Water smart agriculture
Women farmers are using water smart techniques to sustainably increase crop yields, whilst maintaining vital soil ecosystems in Ghana, Malawi and Mali. In these drought-prone countries, establishing water-efficient practices helps to improve smallholder farmers’ access to water and increase the resilience of their livelihoods and local ecosystems.
An initiative promoting the use of water smart agriculture (WaSA) technologies and practices in Ghana, Malawi and Mali aims to enable a minimum of 40,000 smallholder farmers to improve their access to water for production, so that they are able to sustain their livelihoods and remain food secure in the context of climate variability. Launched by CARE International in 2016, the 3-year WaSA through Pathways programme is based on the premise that smallholder farmers will achieve greater food security through more sustainable access to and productive use of water. The initiative works directly with thousands of small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are women, to provide access to WaSA tools and knowledge.
The benefits of WaSA practices are threefold. Measures such as minimum tillage, the use of compost manure and the vetiver system – which involves planting vetiver grass hedgerows to create natural terraces that trap silt and ensure water run-off goes into the soil and crop root systems – improve soil structure and reduce erosion. As well as being soil smart, these techniques, together with other WaSA practices such as the use of small-scale irrigation systems, ensure the efficient and equitable use of water and help to enhance food security by increasing crop yields; for instance, farmers using the vetiver system have increased yields by 30%.
In Malawi, 112 extension workers have been trained in WaSA practices and 42 farmer field business schools have active demonstration plots showcasing improved water management techniques, including mulching, tied ridges and Zai pits. Whilst crops are generally planted in two rows either side of ridges and furrows to collect water on sloping land in the tied ridge approach, Zai pit planting involves growing crops in pits 20-30 cm in length and 10-20 cm in depth, which are dug in the soil 60-80 cm apart prior to planting to harvest rainwater and hold mulch or compost. The compost helps to improve soil fertility and restore degraded dryland by increasing the soil’s water infiltration and retention capacity – every 1% of organic matter can hold 185,000 l of plant-available water per hectare. Farmers using Zai pits have reported 79% higher yields, and 47% of participants in Malawi have committed to adopting the practice by the end of 2017.
So far, 4,500 farmers, more than 4,000 of whom are women, have participated in WaSA training in the Malawian districts of Dowa and Kasungu. “WaSA practices in Malawi are enhancing natural resources management and improving the soil structure to better store water, ensuring that even during extended dry spells, plants have access to water,” states Charles Mkangara, agriculture coordinator, WaSA through Pathways Malawi. He adds that, “In the medium- and long-term, this will help farmers produce more per unit area and improve household food and nutrition security.” An additional 4,400 farmers, mostly women, in Ghana and Mali have been trained in WaSA techniques, including 423 Ghanaian farmers who have received training in small-scale irrigation technologies to help improve their access to and efficient use of water for production during the dry season.
“In Mali, farmers face major constraints on production, including soil and water availability. In fact, in the Bandiagara area, only 10% of land is cultivable. Most of the lands are unproductive, infertile and vulnerable to drought,” explains Mamadou Fotigui Coulibaly, programme manager for WaSA through Pathways, Mali. However, smallholder farmers have been using the rock line approach to restore the soil in some degraded areas. Stones are laid along the contour line of the land to be reclaimed, which helps to reduce erosion, increase water infiltration and enable plant regeneration so that the soil becomes fertile enough for agricultural use. This approach has so far enabled smallholders to reclaim 41 ha of degraded land in Mali.