Water’s role in poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs

CGIAR’s new ambitions are defined by a set of impact areas, with water – and therefore water systems science – at the heart of each. 

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 poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs. 

Packing vegetables to be transported to the market. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI
Packing vegetables to be transported to the market. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

We have seen in our previous blog how well-managed irrigation can improve food security by enabling larger and more diverse harvests from areas dependent on rainfall. Irrigation and water-management can also reduce poverty and improve livelihoods.

IWMI has demonstrated this in several countries. In Niger, we are working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to understand the effects of irrigation, and to do this, we analyzed data from more than 2000 farm households before and after a drought in 2012. Irrigation resulted in higher cash income because farmers could sell more of their harvest, which thus allowed families to buy and eat more food, including fruit, vegetables and animal-source products. Food insecurity decreased by 14 percent while food consumption increased by 11 percent, with better nutrition, despite the drought. The benefits did not depend on whether the farmers sold their crop primarily locally to village shops and neighbours, or to regional and national traders.

It makes sense to support irrigation as a strategy to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods, especially where access to formal markets is less developed.

In Ethiopia, for example, agriculture can be limited by rainfall, with climate change predicating an uncertain future. Irrigation would remove some of the risks, but the rural population is so dispersed that the costs of big irrigation schemes are prohibitive.

Farm-scale irrigation brings its own challenges. Pumps, for example, are mostly imported, and even though the government removed import duties on the advice of an IWMI study, they are still relatively expensive. Price is not the only factor, though. Farmers aren’t always clear where to drill or to what depth, and in any case drilling is both expensive and doesn’t always result in locating usable water. IWMI researchers have run experiments in the field that show loans and well drilling are greater barriers than pump prices, which means a rethinking of the policy focus of the Ethiopian government if they want to expand groundwater-based irrigation.

Central policies can have a dramatic effect on the impact of interventions around irrigation, as IWMI’s work in Tajikistan with USAID demonstrates. The country is extremely food insecure. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, agriculture fell initially by 55 percent, and 20 years later, in 2010, production was no higher than it had been in 1991, largely because irrigation schemes collapsed. Starting in 2006, with the help of USAID, the country established hundreds of Water User Associations. Farm managers across the country were trained to take charge of irrigation.

However, male migration is very high in Tajikistan, and as trained managers migrated, family members took on the task of operating the farms. An IWMI evaluation established that farms taken over and run by untrained female members were much less likely to have legal access to irrigation than those taken over by untrained males, which in turn affected their ability to produce food. This was an unintended consequence of the training program, which trained solely male managers. Since the sharing of information within a household is influenced by gender, women coming into operating farms did not have the same access to information on how to legally secure water for their farms as males who came into operating the farms when the managers migrated. Roughly 40 percent of the farms after this out migration were operated by women, who did not have the capacity to make use of the services provided by the WUA.

In Tajikistan, IWMI made a recommendation to USAID to create female trainers and directly train women. IWMI also recommended changes to the training sessions in order to make it easier for women to attend: this included offering childcare support and moving the training to locations near homes to reduce travel time. These recommendations were adopted by USAID, who designed and implemented the training sessions. Early assessments indicate that – as a result of the inclusive training – women now enjoy the benefits of greater food production and higher incomes.

It isn’t only through irrigation that a focus on water can reduce poverty and improve livelihoods. At the heart of Resource Recovery and Reuse, a subprogram of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), is a mindset that “waste” is a raw material to be converted into a valuable commodity. This has the benefit of reducing the cost of dealing with the waste at the same time as increasing its value in the local economy.

Most of this work has taken place in Ghana and Sri Lanka. In Ghana, four private-public partnerships are building sustainable businesses using waste streams as resources. Two, produce IWMI’s innovative product Fortifer, a clean and safe pelletized agricultural fertilizer made from fecal sludge. Another converts solid organic waste into briquets to be used as a low-cost fuel. The fourth passes agricultural wastewater through aquaculture ponds to clean up the water stream at the same time as producing an important food source. All create jobs in the green economy.

In Sri Lanka, IWMI has been advising the government on a national sanitation policy. Across the country, some 96 percent of households rely on septic tanks. There are huge opportunities to produce safe and environmentally-friendly products, like pelletized fertilizer, while at the same time reducing the environmental and economic costs of dealing with sewage sludge. These opportunities are being pursued with training in business and technical skills, creating jobs in entirely new sectors.

Based on these and other studies, IWMI published a sourcebook that details 24 innovative business models based on nearly 50 case studies of innovations in the circular economy, all of which are ready to be tested on a large scale.

Irrigation works as a social safety net, giving farmers cash in hand and more food even during a drought. At the same time, the circular economy produces a virtuous circle in which successful projects generate a revenue stream that enhances the management of the resource and adds to its sustainability. Each demonstrably reduces poverty and improves livelihoods.

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