How to ensure Africa’s irrigation boom benefits everyone

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A woman in Kenya’s Central Region with a solar irrigation pump she uses on her farm. 

Napandaela is a 63-year-old woman living in small village in northeastern Tanzania. Speaking of competition over water among villagers, she says: “In the face of water scarcity, upstream users and powerful individuals take as much water as they can and leave little for others.”

Napandaela, a former chairperson of the village’s irrigation committee, says that women such as herself are particularly disadvantaged in the resulting scramble for scarce water resources.

This example opened one of the presentations at during a session on new approaches for inclusive irrigation at Africa Water Week recently. While it portrays the experience of just one woman, it characterizes a general trend: Men and women both face challenges and constraints in accessing water resources and irrigation technologies, but the challenges faced by women are often more numerous and more severe.

Unprecedented investments in irrigation

The session—which was led by researchers from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)—was timely, considering that Africa is currently experiencing an unprecedented boom in irrigation investments. For example, the Sahel Irrigation Initiative, launched by the World Bank and other partners, is working to mobilize investments upwards of US$7 billion to more than double the area under irrigation in eight Sahelian countries.

Small-scale irrigation was previously known as ‘the forgotten sector,’ but governments and other stakeholders are now realizing the critical importance of expanding irrigation in order to reach food and nutrition security targets.

While there is a lack of exact data on how much irrigation could be expanded on the African continent, it is generally believed that the potential irrigable land is two to four times greater than the area that is reported as currently under irrigation. Moreover, research has shown that investments in irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa could generate net revenues of up to US$22 billion per year.

Still, the problem is that women do not have opportunities equal to those of men, which prevents them from enjoying benefits resulting from the irrigation boom. For a number of years, IWMI, IFPRI and partners have worked to identify specific constraints, understand why those constraints exist, and explore how they can be abolished.

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A cartoon from the above-mentioned presentation, used to demonstrate the heightened constraints experienced by women.

A cartoon from the above-mentioned presentation, used to demonstrate the heightened constraints experienced by women.

Lessons from the field

Two presenters, Maureen Mnimbo, of Sokoine University of Agriculture, Morogoro, Tanzania, and Mary M. Ndaro, of Care International, brought forward a number of lessons and insights deduced from field work on gender and irrigation.

They highlighted that irrigation technologies and schemes are not equally accessible to everyone. A first step toward making irrigation schemes and policies more gender inclusive is to better understand the constraints women, and other groups, face.

For example, women often have less access to land, and hence to the water resources on that land, finance and decision making power than men.  Better data on gender inclusion and exclusion is needed to develop actions that support women and men’s equal opportunities. To learn more about this it is important to separate women and men during focus group discussions to make sure women feel comfortable speaking in public. Further, any such meetings and trainings should be arranged at times and in places that are convenient and safe for women.

Cultural and social norms also play a big role in determining women’s access to irrigation. For example, some pumps require women to mount and step on pedals to function, which may not be culturally appropriate in some regions. Generally, irrigation technologies must be affordable, user friendly and culturally appropriate.

New tools for ensuring inclusivity

Finally, presenters also highlighted a paradox on gender and irrigation: Everyone mostly agrees that it is important to consider gender issues in irrigation. The African Ministers Council on Water, which convenes during Africa Water Week, launched a gender strategy in 2011. Though many countries have gender equality enshrined in national laws, few are able to translate gender issues into tangible policy and practice. Therefore, the question remains: what would it take to apply gender equality principles to the irrigation sector?

One challenge is the lack of practical guidance to identify gender-based constraints to irrigation in a given context.

Sophie Theis of IFPRI presented two such tools for practitioners, both currently being developed by IFPRI and IWMI. First, a diagnostic for gender equality in irrigation that can measure current gender gaps in access to irrigation, as well as a gender in irrigation learning and improvement tool, which is intended to support local governments and other stakeholders to improve gender integration in irrigation scheme planning.

The lessons, methodologies and tools detailed here may help us to begin to understand the constraints women face and how gender might be mainstreamed in irrigation schemes and policies. But, what other constraints and barriers should we include when discussing women’s access to irrigation?

Read more:

A presentation on “Inclusive irrigation” from Africa Water Week

Africa Water Week presentations on gender and irrigation from Tanzanian and international perspectives

New tools for inclusive irrigation” presentation

This blog post by Marianne Gadeberg was originally published on the WLE Thrive Blog and is being included as part of GFAR’s Partner Spotlight of the International Water Management Institute. For more information on the Partners in GFAR, and to become a Partner, visit the GFAR website!
Photo Credits: 1- Adam Öjdahl / IWMI; 2- Maureen Mnimbo

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