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Drip irrigation, shown here in Niger, can help save water, eventually reducing the pressure that drives water grabs. Photo: Bernard Pollack, Worldwatch Institute

This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.

A spontaneous, largely under-the-radar blue revolution is gaining steam in sub-Saharan Africa and has the potential to boost food security and incomes for tens of millions of the region’s poorest inhabitants.

Small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty.

But unless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.

Worldwide, as the limits of available water become ever more apparent, the rush is on to acquire more of the precious liquid before there’s none to be had. Government and business interests from China, India, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and other countries that have depleted many of their own water sources are now acquiring access to the land and water of other nations – especially poor ones – to rake in profits and secure food supplies.

The 2008 spike in global food prices unleashed a frenzy of land and water deals that threaten not only the livelihoods of millions but also the geopolitical security of nations.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, especially poor countries south of the Sahara. Business and government interests are targeting Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, and other underdeveloped nations to capitalize on their “underutilized” farmlands and waters.

Although pitched as investments to advance economic development, many of these deals are not only failing to deliver promised benefits, they are destroying the livelihoods of traditional farmers, herders, and fisherfolk.

Today, hunger is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa. The 2012 Global Hunger Index ranks forty-two of the forty-five countries in the region for which data are available at “serious” or “alarming” levels. Nearly one in four children are underweight.

But most sub-Saharan African countries have barely begun to reach their food production potential. According to a 2010 World Bank report, farms in Sudan have achieved only a tenth of their potential yield; those in Ethiopia, only 23 percent.

Closing this yield gap is precisely where the greatest opportunities lie in meeting future food needs. The International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka, estimates that three quarters of the world’s additional food needs in 2050 could be met by increasing harvests on low-yielding farms, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, to 80 percent of what high-yielding farms achieve on comparable land.

And that is where the new blue revolution in small-farm irrigation comes in.

Affordable Farm Technology

A suite of affordable pumps, drip systems, and other technologies are enabling poor farmers to access and deliver irrigation water to their small plots of land. Once small farmers have reliable water supplies, they can confidently invest in better seeds, fertilizers, and other yield-raising inputs. They can also plant higher-value crops to take to market.

The outcome can be transformative.

The non-profit KickStart, for example, markets a line of manual pumps called the MoneyMaker in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, and Tanzania. With access to irrigation water, farm families reap bigger harvests, greater food security, and more income. KickStart estimates that its MoneyMaker products have helped lift 667,000 people out of poverty and created 133,000 new businesses.

With the arrival of inexpensive motorized pumps costing around $250 apiece, many farmers are turning to this laborsaving device to access water. About 30 percent of small-scale irrigators in Ghana, for instance, now lease or own a motor pump, a vast improvement over the simple water-lifting buckets used by the remaining 70 percent.

A three-year study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation estimates that small, motorized pumps in sub-Saharan Africa could expand irrigation by some 30 million hectares, boost food security and incomes for 185 million people, and generate net revenues of $22 billion per year.

Governments and development organizations can help strengthen this farmer-driven movement by extending financial and institutional support. In northern Nigeria, a project begun with a $67 million World Bank loan and initially spanning 50,000 hectares (123,550 acres), is enabling farmers to tap shallow groundwater with low-cost wells and motorized pumps. Yields of rice and maize, basic staples in the region, have risen markedly, as have yields of marketable crops like onions, peppers, and tomatoes. With their extra income, farm families have improved their homes, sent their children to school, and purchased more goods – adding jobs and money to the local economy.

Now in its third phase of expansion, this Fadama project (fadama is a Hausa term for irrigable land) has formed 12,000 stakeholder groups representing some 6.3 million households in some dozen Nigerian states.

Such development from the bottom up holds much greater promise of reducing hunger and poverty than land deals that promote crops for export or that expropriate land and water from local people.

