Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)


Addressing water scarcity in agriculture: how can indigenous or traditional practices help?

The world’s population is growing, with the need to produce more food. This challenge exacerbates water scarcity, which is further compounded by a changing climate. To cope with the challenge, could indigenous or traditional practices support climate change adaptation efforts on reducing water scarcity in agriculture?

To address this question, a first step consisted in reviewing traditional/indigenous practices used by rural communities as coping strategies for climate change adaptation in agriculture. An agro-ecology grouping was used, seeking to highlight the potential of transferring practices between areas of similar agro-ecology.
A compendium of such practices was thus compiled and is available for reference.

The need to mainstream indigenous knowledge and traditional practices into sustainable development has also been well acknowledged, including through the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate change.

However, evidence of successful use and transfer of indigenous practices to cope with water scarcity in agriculture remains scattered. This discussion is an opportunity to systematically identify practices that have demonstrated their effectiveness in supporting the livelihoods of the communities and to classify them in such a way that they can be upscaled or replicated elsewhere. This is especially crucial for areas with similar agro-ecological characteristics. It is expected that some of these practices will then support projects aimed at addressing water scarcity in agriculture, with an objective roadmap comprising recommended practices/ technologies and the required supporting policies, as relevant.

Furthermore, different opinions are still being voiced on semantics (e.g. indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples, community knowledge or local knowledge systems…). This discussion will also seek to reach some consensus on the most appropriate terminology to be used in the final version of the compendium.

The purpose of this discussion is thus to call for participants’ contributions to the following questions.

1. Sustainability and replicability of the practices

From your experience (or knowledge), which of the indigenous/traditional practices below have been successfully applied and if possible, replicated (different times or places) in order to cope with water scarcity in agriculture? Please provide examples and references.  

  • Weather forecasting and early warning systems
  • Grazing and Livestock management
  • Soil and Water Management (including cross slope barriers)
  • Water harvesting (and storage practices)
  • Forest Management (as a coping strategy to water scarcity)
  • Integrated wetlands and fisheries management
  • Other (please specify)

2. Moving beyond semantics

Having discussed all these practices/ technologies, which terminology would be most suitable to neutrally label them in the compendium? 

Please briefly substantiate your argument with most updated references, when available.


We look forward to your inputs to this important discussion.

Patrick Bahal’okwibale

FAO, Ethiopia

Jean-Marc Mwenge Kahinda

CSIR, South Africa

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Water harvesting is an age long tradition that has been implemented and still practiced by local farmers especially in the desert prone areas, but that is usually not sufficient because of the changing climatic conditions.

Most farmers now rely more on local dams and government water storage facilities to help cope with the water scarcity. This is because; these local farmers can’t afford to build their own storage facilities to cope with the water needs of their farms. Also it leads to over population around the water storage sites which could pose a potential threat of land grabbing, conflicts resulting in the depletion of the land resource used for production.

The water storages also come with the high cost of purchase of water pumping machines and water hose covering long distance to reach the farm lands; that some of these local farmers can’t afford.

To control water use because of the water need of vegetable, local farmers use the traditional ridging irrigation system throughout the year for crop production to ensure vegetable supplies.

On the flip side, there is the competition for the stored water especially in the outer fringes of northern Nigeria where rainfall is not insufficient to meet their agricultural needs therefore having herders and farmers competing for the little water stored to provide water their animals by the nomadic Fulani herders and the local farmers.

There is currently farmers/herders in part of Nigeria leading to hunger, malnutrition, killings, and forced displacement due to the competition for the limited land and water resources in the areas affected.

Structural and non-structural water management concepts and community participation in managing land and water resources in ancient Sri Lanka

Hydraulic civilization was prominent in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa eras till the 13 century Anuradha Senaviratne (1987). Cascade system was identified as the managing land and water systems in dry zone areas Madduma Bandara in 1995. Sustainable system of managing each and every component of the landscape and water resources was discussed in details by P.B. Dharmasena in 2010 and emphasized the community participation in managing these systems identified as “Ellangava”. Abayasinghe in 2018 highlighted the need of restoring the cascade system or the “Ellangava” system of management as a remedy for the unidentified conical kidney deices.

