“Water is critical to development,” says IFAD expert

Access to water means Lake, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia, no longer has to rely on food aid to survive. He is making an income and feeding his family. ©IFAD/Mawira Chitima

21 August 2015 - In the scorching sun, Lake Grimay, a smallholder farmer from the town of Atsbi in northern Ethiopia, proudly shows off his newest potato patch to Mawira Chitima, an IFAD water expert.

The Tigray Region where Lake farms is very dry and rugged, and is perhaps best known internationally for images of famine victims that were broadcast around the world in the mid-1980s.

Lake's farm has come a long way in the past two years. 

"Before we met Lake, he was working hard to produce one main crop of teff each year," says Mawira Chitima, IFAD's Lead Technical Specialist in Water and Rural Infrastructure, referring to the main cereal crop on which Ethiopians rely.

"He was reliant on rainfall as his main water source, which was very sporadic, and his crop would often fail."

"When this would happen, he wouldn't have enough food to feed himself or his family. He often had to depend on a non-governmental organization (Relief Society of Tigray) for food aid. Quite simply, he was struggling to survive."

In 2014, everything changed for Lake when he was selected to participate in the IFAD-supported Participatory Smallholder Irrigation Development Programme (PASIDP). The programme works with vulnerable farmers living in drought-prone, food-insecure and densely populated districts of the country, by developing irrigation schemes.

It supports the construction of river diversions, spate irrigation, spring development and deep wells. For farmers who don't have access to  these options, hand-dug wells are constructed as an alternative strategy.

Through the programme, Lake and other members of the farmers' group he belongs to were able to take out a loan to buy a pump and receive assistance in digging a well nearby so they could irrigate their crops.

Once the well was built, Lake could finally farm year-round, says Chitima. He was able to diversify his crops, and now grows a variety of them such as teff, barley, potatoes, onions, beans and chilli on his one hectare of land.

"Lake now keeps the barley for home consumption and sells the rest of the products at the market for income for himself and his family," says Chitima.

"Lake was so proud when I last saw him. Having access to water means Lake no longer has to rely on food aid to survive. He is making an income and feeding his family."

 

Oltin Saint Filet, prepares and plants his irrigated plot in Nan Carré, north-west region, Haiti. ©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

Oltin Saint Filet, prepares and plants his irrigated plot in Nan Carré, north-west region, Haiti. ©IFAD/Sarah Morgan

Water is vital to development

Unfortunately, the challenges Lake originally faced trying to access fresh water are not unusual. In fact, over one billion people still lack access to safe water, and even more lack access to basic sanitation.

Around three quarters of the world's poorest and hungriest people live in rural areas, often forgotten and bypassed by economic growth and development programmes.

The majority of rural people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods but face numerous barriers in accessing services and securing vital resources, including water.

For more than three decades, IFAD has been bringing its extensive experience with participatory, community-driven development to bear on the rural water sector.

This week, IFAD will bring that experience and knowledge to World Water Week in Stockholm, an annual gathering for top water experts and decision makers to discuss and take action on pressing water issues.

"Water is important because it drives everything we do at IFAD," says Chitima. "Whether you are looking at enterprise development, agriculture, or livestock – the issues are mainly centred around water."

Water demand expected to increase

The world's population is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Burgeoning populations will mean demands for 60 per cent more food and 40 per cent more water, and increased pressure on land.

"The competition for water is increasing – both at a local level and globally. There is a general shortage of fresh water," explains Chitima.

"When we discuss water internationally, the agricultural dimension of water use is often overlooked – even though, globally, agriculture is the biggest water user, and without water, food production is impossible."

He adds that apart from needing more water in order to bring products to market, many farming communities also need better water efficiency, better water conservation methods, better catchment management and the promotion of technologies that improve water use efficiency.

This is where IFAD-supported programmes come into play.

For example:

  • project  in Guatemala, India and Madagascar improved water availability and water management for 30,000 households through the implementation of microirrigation systems. The project also supported the local production of microirrigation kits. For poor farmers, especially women, the introduction of microirrigation kits created a new source of income and livelihood, while farmers in water-scarce areas became better equipped to optimize their use of water.
  • A joint project in the northwest region of Haiti – one of the most remote and disadvantaged parts of the country – tackled the rehabilitation of two farming systems through irrigated valleys and upstream rainfed hillsides. The project also helped farmers organize themselves into watershed associations and subcommittees for the maintenance of the irrigation systems and terraces.

As the world looks towards achieving the ambitious new sustainable development goals (SDGs) and achieving global food security for a growing population, it is critical that smallholder farmers are able to access the water they need to both survive and thrive.

"Without water, there is no development," says Chitima. "You can't expect poor rural people to produce food without giving them access to water. Food security, nutrition, rural finance, improved livelihoods – the basic underlying thing for all of these needs is access to good quality water."