Adaptive management of groundwater resources for small scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa (AMGRAF)

Lead Research Organisation: International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Department Name: Regional Office for East Africa


The volume of groundwater in Africa is more than 100 times the annual renewable freshwater resource and 20 times the amount of freshwater stored in lakes, but its productive use in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remains low. Global abstraction of groundwater increased tenfold between 1950 and 2000 and contributed significantly to growth in irrigation particularly in Asia. The global area equipped for irrigation has been estimated as 301 Mha of which 38% depends on groundwater, but for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) only 5.7% of the irrigated area is supported by groundwater.

Just as in Asia, rapid expansion of groundwater irrigation may be about to occur in SSA. Although evidence from Asia suggests that groundwater irrigation promotes greater inter-personal, inter-gender, inter-class and spatial equity than is found under large scale canal irrigation, there is a significant risk that rapid development of groundwater resources in SSA may lead to inequitable resource use. There is a need for research to deliver the evidence and appropriate tools to support sustainable resource management and to assure access to groundwater resources by poor people.

This research will address the following questions:
1: How and at what rate is groundwater being recharged? Deliverable: improved understanding of recharge processes at local and catchment scale; including consideration of influence of land use and water harvesting.
2: Can a tool be developed to help decision makers manage the resource? Deliverable: tools developed and tested at local (community) and catchment scales to assist decision makers in managing groundwater resources.
3: What are the implications of changes in land use? Deliverable: improved understanding of evidence base for influence of land use, water harvesting and green water flows on groundwater recharge.
4: What are the implications of climate change? Deliverable: tools for downscaling climate data and constructing scenarios developed and likely influence on recharge processes investigated.
5: How can policy and practice assure livelihood benefits for poor people? Deliverable: improved understanding of issues affecting access to and control of groundwater for productive use in irrigated agriculture.
6: What governance approaches are most likely to deliver equitable and sustainable use of groundwater? Deliverable: participatory evaluation of institutional change required at local community level and at national/catchment level to achieve equitable and sustainable use of groundwater in irrigated agriculture.

Preliminary research will be delivered over a 1 year period by a multi-disciplinary research team from Newcastle University and the International Water Management Institute together with local partners in Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa. This will deliver a pilot study and build the research consortium. The pilot study in Ethiopia will address both technical and social/governance aspects of groundwater resource assessment and management from the regional to the local scale. Lake Tana basin has been selected as a suitable site. In parallel, additional exploratory research will be conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa. Key stakeholders will be invited to participate in consultations at in-country workshops aimed at understanding current state of knowledge around groundwater resources. Critical knowledge gaps likely to influence design of follow-up research will be identified and in-country collaborators will be commissioned to carry out short term studies. At the end of the 1-year catalyst grant project collaborating scientists representing partners from SSA together with UNEW and IWMI will meet for 3-day workshop in Addis Ababa in order to review lessons learned and agree design of the follow-on 4-year research project.

Planned Impact

The intended beneficiaries of AMGRAF research are poor people in sub-Saharan Africa. More specifically, the research will address the needs of small-scale farmers who will benefit from sustainable development of groundwater (< 25m depth) for small-scale irrigation. We will explicitly consider how future development of groundwater irrigation might differentially impact on the livelihoods of women and on different social groups (for example livestock keepers).

We envisage impact arising partly from the evidence base delivered by the project and partly from the methodological advances arising from the project. In both cases the intermediate direct users of AMGRAF research will be the various institutions active in water resources management and agricultural development. These may be government bodies at national or regional level and non-government organisations.

We recognise that it is difficult to feed research-based evidence into policy and practice. The project will aim to generate new knowledge that benefits poor and socially excluded people, but behavioural changes (at more than local scale) can be delivered only through engaging with and influencing intermediaries. Direct engagement during stakeholder workshops in Ethiopia, Ghana and South Africa within this preliminary (catalyst grant) stage will be focused on assuring the pathway to impact. We will identify who will benefit from this research and explore with them how will they benefit from this research. We will design activities for the substantive research project with a view to ensuring that they will have the opportunity to benefit from the research.

To ensure sustainability, a greater understanding of the groundwater resource and effective management of its use will be required. There are knowledge gaps in understanding in particular of recharge processes and interactions between surface water and groundwater. There is a need to develop and test tools which might help decision makers at different scales in relation to access to and management of groundwater. It is important that policy makers, communities and individuals should make informed decisions about equitable and sustainable development of groundwater. The impact of the proposed research will be through addressing these needs and improving understanding of what promotes or constrains sustainable development of groundwater irrigation amongst small scale producers in SSA.

This catalyst grant proposal is seen as an integral part of a two-stage process of establishing the pathway to impact. Engagement with stakeholders will dominate activities in Ghana and South Africa leading to a close dialogue with users of AMGRAF research and their active involvement in design of the substantive research project. The same level of stakeholder engagement will be pursued in Ethiopia, but will take place within the context of on-the-ground research activity. This pilot study will aim to deliver short term impact through shared learning at community level while also providing an opportunity for capacity building. Deliverables will be three open access academic journal publications together with inputs to the end of year collaborator workshop in Addis Ababa.

The key outcome from the collaborator workshop will be an agreed framework for design of the follow-on 4-year research project. In order to explore wider relevance and to consider including further research in other countries within SSA, scientists from neighbouring countries (expected to be from Burkina-Faso, Tanzania, Zimbabwe) will be invited to participate in this workshop. A second outcome will be an outline pathway to impact statement for the full proposal. The aim will be to identify who will use the new knowledge, how this new knowledge will be used and what the project consortium will need to do to ensure that the research delivers impact benefiting poor people. The deliverable will be workshop proceedings.


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