Water’s role in boosting nutrition, health and food security

Developing business models that governments and the private sector take seriously, so that better use of water can lead to better nutrition, health and food security.

CGIAR’s new ambitions are defined by a set of impact areas, with water – and therefore water systems science – at the heart of each. This is part of a series of blogs that will explore the linkages between water and each of these impact areas. In this case we focus on nutrition, health and food security.

Drip irrigation used in the cabbage farm to irrigate the cultivation. Photo: Adam Öjdahl / IWMI
Drip irrigation used in the cabbage farm to irrigate the cultivation. Photo: Adam Öjdahl / IWMI

Water is indispensable for food production and thus water systems science is key to affecting transformation in food systems.

Better irrigation could significantly improve the productivity of agricultural land. This is especially true across Africa, where only about six percent of agricultural land is irrigated, the lowest level in the world. IWMI research has established that increasing irrigation could double or even triple yields, thus boosting food security, while at the same time creating jobs and improving incomes. Investments in motorized irrigation pumps could benefit 185 million people and generate net revenues up to USD 22 billion per year.

A pioneering study carried out with farmers in Tanzania from 2009 to 2012 examined in detail options for improved water use. The research, part of IWMI’s AgWater Solutions Project, determined that irrigation doubled rice productivity and household income. Farmers with good access to water are able to grow more nutritious crops for their families and can produce high-value vegetables during the dry season. In some places the water came from river diversion schemes, in others from groundwater pumps.

At a community level, upgraded river diversion schemes require considerable investment and the development of community management skills, but could significantly increase yields according to the research. All told, the study concluded that even if adopted by only half of all farmers, the interventions proposed could reach 17 million people. As a result of the study, the government of Tanzania increased its investment in community irrigation by $6 million.

Research findings from the AgWater Solutions Project created an impact elsewhere too. In West Bengal, for example, where water shortages are not an issue, government changed policy to liberalize the use of electric pumps, leading to improved irrigation for about 1.3 million people. Ethiopia also changed policy as a result of IWMI’s research, removing taxes on water technologies which previously represented 37 percent of the cost of a pump. In addition, Ethiopia adopted a range of interventions to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land.

Further research into farmer-led irrigation in Africa has looked at improving access to irrigation technology and improving the technology itself. Solar-powered pumps, for example, can deliver where electricity supply is unreliable or non-existent, with the added advantage that they can transmit data to enable better monitoring and management. Partnerships with companies in the private sector, such as Futurepump, are now making this technology available, assisted by a software tool that offers an accurate view of the suitability of an area for solar power. After being tested in Ethiopia, the farmer-led irrigation package is now being deployed in Mali and Ghana, with the use of solar-powered pumps also being extended to Asia.

Crucially, irrigation can temper the impact of the dry season, where the lack of rain means crops don’t grow, which in turn means no farming and impoverished livelihoods. In Ghana, two young men from the Upper East Region interviewed as part of IWMI’s Voicing Water Visions project exemplify the benefits irrigation has brought to thousands of households. One says that dry-season harvests help his entire village to survive. Vegetable sales pay for additional food for his family and books for his younger siblings. Another, currently without irrigation, has seen the benefits and wants to get into dry-season farming to become more resilient.

While improving irrigation can undoubtedly boost resilient and productive farm systems, changing the flow of water through the environment can be bad for fish stocks, hence the need for fish-friendly irrigation. Fish are vital to the health of millions of people, as a vital source of micronutrients and protein. Three billion people rely on wild-caught and farmed seafood as a primary source of protein, so it is important that irrigation does not impact access to this critical resource. In short, we must consider the often competing needs of agriculture and inland fisheries early in the development process. Irrigation infrastructure should be designed with the importance of fish for food and nutritional security in mind, to ensure that migration routes remain unblocked and that fish can move freely between preferred habitats.

IWMI, along with WorldFish, contributed to guidelines on fish-friendly irrigation systems that offer design solutions to the competing needs of agriculture and inland fisheries. They also encourage planners to develop a holistic understanding of water’s multiple benefits to multiple actors, bearing in mind that inland fisheries contribute to food production, household income, livelihoods, health, and the growth of regional and national economies.

IWMI and its partners have worked closely with farmers to understand what they need from irrigation. What they helped us learn has enabled us to develop business models that governments and the private sector take seriously, so that better use of water can lead to better nutrition, health and food security.

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