Community participation in land and water management could be identified as one of the successful management strategy practiced in ancient hydraulic civilization in Sri Lanka. Structural and nonstructural land and water management techniques used in the ancient past were based on several hydraulic control systems namely, increase of infiltration by providing detention ponds or depression areas, water quality control by using grass covered areas or constructed wetlands or bio retention areas, increase of flow path to increase the time of concentration and thereby to reduce the flow velocity and the discharge quantity, replenish groundwater aquifers by using structural ponds, grass covered swells etc.

All these ancient water harvesting systems help to retain water not only for human consumption but also for other living flora and fauna allowing retaining the bio diversity. Therefore, ecosystem resilience is well managed at micro scale while development work is carried out by the humans to improve their livelihoods at macro scale. Macro scale development model could be identified as an aggregation of several micro level management systems run by the community.

Micro level geographical units of management or micro catchments are managed by the community and community participation was kept at maximum to manage the land and water resources. This model has been now identified as “Ellangava” management system or cascade management system.

Principle behind the cascade or “Ellangava” system could be identified as a system which used to classify the landscape according to the topographical features and manage natural hydrological functions within those micro level catchments without any disturbances to the valuable ecosystem services. This management system also support ecosystem services and to maintain the resilience while improving the livelihoods of the stakeholders with the community participation.

This principle could be used globally to address the climate change scenarios to improve the land and water management strategies adapted in any country with the community participation to improve the ecosystem resilience as well as the livelihoods of the stakeholders.

Present paper discusses four cases to illustrate the present status of the hydrological controls adopted in Rnamasu Uyana, Segiriya lion rock area, Polonnaruwa ruin city and Udawaththa forest reserve in Kandy.

I just read on another platform an idea that links quite well with this discussion and that is the role of technology in enhancing or improving traditional/local approaches to water scarcity.

Still on pastoral communities where my initial comment was on the importance of negotiation of rights of access to water and pastures within and between communities, normally scouts would be sent in advance to the resource endowed areas to find out about availability then come back and inform their village elders who would then follow up with negotiations before communities would move to these areas for access.

Now, some good suggestions are being made on how technology is currently facilitating these practices and the opportunity to improve in the future exists. These include the role of mobile phones for facilitating communication, motor bikes for quick movement and also the role of satellite generated data that communities can access in real time in observing resource fluctuations and strengthening inter and intra community contacts to advise on when and how to move.


Mr. Mwanza Floribert Kiebo

paysan voulant servir de modèle de développement à d'autres paysans pour les stimuler à l'action
Democratic Republic of the Congo


L'eau: c'est la vie. Les perturbations climatiques nous apportent maintenant ou trop de pluie ou peu de pluie .Un autre mal vient s'ajouter à Mulungwishi, contre l'irrigation des cultures, ce sont les rejets miniers qui sont déversés dans les rivières du Katanga, en Rép. Dém du Congo. Mulungwishi est une illustration. Cette année a été pire: Champs, ferme et habitations ...détruits. La couche de ces rejets dans la rivière, avec beaucoup de pluie, la crue a été du jamais vu. Ces gangues acides déposées dans des champs, ces champs sont finis et l'autorité gouvernementale est silencieuse. Quelle irrigation maintenant ?

Water is life. The climatic disturbances bring us now either too much or too little rain. Another evil is being added to Mulungwishi, against the irrigation of crops, namely the mining waste that is being dumped into the rivers of Katanga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mulungwishi is an example. This year has been worse: Fields, farm and houses...all destroyed. The layer of these discharges into the river, with a lot of rain, caused unprecedented flooding. Once these acid gangs are deposited in fields, these fields are over and the government authority remains silent. What kind of irrigation do we need now?

Water in agriculture: how do indigenous or traditional practices help?

Based on your experience (or knowledge), which of the following indigenous / traditional practices have been successfully applied and replicated (at different times or places) to address water shortages in agriculture? Please provide examples and references.

In Colombia, Article 366 of Chapter 5 of the Political Constitution establishes that the general welfare and improvement of the quality of life of the population are social purposes of the State and defines the fundamental objective of its activity the solution of unmet health needs , education, environmental sanitation and drinking water.

