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People and water

There are two key ingredients to maximizing agricultural production from a given and limited volume of water: people and technology. Of these, people are the more important. The best and most innovative technology in the world is of no use if people themselves cannot use it, see no advantage in it or do not understand it.

Getting people involved in water management for agriculture at local levels is not a new idea. Indeed, it is already practised successfully in many parts of the world - for example, in the irrigation systems of Bali. However, the difficulty of introducing real participation and transparent decision making in societies accustomed to centralized and bureaucratic methods should not be underestimated. Big changes are required, both from the institutions that previously held total power and from the individuals and their user groups, who perhaps previously played only a token role. Some of these changes are listed in the box below.

This is not to say that there are not still special roles for specialists: enthusiasm and participation at local levels can always be well complemented by technical expertise on sustainable management, irrigation technology, water distribution systems, watershed management and other subjects. Training and facilitation are also required in many areas - for example, to establish measures to protect freshwater ecosystems and to enable communities to resolve conflicts among competing resource users.

Water engineer in Tanzania ...

'We engineers used to design water projects in our office and keep the plans there. We thought the villagers couldn't understand such things. Now we go to the village to do the design work and even the old ladies can draw a plan of the water project using a stick in the dust. It is a big change and a better way of working.`

Barnabas Pulinga
Government water engineer
United Republic of Tanzania

Gender equity is crucial. Women and men have an equal right to access water even though they may have different roles in relation to the maintenance and use of water resources. However, a gender approach to water resource management can be controversial because it requires changes from men and women in the way they manage water and agricultural issues, and hence in how they relate to one another. Both traditional and innovative mechanisms are needed to resolve these issues.

Involving people to improve water management

Legal reforms to improve access to water are needed in many countries. They should cover:

  • allocation of water resources between different users, particularly those in rural and urban areas;
  • minimizing conflict between those who use the resource for water supply and those who use it for waste disposal;
  • promotion of efficient water use;
  • regulation of use of wastewater as a safe source of supply;
  • reduction of the role of government in rural water projects, increasing the importance of local user groups, and removal of impediments to charging for water and recovering costs;
  • evolution of systems of land tenure towards written and individual or group titles;
  • ensuring legal access to land and water for women heads of household and women generally; and
  • creation or improvement of an effective water rights administration to manage the water sector in general and the rural water sector in particular.

Class equality is also crucial. There is no room in an efficient water management scheme for elitist roles for the wealthy or socially distinguished; often, the people who most need a new say in how water is managed, and who know most about how it should be managed, are poor women smallholders.

In fact, there is ample evidence that inclusion of the poor can have disproportionate effects on agricultural growth. Studies that have assessed the influence of holding size on land productivity for a range of holdings that applied modern varieties, fertilizer and irrigation show that smaller holdings are more productive than larger ones. Data from Green Revolution areas in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka show that irrigated small holdings, compared with irrigated large holdings, tend to have higher net sown proportions of their irrigated land, have higher cropping intensities, apply more fertilizer per unit of cultivated land, cultivate more diversified, higher-value and more labour-intensive crops and obtain higher yields per crop per unit of land. Recent research in Côte d'Ivoire and Latin America has also done much to debunk the myth that large farmers are more efficient than smaller ones. Given their share of cultivable land, smallholders contribute disproportionately to the production of major crops, particularly traditional ones. In a study of 55 developing countries, smallholder production in 39 countries was found to be considerably higher than its share in arable land would suggest.

In the end, what is needed is a new water contract. The Green Revolution was staged by scientists. The Blue Revolution should be staged by making water use and management everyone's business: its goal would be to maximize the production of food and the creation of jobs per water unit consumed. Enabling individuals and communities to understand their options for change, to choose from these options, to assume the responsibilities that these choices imply, and then to realize their choices could radically alter the way the world uses its limited water resources.

Gender in water issues

Woman watering seedlings in a tree nursery in Palcalancha, Bolivia, watched by her children.

Abundant evidence is available showing that where women and men take part in consultation, decision making and training, facilities are better used and management is improved. In contrast, absence of consultation of female water users and managers in projects in Guatemala, Indonesia and Togo, and many other places, led to these women not using new facilities - not because they had not been educated to do so but because the new facilities had been wrongly designed or sited, or ignored conventions on gender usage.

In one project in Sri Lanka, the design of irrigation schemes was adjusted to make safe water available to women for domestic use. Similarly, in St Lucia laundry facilities were added to an irrigation system to avoid women standing in the water too long and hence contracting schistosomiasis.

On a household rainwater harvesting project in Gujarat, India, water committees were formed in five villages. The committees comprised approximately equal numbers of women and men. Despite hostility in the community towards women's participation in project activities traditionally seen as men's work, they were active in many aspects: committee decision making, construction work, seeking a loan from a local bank for the project and, in one village, resolving a conflict between two social groups that was jeopardizing the success of the project. In assessing the effects of the project, women felt particularly relieved by the availability of water at home at the end of each day's agricultural work.

Source: Vision 21: A shared vision for hygiene, sanitation
and water supply.

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