Rain is a precious resource, providing water for crops around the world, but it doesn’t always come when it’s needed. Sometimes it doesn’t rain at all, and sometimes it pours, eroding the land and even causing floods that can damage fields and villages and spread disease.

This is why rainwater management is so important. By collecting and storing rainwater when it comes, communities can secure water for drinking and to give to livestock and irrigate crops. Rainwater harvesting also helps protect ecosystems, as it eases pressure on the water supply.

Development experts have recognized the value of rainwater harvesting for years, as evidenced by the title of a 2009 report by SEI and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): Rainwater Harvesting: A Lifeline for Human Well-being.

Yet progress in scaling up these practices has been slow. Aiming to build momentum, the RAIN Foundation convened the first International Symposium on Rain Water Harvesting and Resilience on 1–12 June in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Philip Osano of the Africa Centre represented SEI. On 17 July, participants issued a joint declaration, “Unlocking the potential of rainwater”, which SEI Africa Centre Director Stacey Noel has endorsed.

The declaration calls on policy-makers, donors and development practitioners to acknowledge the “huge positive impact” that rainwater management at the watershed and landscape level can make on climate resilience, food security, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

“This declaration is based on the premise that rainfall is an important manageable resource that is available for wider use,” it reads. “Rainwater harvesting should be scaled up and integrated into broader policies, strategies and plans to increase its potential impact. We urge the immediate development of effective policy actions at local, national, and regional level in order to support the mobilization and use of rainwater for food security and rural livelihood improvement.”

The symposium where the declaration was drafted drew more than 70 participants from government ministries and departments, academia, international and nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. Keynote addresses were given by Kebede Jerba, State Minister for Water Resources of Ethiopia; Seleshi Getahun, State Minister of Natural Resources for Ethiopia, Peter de Haan, director of the RAIN Foundation, and Dennis Garrity, Drylands Ambassador for the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre.

Noel says she was pleased to endorse the declaration because, as highlighted by the SEI-UNEP report, “rainwater harvesting has huge potential to improve access to water and sanitation at the local level”. In fact, she adds, “it should be included in the discussions on the emerging Sustainable Development Goal on ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation”.

Rainwater harvesting for food security in Africa
Achieving food security remains a key challenge in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where most food is produced by smallholder farmers and pastoralists, and primarily rain-fed. Effective water management for agriculture and other uses is a prerequisite for Africa to increase agricultural yields to be able to meet the 2025 transformation goals and targets for the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).

SEI Africa contributed to the symposium during the first two days, the high-level policy dialogue. The focus of the policy dialogue was how to unlock potential of rainwater harvesting and demonstrate its importance for building resilience to climate change and variability, improving food security, and WASH (by improving household food security).

In a presentation at the symposium, Osano noted that water security is only one of the benefits. “Rainwater harvesting, if taken to scale, can also contribute to food security, for example, by increasing crop yields, as evidence shows that it can raise productivity from 1 to 3–4 tonnes per hectare,” he said. “Large-scale support and adoption of rainwater harvesting will therefore be critical in Africa in the face of high human population growth and increased climatic variability due to the effects of climate change in the continent.”

Recommendations for policy-makers
The symposium declaration offers several recommendations, including:

  • To develop effective policy mechanisms that facilitate the promotion and scaling-up of rainwater management based on the proven potential, costs and benefits of rainwater harvesting, as well as on its implementers, beneficiaries and potential users.
  • To incorporate rainwater harvesting into broader approaches such as integrated water resource management (IWRM), natural resource management (NRM), and a sustainable land and soil management (SLM).
  • To foster cross-sectoral collaboration by setting up coordination platforms to share knowledge, contacts, opportunities, experiences, innovation and good practices on rainwater harvesting and its up scaling.
  • To stimulate private-sector involvement along the value chain, e.g. by allowing for more flexibility in regulations and taxes; facilitating access to financial services; and by investing in good infrastructure.
  • To support communities and individuals by facilitating ownership.

Read the full text of the declaration (external link to RAIN Foundation)

See the proceedings of the Addis symposium (external link to RAIN Foundation)