Likewise, various regulatory efforts have been made to guarantee water governance, identifying water management as a complex issue where historical processes and cultural diversity generate particular conditions where it is prudent to promote the dialogue of knowledge that facilitates the interaction of water. scientific, empirical and ancestral or traditional knowledge regarding the use and management of water in harmony with the environment. The complexity of the sustainable management of water in Colombia has to do not only with cultural aspects but also with issues of economic, political and even of armed conflict that for years have influenced agricultural development.

This complexity makes it difficult to identify the role played by peasant communities and ethnic groups in particular on practices for effective water management; as if they are observed in other countries of America specifically the Andean countries.

There is evidence of water management not precisely in the face of scarcity but aimed at coping with floods and adaptation to climate change, this is the case of the Project for the reduction of flood risk and adaptation to climate change in La Mojana. It is a region located on the Colombian Caribbean coast, comprising one of the most complex water deltas in the world as it collects the inflows of three of the most important rivers in Colombia such as the Cauca, San Jorge and Magdalena rivers (Brazo de Loba). This region comprises 11 municipalities that are part of 4 departments.

This is a project of integral intervention for the reduction of flood risk in the region of La Mojana and its objective is to develop actions that lead to a better adaptation of its inhabitants to the environmental and hydro-meteorological conditions, as well as to the social characteristics and economic in the region.

These types of initiatives are aimed at improving the living conditions of the farmers and aim to reduce the poverty conditions in which they live.

• On the other hand, as a second example, related to Soil and Water Management, Colombia is a coffee producing country in different regions. The guild of coffee growers establishes a series of Recommendations for the adequate management of water for Colombian coffee zones, based on the postulate that the proper management of water in crops, drainages and buildings contributes to reduce the risk of occurrence of landslides and erosion, for this reason the following recommendations are given:

• Avoid building and living in areas of high risk, such as those traditionally flooded (IDEAM, 2010)

• Channel the waters coming from the roofs of houses and other constructions, and lead them to a protected natural drainage; check hoses, water pipes, sewers and in case of finding water leaks, changing or repairing them, as well as tanks or water reservoirs; Periodic maintenance of the septic tanks and conduct the overflow waters to a protected site.

• Do not divert or clog sewers or drains, maintain natural drainage or beds of well protected glens with live plant material, always maintain a buffer zone with dense vegetation on the banks of the water sources, be careful with accumulation of rainwater in coffee plantations or in different places, since this can generate mass movements, monitor the flow of rivers, streams and drains, a decrease in the normal flow can mean that a dam is being formed upstream (IDEAM, 2010).

Maintain the soil with coverings, carry out the integrated management of weeds in their crops (Hincapié and Salazar, 2007).

What terminology would be the most appropriate to classify them impartially in the compilation? (for example, indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples, knowledge of the community or local knowledge systems ...).

The practices of rural communities in agriculture, including those related to water management to mitigate their scarcity in the drought seasons, in my opinion, are part of popular wisdom, which is the product of intuition, of one's own experience and of The need of human groups to adapt to the environments where they live have developed to survive, in most cases they are effective.

The rural communities of the world being in their various indigenous cases, do not always correspond to this ethnic group, there are also Afro-descendants, mestizos and Rhom or gypsy communities, for that reason I propose that from the semantic point of view they should not associate only with the indigenous communities but that could be called traditional knowledge or local knowledge, since they arise from their own knowledge, from their customs, value systems, beliefs that are called popular, they do not derive from the paradigm of the scientific method.


Mylene Rodríguez Leyton

Professor Investigator Metropolitan University of Barranquilla

Nutrition and Dietetics Program

Group of feeding and human behavior

Alternate wetting and drying (Tar-Watar) is commonly practiced in many crops particularly in rice in Pakistan as usually flooded conditions are difficult to maintain through out growing season. This improves growth, yield and stabilize quality. Now rice is being propagated by direct seeded method in many parts, also irrigated by tar-watar method and under growing water scarcity in Pakistan, it will complement to existing water crisis in Pakistan and also to stabilize the rice prices including quality due to reduced cost of production.

In 2013, SADC, through the Global Water Partnership (GWP), conducted a study on Local Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices (LIKSP) and how they contribute to enhancing climate resilience of communities in the SADC region.The study produced country reports as well as a regional report.

Although I have no online access to either national or reports, an online article on this is available on the GWP-SA website here,… .

