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Regional themes > Agriculture Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Study on agricultural water development and poverty reduction in eastern and southern Africa1

Richard Rosenberg

Consultative Group to assist the Poor

SARPN acknowledges the Consultative Group to assist the Poor (CGP) as the source of this document.
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Background and justification

Notwithstanding the perceptions of poor viability and sustainability referred to above, the experience of development to date has not been universally poor: the World Bank’s 1995 review of its irrigation portfolio world-wide found that more than two thirds of Bank-financed irrigation projects had reached satisfactory outcomes (Jones 1995). It also found that “the benefits of most irrigation investment have reached the poor”2. An earlier FAO Investment Centre study on irrigation in SSA found that “five out of six major Bank projects studied in detail had, by the end of disbursement, achieved or come close to many of their targets” (FAO 1986). IFAD’s 2000 review of its lending for agricultural water development in East and Southern Africa(IFAD 2000) found that its portfolio had generally responded well to objectives (although the review drew attention to the relatively complex technical nature of agricultural water interventions and consequent implementation problems).

However, it is clear that that there are issues to be addressed and constraints to be overcome if investments in agricultural water development are to achieve viability and sustainable poverty reduction. Many of the constraints could be institutional (taking institutions in the broad sense of policies, legal frameworks and organizations). For example, viability clearly depends on relative costs and benefits; but farm level costs can be influenced by subsidies and taxes (policy issues); and benefits could be largely determined by market access (partly influenced by policies, legal frameworks and organizations). There are technology constraints as well: while much of the future development of agricultural water is expected to be for food production (the basis of CAADP), it is increasingly difficult to justify the costs of conventional irrigation for such low value crops Lower cost alternatives to conventional irrigation must be identified.

Nevertheless, recent experience suggests that a number of innovative approaches have been successful in overcoming some of the institutional constraints. For example, smallholders in Swaziland have, on their own initiative, taken advantage of market linkages and spontaneously developed irrigation for sugar cane production. In Kenya, farmers have been able to use land title as collateral for borrowing commercial finance to successfully develop irrigation for horticultural export crops. Recent institutional change at the Office du Niger in Mali – an old established large-scale public rice irrigation scheme that has endured many cycles of rehabilitation-neglect-poor performance-rehabilitation in the past – has led to dramatic success. There have been technological successes as well: low cost water harvesting and soil moisture conservation techniques, as alternatives to conventional irrigation for food crop production, have enabled the poor to improve their access to water. Manual pumps have also enabled them to engage in micro-scale irrigation for higher value crops.

Yet the key ingredients for success and replicability are not widely understood. And little quantitative information is available regarding their poverty reduction impacts. However, if subsectoral investment for poverty reduction is to be revived, it will be necessary for us to improve our understanding of these factors and, from this, to learn lessons for the design of new projects that will better achieve their objectives than those of the past. The proposed study will attempt to derive these lessons in the context of East and Southern Africa.

  1. This chapter is based on the agreed TOR.
  2. Although it must be noted that only 12% of total Bank lending for irrigation had been for Africa, and this is mostly in North Africa, the Sahel and Madagascar.

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