Institutional Innovations for sustainable use of water resources within the agricultural sector in developing countries

by Zipora Awuor Otieno, Kenya, ELP 2015
Written on July 29, 2015.

Agriculture is by far the largest sector with respect to water use, accounting for about 70% of all the worldwide water withdrawn from rivers and aquifers for agricultural, domestic and industrial purposes (WWDR, 2014). In most developing countries around the world, irrigation represents up to 95% of all the withdrawn water, and plays a major role in food production and hence food security. It is projected that by the year 2020, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa may be affected by acute shortages of water, thereby reducing agricultural productivity by up to 50%. In contrast however, climate change adaptation strategies of many developing countries, especially in the arid and semi-arid tropics continue to depend heavily on the possibility of maintaining, improving and expanding irrigated agriculture; this option may not be sustainable in the long-term. Ideally, as the pressure on finite water resources increases due to rapid population growth and industrial development, irrigated agriculture continues to face growing stiff competition from other water-use sectors and is becoming a threat to the environment in more and more regions.

It is against this backdrop that water-use efficiency within the agricultural sector is becoming an increasingly important issue. As a matter of fact, climate change adaptation strategies and technologies that focus on more sustainable and efficient water-use rather than the expansion of irrigated farmlands are undoubtedly required and must be explored. Even though scientists have attempted to develop innovations aimed at increasing water-use efficiency at the farm level, most of these have been technological in nature, with very little attention to institutional innovations. In particular, previous research efforts have focused on the advancement of soil-water conservation measures such as conservation tillage. While these and other techniques have played a critical role in reducing water loss, empirical evidence suggests that the adoption and utilization of such techniques is still relatively low in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other regions. Moreover, the potential for institutional innovations in water use efficiency still remains untapped, not only in Africa but in other parts of the world as well. A clarion call to develop institutional innovations for water resource management is therefore urgently required and must be explored.

At present, many developing countries (in Africa) continue to rely heavily on rain-fed and irrigated agriculture for food production, despite the evident water scarcity threat posed by the global climate change. This trend is particularly more pronounced in sub-Saharan Africa where agriculture is the main source of livelihood for most people. In view of the predicted negative climatic developments, such adaptation measures run the risk of being inadequate, and consequently require improvement and widening. Furthermore, in several parts of the world, it is clearly evident that the finite water resources such as rivers and lakes are at risk of depletion due to over-exploitation majorly by farming-related activities. If current trends continue, such practices may lead to serious consequences for the already stressed aquifers and hydrological systems. Some of the salient questions that the aforementioned research agenda ought to address include:

  1. Are technological innovations more effective than current and emerging innovative institutional models for water resource management in the agricultural sector?
  2. What strategies can be adopted to foster large-scale adoption of institutional innovations for water resource management in the agricultural sector?
  3. What practical model can be used to analyze the adoption of innovative institutional models for water resource management at the farm level?