Beyond Big Dams: Turning to Grass Roots Solutions on Water
by Fred Pearce
Mega-dams and massive government-run irrigation projects are not the
key to meeting worldï¿½s water needs, a growing number of experts now
say. For developing nations, the answer may lie in small-scale
measures such as inexpensive water pumps and other readily available
How will the world find the water to feed a growing population in an
era of droughts and water shortages? The answer, a growing number of
water experts are saying, is to forget big government-run irrigations
projects with their mega-dams, giant canals, and often corrupt and
indolent management. Farmers across the poor world, they say, are
solving their water problems far more effectively with cheap Chinese-
made pumps and other low-tech and off-the-shelf equipment. Researchers
are concluding that small is both beautiful and productive.
ï¿½Cheap pumps and new ways of powering them are transforming farming
and boosting income all over Africa and Asia,ï¿½ says Meredith Giordano,
lead author of a three-year research project looking at how
smallholder farmers are turning their backs on governments and finding
their own solutions to water problems.
ï¿½We were amazed at the scale of what is going on,ï¿½ Giordano says.
Indian farmers have an estimated 20 million pumps at work watering
their fields. As many as 200 million Africans benefit from the crops
they water. And in
In Ghana, a study found, small private irrigation schemes cover
25 times more land than public projects.
addition to pumps, she notes, ï¿½simple tools for drilling wells and
capturing rainwater have enabled many farmers to produce more crops in
the dry season, hugely boosting their incomes.ï¿½
Such innovations are becoming a major driver of economic growth,
poverty reduction, and food security, says her report, Water for
Wealth and Food Security, published by the International Water
Management Institute (IWMI), a research center based in Sri Lanka.
The report says better support for this hidden farmer-led revolution
could increase crop yields threefold in some places ï¿½ and could add
tens of billions of dollars to the household incomes of poor farmers
across Africa and south Asia, the two regions where the majority of
the worldï¿½s poor and food-insecure rural people live.
But such help could be a while coming, because much of the revolution
is happening out of sight of governments and international
organizations. In Ghana, the study found, small private irrigation
schemes cover 185,000 hectares ï¿½ 25 times more land than public
irrigation projects. ï¿½Yet when I asked the agriculture minister there
about these schemes, he hadn't even heard of them,ï¿½ says Colin
Chartres, director of IWMI.
For years, national governments and aid agencies have believed that
centrally planned and run irrigation schemes, mostly tapping large
rivers, are the answer to the worldï¿½s growing shortage of reliable
water supplies needed to grow the food for people in arid countries
and those with highly seasonal or unpredictable rainfall. But the
record of such schemes has proved patchy at best. The 2000 report of
the World Commission on Dams, set up by the World Bank, found that a
quarter of dam-fed irrigation schemes watered less than 35 percent of
the land intended, cost over-runs were almost universal, and a quarter
of the irrigated fields were waterlogged or poisoned by salt.ï¿½ Not
surprisingly, farmers have increasingly been making their own
arrangements for water.
I have seen this revolution taking hold all over the world in recent
years. In northern Nigeria, I saw the canals of the state-owned Kano
Irrigation Project clogged with weeds and the fields often untended,
while a few miles away, farmers lined up pumps on the banks of the
river, diverting its flow to their fields.
Across India, I met farmers who are reviving the ancient tradition of
digging ponds to capture water as it falls onto their land during the
short monsoon, storing it for growing crops during the long dry
season. In Mexico, I found farmers irrigating fields in the middle of
a state irrigation scheme by pumping up the prodigious amounts of
water seeping from unlined irrigating canals.
Charlotte de Fraiture of UNESCOï¿½s Institute for Water Education in
Delft, the Netherlands, agrees there is a hydrological revolution
going on. Rich farmers have always had the money to buy pumps, she
says, but ï¿½with the availability of cheap Chinese pumps, this type of
irrigation is accessible to a much larger range of farmers.ï¿½ You can
now buy pumps at almost any town market for as little as $200.
Even the cheapest models transform livelihoods. ï¿½The capacity of even
a small pump with one to five horsepower is bigger than most farmers
need,ï¿½ says de Fraiture. ï¿½So they hire them out.ï¿½
In India, small-time rural entrepreneurs travel the countryside on
bikes or donkey carts, with pumps strapped on the back. They rent the
pumps for a dollar an hour, so even the poorest farmers can get some
water from a local river or underground water reserve. In Burkina Faso
in West Africa, pump owners supply a complete service, keeping small
vegetable gardens irrigated for $120 to $150 per growing season.
Of course, pumps need a power source, usually either electricity or
diesel. But in India, some farmers are using dung from their cows to
generate biodiesel. One Gujarati practitioner told IWMI researchers
that dung-powered pumping saved him $400 a year in fuel.
