience to have been disappointing. A new research report from IWMI challenges this perspective.
In the long evening shadows of sub-Saharan Africa, all manner of life is attracted to open water. Birds and cattle drink and bathe, children play, villagers collect water or bring their domestic washing. In African climates where distinct wet and dry seasons commonly predominate, water stored in open ponds, lakes and reservoirs is vital to life.
For farmers, the mainstay of Africa’s rural economies, stored water also opens up huge new opportunities for increasing their incomes. It enables crops to be grown in the dry season when prices for crops like vegetables are high. This bolsters local food security and, by incorporating fishing and livestock into the watery mix, the options for generating cash are further enhanced. Water is also essential for many small scale enterprises, like pottery, adding yet more possibilities for development.
For small, underdeveloped communities, stored water is also an insurance policy. It helps make them "drought proof". Indeed it was a series of severe droughts in the 70s and 80s that lead to a boom in small reservoir construction in parts of Africa. In Ghana alone an average of 16 small reservoirs were constructed annually the fifteen year period ending in 2009.
But researchers trying to assess the impact of this construction boom were less than impressed. Reservoirs were often poorly built and poorly managed, leading to neglect and ultimately abandonment. Construction costs were higher than predicted. Yields from farm fields close to reservoir sites were disappointing. Perhaps, analysts wondered, small reservoirs weren’t as useful as initial indications suggested they might be?
Now a new research report from the International Water Management Institute has reassessed the performance of small reservoirs and come up with some surprising conclusions. Revisiting Dominant Notions: A review of costs performance and institutions of small reservoirs in sub-Saharan Africa looked at the evidence that small reservoirs had been underperforming and found that, whilst agricultural yields might look low, other factors were being ignored.
Local people seemed to like having reservoirs, say report’s authors. Agricultural yields may not be dramatically higher, but reservoirs provide far more services than initial researchers had recognised.
In other words, simple performance assessments looking primarily at irrigation missed many other vital aspects of reservoir use. Reservoirs support multiple livelihood strategies and are particularly important for women. Water users may not be taking water to irrigate crops, but a host of other activities revolve around the provision of a convenient water supply. Simply freeing up the time and labour that would otherwise be used to fetch water from more distant locations is in itself a major boon to local households.
So if reservoirs were so useful, why were costs so high and management so poor? Delving into the data the researchers found that, on many occasions, high costs were mainly due to mismanaged construction contracts. The actual on-the-ground cost of building the reservoirs was remarkably low. Improved transparency and more inclusive planning could help address this.
Poor management, on the other hand, had multiple causes. Often a misplaced donor enthusiasm for water user associations that did not truly represent the all members of the community led to local apathy.
The lessons are clear, say the authors. If we want small reservoirs to be a success we need to improve inclusive participation in management. It will also be important to recognise the multiple service functions of a reservoir. We should not simply assess them in terms of increased crop production. A broader analysis of community benefits, especially looking at how women make use of reservoirs, needs to be undertaken.
Venot, J.-P.; de Fraiture, C.; Nti Acheampong, E. 2012. Revisiting dominant notions: A review of costs, performance and institutions of small reservoirs in sub-Saharan Africa. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute. 39p. (IWMI Research Report 144). [doi:10.5337/2012.202]