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A Nubian farmer explains his irrigation water wheel in Abu Simbel, Egypt. Photo: T. Jeffrey Clarke, MyShot

Getting More out of Rainfall

More then 95 percent of cropland in sub-Saharan Africa is watered only by rain, so while expanding irrigation is crucial, so is making more effective use of rainwater. On many farms, only 15 to 30 percent of rainfall gets used productively by crops. The remainder evaporates, percolates below the root zone, or simply runs off the field.

So-called conservation farming techniques that retain rainwater in soils can greatly improve productivity on small farms. These include mulching, terracing, planting vegetative barriers to keep soil and water in place, and constructing small earthen dams or other structures to harvest and store rainwater for supplemental irrigation.

Work by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and others on experimental farms in Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Tanzania has shown that such conservation farming practices can increase yields of maize by 20 to 120 percent and of tef (a staple of the Ethiopian diet used in the spongy bread injera) by 35 to 100 percent.

Many of these conservation methods require a great deal of labor, however, so they remain under used. Constructing one hectare (2.5 acres) of rock embankments, for example, can take one person nearly 100 days. Farmers need a high rate of return to justify such an investment of time.

Development organizations could help spread the adoption of these methods by underwriting early returns, enabling more farmers to incur the short-term opportunity costs required to reap the longer-term benefits.

Addressing Water Use at Home

Besides re-focusing their agricultural investments abroad, richer countries can take some important actions at home – including improving their own water-use practices.

Getting more nutrition per drop can stretch domestic water supplies and reduce the need to seek land, water, and food from other nations. Drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the roots of plants at very low volumes, can cut water use by up to 70 percent compared with old-style flood or furrow irrigation, while increasing crop yields by 20 to 90 percent. Although the method has expanded rapidly in recent years, it still accounts for only about 3 percent of irrigated land in China and India, the world’s top two irrigators, and about 7 percent in the United States.

Slowing the depletion of groundwater reserves is also crucial. Pumping from the aquifers of the upper Ganges in India and Pakistan produces the world’s biggest groundwater footprint by far, followed by the aquifers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, western Mexico, the U.S. High Plains, and the north China plain.

Globally, ten percent of our food supply now depends on the unsustainable use of groundwater. In effect we’re robbing the Peters of the future to feed the Pauls of today.

Monitoring and placing limits on groundwater pumping would slow the depletion, drive up water efficiency, and save more water for future generations. After the Texas legislature capped pumping from the Edwards Aquifer two decades ago, irrigation efficiency rose, an active water market developed, and the city of San Antonio cut its per capita water use by 43%.

The United States and other countries could also help by re-framing their policies toward biofuels. Corn ethanol and biodiesel are water-intensive energy sources, so mandates to add more biofuels to the energy mix can hasten the draining of water supplies. A number of the big African land deals reported by the Spain-based non-profit GRAIN are geared toward the commercial production of biofuel crops, including palm oil in Cameroon’s high-value tropical forest and jatropha in Kenya’s Tana River Delta, one of Africa’s most valuable wetlands.

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Pivot irrigation in Nebraska uses a significant amount of groundwater. Photo: Robert Warren, MyShot

Geopolitical Stability

Slowing the rush to grab land and water in sub-Saharan Africa is also a matter of regional and global geopolitical security.

Tensions over the Nile River, for example, could rise substantially due to recent foreign land deals. GRAIN has identified some 4.9 million hectares of land leased out to foreign entities in Sudan and South Sudan since 2006 – 75 percent more area than the two countries’ combined irrigation potential. Ethiopia, the source of 84 percent of the Nile’s flow, has also leased out 3.6 million hectares, including lands in the Nile Basin’s Gambela region.

If even a portion of the lands leased in these three countries is brought into production with Nile water, flows into Egypt – which depends completely on the Nile – would drop dramatically. Besides threatening food security in all three nations, the Nile water grabs could destabilize the entire region.

Unless governments and the international community stem the sell-off of sub-Saharan Africa’s natural assets and dedicate themselves to agricultural development that benefits the poor and hungry, economic advancement and political stability in much of the region will remain elusive.


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”