Such farmers are not being green; they are being pragmatic. According
to the IWMIï¿½s Chartres, a big push by aid groups a few years ago to
get poor farmers to invest in treadle pumps to raise water from
shallow aquifers beneath their fields has largely failed. ï¿½Most
farmers donï¿½t want to sit in the hot sun all day, pumping up water
with their feet,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½Not when you can hook up a motor pump for
a few dollars.ï¿½
Farmers are also finding inexpensive ways to conserve water by using
drip irrigation ï¿½ delivering water down pipes from where it drips
through holes close to plant roots. Conventional drip irrigation is
costly to install. But in central India farmers have found a novel
solution. They buy rolls of cheap perforated plastic tubing that ice-
pop sellers use to package their frozen candies. The perforations,
which the ice-pop sellers use to tear off each individual popsicle
holder, turn out to be ideal for dripping water close to crop roots.
Too often, we have a picture of poor smallholder farmers as passive
victims of natural disasters, or the grateful recipients of aid from
others. But here they emerge in a different light. It is they ï¿½ rather
than governments, NGOs or Western aid-givers ï¿½ who are the active
players, taking charge of their own destiny.
But there is a downside, which the IWMI report touches on, and which
in some regions is a major threat to both future water supplies and
the survival of the farming communities themselves.
The danger is that independent action by farmers to water their fields
is creating a ï¿½tragedy of the commonsï¿½ ï¿½ in which everyone grabs what
water they can while they can, because they know that all will suffer
when the water runs out. This is especially a risk where farmers are
pumping out underground water reserves at rates that the rains cannot
Seven years ago, I toured Gujarat with Tushaar Shah, head of IWMI's
groundwater research station. He was in despair at what he called
ï¿½hydrological anarchyï¿½ in the Indian state. A million farmers had
bought cheap pumps that they were plugging into the heavily subsidized
state electricity grid. The pumps often ran 24 hours a day, bringing
massive volumes of underground water to the surface. The farmersï¿½
yields often doubled, but the water tables were plummeting. ï¿½It looks
like a one-way trip to disaster,ï¿½ he told me then. ï¿½Nobody knows where
the pumps are, or who owns them. There is no way anyone can control
what happens to them.ï¿½
Yet today, Shah is one of the co-authors of the IWMI study advocating
more of the same. What changed? He says that, on his advice, the state
government of Gujarat has tamed the anarchy by restricting power
supplies for farmers to eight hours a day. Water tables are still
falling, he admits, but with pumping time limited, the decline is much
slower than before.
Many will think the IWMI report underplays the risk of hydrological
anarchy. But, when I put this to Chartres, he countered that in many
places, there is still huge scope to encourage farmers to make better
use of both surface and underground water. In some of the poorest
parts of eastern India, there is water to spare and there are better
livings to be had. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, farmers have
increased their incomes by 70 percent by constructing on-farm ponds.
The story is the same in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the continent is
often thought of as short of water. The images of hungry people
searching for food in droughts are seared in our memories. But much of
Africa has abundant water for much of the time ï¿½ whatï¿½s needed is to
find better ways to store and tap it.
State-sponsored irrigation projects in Africa have a dismal record.
IWMI quotes a UN estimate that only 3 percent of sub-Saharan Africaï¿½s
renewable water resources are currently used for agriculture. Given
how little is known about African farmersï¿½ informal irrigation, this
is probably an underestimate. But even so, there is clearly room to
scale up. Millions of Africans could transform their livelihoods by
deploying pumps, according to Chartres. ï¿½There are huge investment
opportunities for unlocking the potential of this farmer-led
approach,ï¿½ he says.
What should be done? Chartres calls for more investment in bringing
electricity to rural communities, encouraging the local manufacture of
pumps, and supporting local water entrepreneurs. He says this should
be coupled with an effort to map water reserves and prevent farmers
from taking too much when supplies are tight.
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Can ï¿½Climate-Smartï¿½ Agriculture
Help Both Africa and the Planet?
Can ï¿½Climate-Smartï¿½ Agriculture Help Both Africa and the Planet?
One idea promoted at last yearï¿½s climate talks in Durban was ï¿½climate-
smart agriculture,ï¿½ which could make crops less vulnerable to heat and
drought and turn depleted soils into carbon sinks. But, as Fred Pearce
reports, some critics are skeptical that it will benefit small-scale
De Fraiture agrees. She despairs that governments and donors alike
ï¿½continue to focus their attention and investments on the
underperforming public irrigation sector, when private irrigation is
both more important and has larger potentialï¿½ for scaling up.
The new thinking from IWMI about managing water supplies has a
striking parallel with how researchers are discussing other global
commons, notably forests. Once it was assumed that only states could
protect forests. But recent research suggests that local people often
know best how to both protect and use them.
Now the same lesson seems to be emerging for water.
Governments cannot shirk their responsibility for ensuring that water
is used wisely. But perhas they should give up the idea that the water
in rivers and underground is theirs alone ï¿½ or that only they can
POSTED ON 13 Sep 2012 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation
Climate Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health
Sustainability Water Africa Africa Europe
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