Water, Rural Livelihoods, Jobs and Food: Planning a Sustainable Future

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Water, Rural Livelihoods, Jobs and Food: Planning a Sustainable Future

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With access to water and training, Priscilla began to plant maize, beans, peas and sweet potatoes to sell in local markets and also began to produce chickens and bees.

Rome, 22 March – In the north of Tanzania, Cecilia William used to depend on irregular rainfall to irrigate her crops. As a single mother, she struggled to grow enough to feed her family.

"Life was very difficult. I was not happy at all with the situation," recalls William.

It was access to water – through an irrigation system installed by the Tanzanian government and supported by IFAD – that finally changed her life. With regular access to water, William became not only a successful farmer but also an innovative entrepreneur, starting her own construction business with the additional income.

"Before I was in total darkness. After I was getting an income, that is when things changed," said William. "I started thinking about expansion, and a lot of plans came into my head."

William's story demonstrates just how essential water is for rural people, not just for their household use and drinking, but to sustain their main form of livelihood—agriculture.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of jobs in the agriculture and the inland fisheries sector are heavily dependent on water. Without access to water, smallholder farmers cannot afford to expand their farms and face the risk of losing their businesses.

This has major implications not only for them but for their communities and the cities that depend on them for food.

With water from the irrigation project, Cecilia William and her son now farm beans in Babati Tanzania. ©IFAD/Joanne Levitan

Water connecting jobs across landscapes and sectors

Water is getting scarcer due to population growth, degraded watersheds, over-extraction and climate change.

Therefore, more professional water governance and management systems are essential for the sustainability of rural livelihoods. Apart from needing more water to bring profitable products to market, rural communities also need better water quality, better water harvesting and conservation methods, and technologies that improve water use efficiency and recycling.

Moreover, business and households in the cities are also increasingly dependent on rural peoples’ maintenance of the watersheds upstream and the ecosystem services they provide in terms of quality water supply.

IFAD is supporting the creation of the Nairobi Water Fund in collaboration with the Government of Kenya and various public and private partners.

The fund will provide payments for environmental services (PES) to smallholders in the Upper Tana Watershed in return for their implementation of land and water conservation practices in their production systems.

The Upper Tana Watershed supports around one million smallholder families, coffee, tea and food production, provides for almost 50 per cent of Kenya’s electricity production and 95 per cent of water supply for household and businesses in Nairobi.

To protect this crucial water source, big private sector players and public partners have joined forces to reach a $US 15 million endowment fund to sustainably support smallholders living upstream in the watershed, thereby creating rural job opportunities and securing a stable quality water source for thousands of jobs and people in Nairobi.

Another successful example of a PES scheme that is sustaining jobs across sectors linked through water can be found in northern Vietnam.

The IFAD-supported project is providing jobs and income for rural communities while protecting the Ba Be Lake, which is the most important habitat for mountain wetlands biodiversity in the country.

The project connects small-scale private tour enterprises with rural people cultivating the hillsides upstream. The tour operators make direct payments to people living in upstream communities if they establish solid waste management and sustainable land and forest management practices to avoid contamination of the lake.

This provides an income for people living from tourism activities around the lake as well as incentives for upstream communities for their investment in agroforestry, while keeping the lake clean and environmentally sustainable.

Saving time for women and girls

Water management and mobilization has other benefits as well. In the developing world, women often spend long hours transporting water to the home, watering homestead gardens, and caring for family members falling sick due to unsafe drinking water.

Water technologies that save time and provide safer drinking water make it possible for women to invest time in other pursuits, including income-generating activities. This, in turn, has a host of benefits, from greater equality to improved nutrition and schooling, since women tend to use increased income to improve the diets and well-being of their families and children.

Priscilla Mkhatshwa never dreamed that she could one day plant a garden in the hot and dry region of Lubombo in eastern Swaziland. With frequent droughts and limited access to water, growing food in her backyard seemed impossible.

Through the IFAD-supported Lower Usuthu Smallholder Irrigation Project (LUSIP), she was able to enjoy the benefits of backyard gardens, water harvesting, and conservation agriculture.

Soon she was able to gain practical experience gardening on a test plot of land and got access to farming inputs (equipment, feed, seed, and compost) to get started on her garden.

"They taught us how to measure out our plot of land, and to use cow or goat manure, soil, paper and dried grass to help retain the moisture in the ground," she said.

The project also assisted in installing a sustainable water tank by Mkhatshwa's home to store rainwater, so water is always available, even during periods of drought.

Mkhatshwa no longer had to walk long distances to source water, and could spend her time on other tasks.

She now earns 1,600 Swazi Lilangeni (US$130) a month by selling garden vegetables and products and can both feed and provide for her family.

"I can provide for my household needs through the garden. I sell my produce, and I can always sell a chicken if the need arises," said Priscilla.

"I am proud of my garden. We can eat a balanced diet now. Life has improved."


Employing rural youth

A youth contractor inspects the Norway/Sangbagba irrigation site in Sierra Leone. ©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

With a large youth population in developing countries—60 per cent of Africans are under 25—and an aging farmer population, it is important that rural areas create jobs, in particular, jobs in agriculture. It has been estimated that 134 million young rural Africans will enter the job market in the next ten years.

These youth need secure and stable access to water and land resources through inclusive gender-balanced governance systems. More advanced and professional water management not only helps agriculture stay viable; it also creates skilled jobs in areas such as irrigation and watershed management that make rural areas attractive places for young people to live and work, so they don’t have to migrate in search of jobs.There are nearly 700,000 hectares of perennial swamps in Sierra Leone. At the close of the civil war, less than 10 per cent were cultivated and producing less than half their potential tonnage of food yields for the country.

An IFAD-supported project found an efficient way to sustainably rehabilitate 550 hectares of the swamp land, so farmers can grow more crops effectively on the land.

Convinced that this was working well, the government took the approach to scale, twinning the few senior technical specialists available with willing rural youth to help disseminate their expertise in soil and water management.

Rural employment was created to provide the various service needed in and around the swamps.

Achieving the Global Goals

Let’s also not forget that farming is hard work, and more advanced, semi-mechanized farming techniques can make agriculture more attractive as a profession.

The need to build resilience against increased climate variability and sustainably intensify production also demands skills, for example in optimizing land, water and nutrient cycles based on sometimes complex agro-ecological principles.

This makes agriculture more knowledge-intensive, increasing the need for education and training and thereby implying better linkages between rural and urban areas.

Whether it is improving the livelihoods of rural people’s self-employment, increasing jobs or producing more food to feed the world aiming at achieving the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals – in all cases, water will be the driving force towards a more sustainable future for us all.