Harnessing the power of rain

Rainwater harvesting and agroecological irrigation make farmers more resilient in Senegal

Climate change means that extreme weather – intense rainfall at times and longer dry periods at others– results in either too much or too little water for the approximately 90 percent of Senegalese farmers who practice rain-fed agriculture. © CECI


Last September in Senegal, more rain fell in a single day than in the usual 3-month rainy season. Intense rain in shorter periods of time followed by a longer dry season are the effects of climate change and ultimately result in either too much or too little water for the farmers who rely on it for their survival. Close to 90 percent of farming households in Senegal practice rain-fed agriculture.

An FAO project is working to introduce both rainwater harvesting systems and innovative water management techniques that build on traditional methods. Launched in 2019, this project, called Strengthening Agricultural Adaptation (SAGA), builds capacities to adapt to climate change, ensuring that communities, in particular women, across Senegal have regular access to water, while increasing the efficiency of its use.

Garden of resilience

Working with the local communities, FAO and its partners* implemented irrigation systems tailored to regional landscapes, weather patterns and the needs of the farmers. In Oudalaye village, nestled in the Ferlo sylvo-pastoral reserve in northeastern Senegal, FAO helped producers focus on traditional agroecological practices, locally called Gulle Kisnal, to reduce water evaporation.

Gulle Kisnal is an agroecological water management technique wherea half-moon shape is created around the plants to ensure water remains concentrated inside the mini basin and is not wasted through evaporation or run-off.

Through this and other methods, the SAGA project has also helped farmers develop a thriving market garden, known locally as the “garden of resilience.”

Aissé Sy, a young woman from the community, started working on the plot a year ago. She explained that the garden uses only organic fertilizers and organic pesticides and yields a wide variety of produce well into the dry season.

“We received training in garden management that encouraged us to use traditional practices for irrigating plants by growing them in Gulle Kisnal,” explained Aissé.

“Today more than 300 households in the village profit from all the hard work and are eating more nutritious and balanced diets.”

Left/Top: The traditional practice of “Gulle Kisnal”, where a half-moon shape around the plants, ensures water is not wasted through evaporation or run-off. © CECI Right/Bottom: Women water plants in the Thiès plateau. © GRAIM

Harvesting and harnessing the rain

Another project in the Thiès plateau in western Senegal installed rainwater harvesting systems. This system uses a corrugated roof angled in a way to catch rainwater and drain it into a collection tank

“With the simple rainwater harvesting system that was built for us, we were able to collect 5 000 precious litres of water in the last six months,” said Ramata Faye, a 68-year-old grandmother and farmer from the municipality of Cherif Lô in Thiès.

Nine rainwater harvesting systems were built throughout the region and more than 220 people were trained to maintain them. In Cherif Lô alone, this is benefitting more than 450 households.

“Now we can use rainwater in the dry season,” explains Ramata. With no wells close to her garden, it had become increasingly challenging for her to keep the fruit trees and vegetables watered throughout the dry season that now lasts more than 9 months. Ramata, and others in her women’s group, can continue to grow throughout the seasons and sell their produce at the local market, providing them a steadier income.

In addition, with the income from their gardens, Ramata’s women’s group has also set up a micro-credit system, a way of saving money so they can help one another. Group members invest in new plants and tools for the garden or can request a small loan for family needs.

“Inhabitants of neighbouring villages now want to set up a garden like ours. It's important the whole community is involved in this type of initiative,” she enthused.

For Ramata, being able to keep the gardens and nurseries thriving because of the water harvesting system has given her a new sense of purpose, the ability to provide her family with essentials like medicine and send her children to school, and even have some money saved for the future.

This rainwater harvesting system uses a corrugated roof, angled to catch rainwater and drain it into a collection tank so that water can be used throughout the dry season. ©SUCO

Dramatic changes

In the last 50 years, Senegal has experienced dramatic change, and not only in its climate. The role of the women has expanded beyond subsistence farming and household duties. Women are now better organized economically, which allows them more access to capacity building and finance, even if many challenges still remain. Women are also increasingly active in income-generating activities, shifting from growing only staples such as millet, rice and peanuts to producing more varied and nutritious food including tomatoes, okra, squash, beans, onions and peppers. These “market gardens”, growing products meant for both sale and their own consumption, are opening new opportunities for these women and their families. By reinforcing access to water, FAO is supporting women farmers in ensuring that these gardens are productive and profitable.  

Sowing the seeds of change

The SAGA project is a global project currently focusing on two countries, Senegal and Haiti. These initiatives have become valuable examples of farmers adapting in countries particularly threatened and vulnerable to climate change. For Senegal, locally adapted, innovative water management techniques have meant gardens are flourishing, providing communities better income and healthier diets. Another important FAO project, the “1 million cisterns for the Sahel” project, is also helping women and farmers harvest and store rainwater. The cisterns provide clean water for drinking and growing food for millions of people in arid areas.

With these new techniques that foster self-sufficiency and empowerment, these communities now have greater resilience in the face of climate change and a head start in building back better after the COVID-19 pandemic and other shocks they have faced.

* FAO has been able to implement these activities through a financial and technical partnership with the government of Quebec and, in collaboration with its implementing partners: Groupe de recherche et d'appui aux initiatives mutualistes (GRAIM)Solidarité Union Coopération (SUCO), Fédération des associations du Fouta pour le Développement (FAFD) and the Centre d’étude et de cooperation internationale (CECI).

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