Africa: Helping Smallholders Access the Nile

analysis

Fixing failings in water management will have huge implications for agricultural productivity and food security.

For the 200 million people who live in the ancient basin of the Nile River, agriculture is the economic bedrock. This is not a way of life that promises wealth: half of the basin's inhabitants live in poverty. And even that precarious existence is at risk, as climate change threatens the amount of water available for irrigating subsistence crops. Some development experts warn that the region's agricultural output may plummet, bringing hunger and more political instability to an already turbulent region.

But it does not have to be this way. Most of Africa, with the exception of its dry North and more developed South, is dominated by what many scientists refer to as "economic water scarcity." Water is available naturally, but is simply not accessible.

Water in the Nile basin - culled from the river, its tributaries, underground aquifers and rainfall - is among the continent's many untapped natural resources. If water were better managed in the region, agriculture could escape the worst scenarios projected for the future.

Until now, efforts to maximise water use in the region, where almost 20 percent of Africa's population lives, have focused on the actual river flow of the Nile and its tributaries. However, out of the 11 countries within the Nile basin, only Egypt and Sudan have made significant investments in large dams or large-scale irrigation schemes that tap this flow. This infrastructure helps moderate flow variability, and provides water for irrigation and hydropower. But such capital-intensive solutions are not always the best solution, particularly for the less economically developed countries in the basin, and especially those situated upstream.

Small-scale interventions such as soil water conservation, rainwater management, spate irrigation, water lifting, and water storage are more affordable, accessible, and oriented to local needs. While farmers across the Nile basin have started to implement these solutions, they have yet to be applied widely.

Rainwater, for example, is the source of all water flowing into through the Nile basin. Farmers have yet to effectively tap into the rainwater, which is some 20 times greater than the actual river flow. Tapping groundwater stores for irrigation, which would help overcome variability in rainfall amounts, also has yet to take root in the Nile and across the African continent.

The first step toward helping farmers throughout the basin is to develop a system for measuring and sharing current and historic information on weather, rainfall and river flow. Scant data exist detailing how much water is available for use naturally and how much water is actually used in the different parts of the region. When countries cannot accurately quantify shared resources, they will inevitably argue about their fair share.

This is not a problem specific to the Nile. Taking accurate water measurements and sharing them is arguably the biggest problem in most other international river basins, and is usually resolved through international conventions. Investments in data collection programmes typically cost a fraction of investments in water infrastructure itself. It is a matter of utmost urgency in this changing globalised world; not knowing how much water is flowing and where is a recipe for disaster.

The Nile, the longest river in the world, stretches deep into the African continent. The problems of its people do not have to stretch as far. Many of the concerns and looming crises in the region can be addressed through simple measures that harness the power of the basin's waters. We would be wise to take those simple solutions and use them to tackle these problems now, before climate change makes matters worse.

Vladimir Smakhtin is a director of the research program on water availability and access at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). He was co-author of a recent book entitled 'The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods'.

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