I have no doubt that GWP-Southern Africa would be willing to share the findings if not the full report.


Qandelihle Simelane

The current situation of water resources and their uses in the southeast of Tunisia presents some stakes that are common to many regions of the Mediterranean basin. Limited water resources are widely used to meet the growing need and increasing commodification of resources, which required the implementation of Natural Based Techniques for the valorization of runoff water with the protection of downstream villages from floods. There are several traditional and modern of rainwater Harvesting (RWH) techniques currently used. However, the most important traditional RWH techniques in the southeast of Tunisia are the "Jessour" and the “cisterns” which conserve water for irrigation during drought season and protecting the downstream villages from flooding during rainfall exceptional events (…

P.B. Dharmasena

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, people have been practicing irrigated rice cultivation using small tanks, which are found mostly as clusters known as tank cascade systems.

There are 1,162 such cascade systems functioning at present in the dry and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka. They traditionally utilize water resource in an integrated manner. The rice is cultivated below these tanks with the influence of groundwater raised due to these water bodies. They cultivate according to rainy seasons taking maximum benefit of rainfalls. Tank water has been released during the major rainy season only when the crop is not supported from groundwater and rainfalls during dry spells.

This practice could save major portion of the tank water for subsequent minor season, where rainfall is too small. some tanks built up in the upper area of the cascade system can release water to lower tanks in any emergency, when the crop is affected with water scarcity during the minor season. This system is operational even at present, however silting of the tanks due to soil erosion has led to reduce its potential.

Dr. P.B. Dharmasena,
Former National Consultant of FAO (Agriculture and Water Management)


Bonsoir à tous,

La Martinique est un petit bout de France située dans les Caraibes, nous bénéficions donc d'un climat tropical.

Trouvez ci-joint ma contribution pour ce qui concerne :

- Récupération de l'eau (et pratiques de stockage)

Je me souviens que mes ancêtres avaient pour coutume de stocker l'eau des pluies, dans des contenants diverses et variés (Vase en terre cuite, fût en bois, fût en plastique, bidon en plastique, calebasse, ...etc.) en fonction de la période, de leur capacité, et de leur niveau social.

Très souvent, ces contenants étaient couvert pour protèger l'eau.

Pour l'assainissement de cette eau, ils faisaient usage, de matières naturelles comme le charbon de bois et/ou le souffre, qu'ils laissaient au fond du récipient.

Ces pratiques jugées à l'époque archaiques  avaient été abandonnées au profit de la modernité de l'évolution du monde et des cultures.

En 2018, les pratiques ancestrales en matière de stockage sont de nouveaux à l'ordre du jour même si elles ont été quelques peu revisitées.

En effet, les modalités de la nouvelle feuille de route en matière de développement durable transversal (ODD6 : Eau propre et assainissement) reprises par le Ministère de la transition écologique et solidaire de la France, recommande dans le cadre de l'amélioration de la gestion, de la préservation des ressources naturelles, notamment de l'eau en cas de sécheresse, l'option de citernes pour les usages domestiques.

Des aides d'états sont allouées pour permettre à chacun de posséder une citerne (aux normes sanitaires européennes) pour le stockage de l'eau des pluies.


Dear all,

Martinique is a French territory located in the Caribbean, so we have a tropical climate.

Find enclosed my contribution to those whom it may concern:

- Water recovery (and storage methods)

I remember that my ancesters had the habit of keeping the rain water, in several different kinds of containers (clay pots, wooden and plastic barrels, plastic buckets, gourds, etc.) according to the season, their capacity and their social level.

Very often, these containers were covered to protect the water.

For the purification of this water, they used natural substances like wood charcoal and/or sulphur, which they left at the bottom of the receptacle.

These practices considered old fashioned at the time have been abandoned in line with the modernization of the evolution of the world and customs.

In 2018, these old ways of storing are again in general use even if they have been a bit modernized.

In fact, the methods of the new roadmap in terms of transverse sustainable development (SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation) adopted by the Ministry of Ecological and Inclusive Transition, recommend in the context of improving the management and preservation of natural resources, in particular water in case of drought, the option of cisterns for household use.

State assistance is provided for to allow everyone to have a cistern (conforming to European sanitary norms) for the storage of rain water.