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Ensuring a water and food secure future through farmer-led irrigation

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How can we think in new ways about expanding farmer-led irrigation in support of global food security and poverty reduction? This was the question at the heart of the 2017 Water for Food International Forum. The theme, “Water for Food Security: From Local Lessons to Global Impacts,” was based on the premise that global breakthroughs are so often driven by local action.
Organized by the World Bank and the Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska, and supported by several partners, the event showcased voices from farmer representatives, the private sector, national and regional policymakers, and major international financing institutions – galvanizing a coalition of support to legitimize farmer-led irrigation as a major development agenda, particularly for Africa.

Cucumbers growing in a greenhouse for hydroponics.
Photo: Sashko via ShutterStock

The Forum confirmed the following key messages about the future of water for food:

  • Farmer-led irrigation may strengthen climate resilience and inclusive economic growth, particularly because it provides farmers with the agency and autonomy to adopt innovative technologies and access flexible financing;
  • Inclusive access to technology has the potential to mitigate the risks of rapid increases in the use of water and other natural resources;
  • Policies and approaches should focus on women, youth, and vulnerable communities to ensure inclusiveness in supply chains for irrigation technology and services;
  • Sustainable groundwater management needs to be strengthened, including developing incentives for collective action in managing irrigation and common efforts to manage negative impacts on groundwater.  
In addition, there is a need to carefully evaluate existing instruments that may enhance agricultural production, including strong partnerships, linkages to markets support, capacity and technical training, and the role of the private and public sectors. Critically, the Forum ended on the note of dedicated support for catalyzing new partnerships and projects that will advance sustainable investments in smallholder irrigated agriculture. The Millennium Challenge Corporation emphasized that poverty alleviation through economic growth and inclusive enabling environments is paramount to resource sustainability. Mike Johanns, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and DWFI board director, echoed this sentiment: “Smallholder farmers are critical and essential to feeding the world.”
After a day and a half of productive conversations, speakers shared their vision for expanding access to irrigation in the final panel ‘The Way Forward.’ The role of innovations and technologies was central to the discussion, in particular how they can be made accessible to smallholder farmers around the world.
Speakers hailing from Mozambique, India, Mali, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, India, Mexico, Nigeria, and elsewhere highlighted how the Forum had provided the extraordinary opportunity for an inclusive global dialogue to help catalyze change in support of farmer-led irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries.
The panelists were asked how we can benefit from and scale up opportunities for farmer-led irrigation . Robert Bertram, chief scientist, Bureau for Food Security, USAID, emphasized the challenge around water and sanitation, as well as the importance of reforming policies.
Nuhu Hatibu, Head of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda for the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), highlighted that in solving food and water security, it is important to build innovative public-private partnerships and be mindful of global lessons already learned . “We can use the experiences we have gained around the world to not paralyze us, but to inspire us,” said Hatibu.
In his closing comments, Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director, Water Global Practice, the World Bank Group, focused on building partnerships, including public and private actors, as well as government-to-government alliances. Ertharin Cousin, Distinguished Fellow for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, expressed similar sentiments: “What (they) have done is catalyze the conversation. This conference began the dialogue among leaders about what’s already happening and what we need to do differently." She reiterated the importance of focusing on strengthening irrigation at multiple scales: “When asked what keeps me up at night, I talk about irrigation,” she said. “Because to achieve the outcome of ending hunger, irrigation is manifest .”
Farmers, private companies, and international organizations brought diverse perspectives to the table, enabling an engaging exchange. The stakeholder groups emphasized each their own messages:
  • Farmers asked for a different water for food future – one in which farmers/farmer organizations are working directly on implementation responsibilities and decision making.
  • Private sector companies emphasized turning the dial on leveraging creative technology at multiple scales – indicating that it is time to move beyond typical procurement specs.
  • International organizations voiced the perspective that we need to build on what is already available and scale up existing farmer-led irrigation projects.
Photo: Yuangeng Zhang via ShutterStock
The final panel expanded on the forum’s theme of how technological innovations are one key way to create a bright water and food secure future. For example, satellites may give farmers the ability to decide how much water to use. Similarly, rainfall can be captured and employed in new and innovative ways. Under this vision of inclusive irrigation technology, the entire population should be able to share this limited resource to ensure sustainable water systems and societal wellbeing. Importantly, it is necessary to develop solutions and strategies that take into account farmers at multiple scales – to ensure that all farmers may reap the benefits of water and not be disproportionately impacted by water scarcity issues. We need real time and reliable data, and extra efforts targeting youth, women, and vulnerable communities.
Changes in water for food systems must occur in ways that do not leave people behind, or cut people off from opportunities for development . Private and public sectors can better work together. We must expand access to irrigation through a farmer-led and private sector-driven approach, with leadership to champion inclusive, collaborative, and resilient water for food systems. It is possible to build sustainable and productive agri-food systems and the Forum was a step in the journey towards fixing our food and water systems to help deliver a water secure and hunger-free world for all.


Steven Schonberger

Director, World Bank Water Global Practice

Lauren Nicole Core

Special Projects, Water Global Practice, The World Bank

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