Enhancing Water for Food: poverty reduction through improved management of ecosystem services for sustainable food production in sub-Saharan Africa

This project was part of the ESPA scoping phase, which ran between 2008 and 2011. The resulting proposal for further funding was unsuccessful.

This project aimed to develop innovative ways to address the complex questions of sustainability and poverty around food and water in Africa.

Specifically, we established a new research consortium involving leading physical and social scientists in sub-Saharan Africa and the UK, and partners in government ministries and international organisations (e.g. the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN) to create a truly interdisciplinary research team. The team communicated with small-scale farmers and other key stakeholders through meetings of basin management organisations and water user associations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania. This allowed the consortium to be informed by the expressed needs and priorities of small-scale farmers and other end-users of the ecosystems. Among other things, direct outputs of this activity included a review paper for an internationally recognised interdisciplinary journal on the key challenges facing socio-economic and environmental science in reducing poverty through improved use of water for irrigation, a working paper, a dedicated webpage and a number of policy briefings in appropriate local languages.

The most important output was to meet a full proposal for an ESPA consortium project which aimed to develop an integrated suite of modelling tools that incorporated both physical and socio-economic processes and were informed by a detailed understanding of local conditions and knowledge sets. Crucially, these models were to be enhanced with locally relevant information in order to contextualise hydro-climatic processes with socio-economic drivers within a consistent framework. Thus, they would have allowed interdisciplinary analysis of both climate change and development scenarios (e.g. changes in land use, crop types, water allocation, population and livelihood practices).

Increased food production is widely considered to be a fundamental step toward the reduction of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Although the agricultural sector accounted for two-thirds of the labour force at the time of the project, sub-Saharan Africa was the only region in the world where per capita food production declined over the latter half of the 20th century. It also remained highly vulnerable to extreme climate variability and future climate change as almost all (>95%) food production was rain-fed. Consequently, calls for increases in irrigated agriculture had intensified in an effort to improve food production, livelihoods and resilience to climate variability and change. However, the reality on the ground in most parts of Africa was complex. It was not clear if there was sufficient water available to support significant increases in irrigated agriculture especially in an era of rapid environment change. It was also vital to ensure that such developments did not have a negative impact on the ecosystem services on which poor African producers depend, especially as competition for limited water resources intensified. Nor was it clear that investments in irrigation development alone would automatically lead to reduced poverty since the principle reason poor people did not have adequate access to water lied in entitlement failures, not water resource scarcity or inefficient service (market failures) delivery. This was fundamentally an issue of politics, local governance and distribution and, therefore, required a more sophisticated analysis of the problem framing and policy response. Therefore, we needed to ensure that policies in agricultural development and water resources took into account the many biophysical and socio-political challenges faced by small-scale farmers in diverse, risk-prone environments and the root causes of inefficiencies and low yields that characterised food production in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Lead Principal Investigator
Organisation: Makerere University
Country: Uganda
Principal Investigator
Organisation: University College London
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: Institute of Development Studies
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: International Water Management Institute
Country: Sri Lanka
Co Investigator
Organisation: Overseas Development Institute ODI
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Leeds
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Dar es Salaam
Country: Tanzania, United Republic of
Co Investigator
Organisation: Institute of Development Studies
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Nairobi
Country: Kenya
Co Investigator
Organisation: Makerere University
Country: Uganda
Co Investigator
Organisation: Sokoine University of Agriculture
Country: Tanzania, United Republic of
Co Investigator
Organisation: Institute of Development Studies
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Sussex
Country: United Kingdom