Why water policies in Africa need to change

Patterns of water use for agriculture in Africa are changing. In previous years, there has been a focus on large irrigation schemes, many of which have failed. Much research has been conducted into why this has happened.

But a factor often unrecognised in official irrigation policy is the rapid rise in farmer-led irrigation. Farmer-led irrigation is not centred on organised schemes but is driven by individual farmers investing in technologies with which to access water for irrigation. It could be as simple as hose pipes.

For example, the farmers in the Uluguru Mountains use hose pipes plugged into the streams to drive sprinklers. From this sprinkler-based irrigation, the farmers are producing high-value crops, such as strawberries, for sale in urban areas.

Farmer-led irrigation could also be shallow well cultivation, which is happening in the Kilimanjaro Region of Tanzania. Local entrepreneurs are renting land or buying land from the elderly people who held the land since the 1950s. They are cultivating large crops of onions — another high-value vegetable crop.

African agriculture systems and governments do not have policies to deal with this new reality of irrigation. Policies focused on integrated water resources management, which are key to SDG Target 6.5, do not account for the current complexities of irrigation patterns. They work on the basis of bringing together water users and stakeholder groups, who may have shared interests or can discuss their interests and share water in collective institutions.

Farmer-led irrigation is not going to work like that. It is a much more differentiated and individualised process, and the types of laws and regulations that we have around water at the moment are not fit-for-purpose.

External actors in Africa are making policy recommendations that are not based on detailed, contextual knowledge of how systems are evolving and changing. African governments, who often have an interest in external funding, are making policy for the consumption of outsiders and not for the actual complexities of how their agriculture systems are changing and evolving.

Policies also tend to be made based on fantasies of large-scale production, reductions in smallholder agriculture, and reframing of agriculture towards export-led production. That is not the nature of most production in Africa — at least, not yet. Therefore, policies need to speak to the complex and increasingly differentiated realities of African rural livelihoods.

There is a need to change the way we engage in policy processes. Donors, external players, and researchers need to take a step back from making policy recommendations when and if they do not understand the rich, detailed complexity of agricultural systems.

African institutions need to work with the reality of those systems rather than assuming that blanket policy recommendations are going to be possible or even transformative.