Enhancing Water for Food: poverty reduction through improved management of ecosystem services for sustainable food production in sub-Saharan Africa

Lead Research Organisation: Makerere University
Department Name: Social Work and Social Admin


Increased food production is widely considered to be a fundamental step toward the reduction of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Although the agricultural sector account for two-thirds of the labour force, SSA is the only region in the world where per capita food production declined over the latter half of the 20th century. It also remains highly vulnerable to extreme climate variability and future climate change as almost all (>95%) food production is rain-fed. Consequently, calls for increases in irrigated agriculture have intensified in an effort to improve food production, livelihoods and resilience to climate variability and change. However, the reality on the ground in most parts of Africa is complex. It is not clear if there is sufficient water available to support significant increases in irrigated agriculture especially in an era of rapid environment change. It is also vital to ensure that such developments do not have a negative impact on the ecosystem services on which poor African producers depend, especially as competition for limited water resources intensifies. Nor is it clear that investments in irrigation development alone will automatically lead to reduced poverty since the principle reason poor people do not have adequate access to water lies in entitlement failures, not water resource scarcity or inefficient service (market failures) delivery. This is fundamentally an issue of politics, local governance and distribution and, therefore, requires a more sophisticated analysis of the problem framing and policy response. Therefore, we need to ensure that policies in agricultural development and water resources take into account the many biophysical and socio-political challenges faced by small-scale farmers in diverse, risk-prone environments and the root causes of inefficiencies and low yields that characterise food production in SSA. Given this context, we seek to develop innovative ways to address the complex questions of sustainability and poverty around food and water in Africa. Specifically, we will establish a new research consortium involving leading physical and social scientists in SSA and the UK, and partners in government ministries and international organisations (e.g. IUCN) to create a truly interdisciplinary research team. The team will communicate with small-scale farmers and other key stakeholders through meetings of basin management organisations and water user associations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. This will allow the consortium to interact with and be informed by the expressed needs and priorities of small-scale farmers and other end-users of the ecosystems. Among other things, direct outputs of this activity will include a review paper for an internationally recognised interdisciplinary journal on the key challenges facing socio-economic and environmental science in reducing poverty through improved use of water for irrigation, a working paper, a dedicated webpage and a number of policy briefings in appropriate local languages. The most important output will be a full proposal for an ESPA consortium project which would aim to develop an integrated suite of modelling tools that incorporate both physical and socio-economic processes and are informed by a detailed understanding of local conditions and knowledge sets. Crucially, we will enhance these models with locally relevant information in order to contextualise hydro-climatic processes with socio-economic drivers within a consistent framework. Thus, they will allow interdisciplinary analysis of both climate change and development scenarios (e.g. changes in land use, crop types, water allocation, population and livelihood practices).


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