Irrigation can lead to good health: here's how


Women draw water from a well in Mali (Mali/13702/J. Isaac)


The introduction of irrigation into parched areas of Africa has not only improved crop yields, but also raised levels of health and nutrition. This is good news on World Water Day, 22 March, and illustrates this year's theme: Water and Health.

FAO recently assessed the impact of three small-scale irrigation projects on the health and welfare of villagers in Burkina Faso, Mali and the United Republic of Tanzania. The assessment showed that small dams and wells acted as catalysts for change, initiating actions that generated income and allowed people to cope better with hungry periods of the year, diversify diets and afford health services. All three projects encouraged the following: production, processing and preparation of a variety of indigenous foods, nutrition education and the participation of women's groups.

"For the first time we looked specifically at the relationship between irrigation, nutrition and health," says Florence Egal, an FAO nutrition officer. "We learned that one needs to have the agriculture, education and health sectors working together in a community, not just agriculture off on its own."

In Mali, a local dam gave farmers water to increase food production. But the project also promoted new crops such as vegetables rich in micronutrients.

"Nutrition education was critical in that project," says Ms Egal. "Without an emphasis on nutrition, villagers may well have sold all the vegetables and used the money for other purposes, but they also learned how to cook or preserve the new crops and thus improved their families' nutrition."

In Burkina Faso, researchers found that some of the increased farm income was invested in health care. Visits to local clinics shot up by 50 percent over three years, while individual households increased spending on health care from 5 percent to 12 percent of the family budget. Health classes taught mothers to buy mosquito nets to protect children from malaria. Fathers even began taking their children to the clinic, traditionally a mother's task.

"Health training is important because water management also requires knowledge of basic disease prevention practices," says Ms Egal. "Poorly managed irrigation can contribute to the spread of water-borne diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, which are transmitted by mosquitoes and snails."

In the United Republic of Tanzania, the installation of village wells meant that women who traditionally spent hours retrieving water suddenly had extra time for more productive activities. The project made sure that women got training to help them start market gardens.

In all three case studies, irrigation increased food production or income by enough to provide one additional meal per day. This was true even during the "hunger season", the period before the harvest, when many families had previously eaten only one meal daily. The projects also helped alleviate the debt burden of poor families, increase school attendance and limit seasonal migration for work. However, only 4 percent of arable land is irrigated in sub-Saharan Africa, underlining the need to expand water availability and management.

The global statistics on benefits of irrigation are impressive. Irrigated land is almost three times as productive as rainfed cropland. From 30 to 40 percent of the world's food comes from irrigated land, which makes up just 17 percent of the total land under cultivation. Over the next 30 years, about 70 percent of the additional food production in developing countries is expected to come from irrigated land.

22 March 2001

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