In farming, irrigation is a game-changer: it ensures a steady water supply for crops even when there is no rain, improving yields and reducing losses. A major project that SEI is part of, AgWater Solutions, aims to help understand the factors that influence adoption and successful outscaling of these technologies. Jennie Barron, a senior research associate in SEI’s York Centre, described some of this work in an interview at World Water Week.

Q: What is the focus of AgWater Solutions?
A:
It’s about how to realize the opportunities that we know exist for smallholder farmers to develop their agricultural production systems through water management. The SEI component is mainly to see how we can safeguard sustainability if we have so many millions of smallholder farmers upscaling their agricultural water management: What are the environmental impacts, and how do we try to ensure that the benefits are distributed to a larger proportion of the farmers?

Q: How many farmers are already irrigating?
A:
What we found is that the informal or smallholder irrigation sector is quickly growing by farmers’ own initiative, and in some places it’s even as big as the public official extent of irrigation schemes. These informal smallholder irrigation schemes are usually not part of the official national figures on irrigation. So we’ve gathered better data on the extent of irrigation as well as the number of beneficiaries on irrigation, so policymakers can now address these in their budget allocations and policy decisions. AgWater Solutions aims to set up enabling conditions to continue and accelerate public and private investments in irrigation.

Q: Do we have enough water for all these people to irrigate this much?
A:
We have water that we can use much more efficiently. There is still unrealized potential even in very intensively farmed areas; there are still opportunities to use water resources better to produce more food. In the places we studied, there is still a yield gap. But the solutions to close that gap sustainably are different depending on the biophysical, hydrological as well as the social conditions in each context. There is no generic solution for everyone.

Q: Where have you been working?
A:
We have worked in four watersheds in semi-arid to very humid conditions: Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Zambia and West Bengal, India. We have landscape assessments which have addressed hydrological context, institutional context and the livelihoods context, as well as the potential impact on both livelihoods and hydrological systems depending on different types of agricultural water management intervention scenarios.

Q: Why have you focused on the landscape level in particular?
A:
As researchers we have to provide evidence at different scales, and the landscape scale is a bypassed scale. We have a lot of analyses at the global scale, and also household-level analyses, but it’s at the landscape scale where you see the aggregate impact of what is happening at the household level. We have to develop information about landscape-scale impacts on the environment, on water resources, biodiversity and soil sediments, as well as on communities and people. We also need tools and methods to both inform public policy and track the impacts of our investments.

Q: How much power do smallholders have over how water is allocated?
A:
That depends on the location and context. In most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a process of downscaling integrated water resource management (IWRM) and putting water user associations into place to manage their own local resources. This has been happening slowly in many countries for the last 10-15 years. Whilst that has been happening, there are still traditional values and rules and institutions that govern the local landscapes. For example, in Zambia and Ghana, you find a mix of these formal systems coupled with the traditional systems. To safeguard investments and address potential impacts, you need to include unofficial institutions and build local capacity to deal with those impacts.

Q: What comes next in your work?
A:
One of the things that are very clear is that investors and developers of agricultural water management solutions in the context of smallholder farming systems need to be better at monitoring and evaluating the impacts, both environmental and social. Right now we have very little comprehensive information about impacts, both in the short term and in the long term. The second thing that needs to happen, for sustainability, is capacity-building. Researchers will never be able to predict all the possible impacts on complex environmental and social systems at the landscape level, so building the capacity at the local level to manage emerging impacts will be essential.