Agriculture, livelihoods and farming systems

For millions of smallholder farmers, fishers and herders in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), water is one of the most important production assets. It is key to enhancing the livelihoods of rural people.

Insecure access to water for consumption and productive uses is a major constraint on poverty reduction in rural areas. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and IFAD are working together to explore ways to better the livelihoods of many through targeted interventions.

In a recent joint report (Faurès and Santini 2008), FAO and IFAD argue that the potential exists for well-targeted, local water interventions that can contribute to rapid improvement in the livelihoods of poor rural people in SSA – the same interventions that can help attain the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

There are important opportunities for new water investments, but their success depends on the development of new models for intervention, centred on enhancing the diversity of the livelihood conditions of rural populations.

There is no ‘one size fits all' approach to improving livelihoods. Different contexts and needs require different types of investments to guide the choice of specific interventions.

There are 13 major ‘livelihood zones' in SSA.

Each offers distinct opportunities for livelihood sustenance and development, has different agroecological conditions, and shows different ‘angles' for water-related investments for poverty reduction. Closer observation also shows the differences in distribution of poor rural people across the livelihood zones, with a high prevalence of relative poverty in highland temperate, mixed, pastoral and agropastoral zones.

What the FAO/IFAD study shows is that by overlaying the importance of water in productive activities, the potential for future water development, and poverty occurrence, we can organize the regions according to their potential for poverty reduction through water interventions. A special map plotting low, medium and high impact areas illustrates where water can make a difference for rural populations.

The types of intervention required rarely involve large-scale irrigation schemes, although there is a need to improve existing ones when they are used below capacity and poorly maintained. In all cases, however, clear policies are needed that allow equitable access to water for poor farmers, who also require favourable market linkages and conditions.

Thus the report focuses on schemes that are easy to operate and maintain locally and that target both men and women smallholders. Such interventions will be based primarily in areas of rainfed agriculture.

Categories of possible interventions

  • better management of soil moisture in rainfed areas
  • investment in small-scale water harvesting and storage infrastructure
  • small-scale community-based irrigation schemes
  • improved water access and control for urban and peri-urban agriculture;
  • development of water supply to meet multiple water uses
  • an environmentally sensitive system of improved water access for livestock in arid and semi-arid areas.

Interventions in water infrastructure alone cannot suffice to raise agricultural productivity in SSA. Farmers need secure access to inputs, including fertilizer, improved seed and credit. They need better education and information on the use of these inputs and the latest techniques. Investments in water control need to be planned and implemented in the much broader framework of agricultural and rural development, where production, markets, finance and infrastructure are conceived holistically and are mutually supporting. Moreover, the policy and institutional framework must ensure equitable access to water resources and effective access to markets for agricultural products.

Climate change represents an additional challenge to rural people in SSA – and a further reason for investment in water control. In view of their limited adaptive capacity, smallholder farmers, pastoralists and artisanal fishers are among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

While projections of possible changes in annual rainfall vary across Africa, these populations will experience the negative effects of increased temperature on yields, combined with a high vulnerability to extreme events. For them, enhanced control of water will become critical in building resilience to increased climate variability.


Water and the rural poor: Interventions for improving livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa by Faurès, J-M., and G. Santini, 2008 FAO Land and Water Division, Rome: FAO and IFAD

Source: Brochure announcing Faurès and Santini 2008. FAO Land and Water Division. Rome: FAO and IFAD.