Home > Basin > Andes > Closing the Income Gap: Reflections from World Water Week

Back from Stockholm World Water Week, which for its 22nd edition was focused for the first time on “water and food security”, I feel a combination of satisfaction and frustration.

Satisfaction because our findings on sustainable intensification and diversification, as well as benefit-sharing, are at the cutting-edge of solutions being proposed to address today’s complex agricultural and water challenges. Our program’s outputs and outcomes received much recognition, especially in the ‘Rainfed Production under Growing Rain Variability’ workshop, but also indirectly by way of IWMI receiving this year’s Stockholm Water Prize.

I was happy to see the water-food-energy (WFE) nexus, a concept that CPWF is helping to develop, feature prominently in several events. The link between our work and the WFE nexus was perfectly underscored in the ‘Towards a Green Economy’ workshop when the event concluded with the message, “There is no sustainability without sharing.” CPWF work in the Volta was well represented through posters on resilience assessment and modeling, as well as the findings of an extensive agricultural water management assessment. Presentations from our Nile basin activities showcased findings in rainwater management for sustainable intensification, ecosystem services contribution to social-ecological resilience  and integrated rainwater management strategies. A CPWF-Andes project was also highlighted through a presentation on the use of conversatorios to promote benefit-sharing amongst water users.

But I also left feeling frustrated because the dominant vision in agricultural water management remains one of looking at crops, not considering diversification, nor livestock and fisheries. Moreover, the focus—be it during the World Water Week workshop on rainfed production or in a recent paper in Nature—is on crop yields and not the income generated for farmers.

CPWF experience shows that market incentives are the engine that drives the adoption of sustainable technologies such as conservation agriculture or rainwater harvesting. That said we also have to consider more than just agricultural productivity. As shown by IFAD, agriculture activities represent only a fraction of household income. Livestock, fisheries and non-timber forest product collection, along with off-farm activities, also contribute to household income. CPWF experience demonstrates the many facets of successful agricultural intensification and livelihoods improvement. Examples include dairy farming intensification in Colombia (Nariño) or local markets for goats in Zimbabwe.

Strangely, and perhaps more striking: despite repeated warnings, including from Johan Rockström, many speakers at World Water Week talked about climate change in terms of averages, be it of temperatures, rainfall or yield decreases. It is now well documented that the bigger threat to the rural poor is the future climate variability that makes today’s solutions ineffective. There is a need to develop unexplored water interventions that can account for future variability. Developing climate smart agriculture and hydro-literacy of poor communities are just two of the approaches that we can offer the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, as well as other organizations.

What sort of engines and climate smart solutions can we identify during the remaining last year of CPWF that can serve as part of our legacy? Contributions are welcome.

Alain Vidal




  1. Spot on Alain! Too much single-minded focus on crops. It’s all they know. Shake ‘em up if you can.

    • Alain Vidal says:

      Thanks Terry! Indeed, with a rough figure of only half of farm income coming from crops (a share observed at least in Africa and the Mekong), and on-farm activities representing 40-60% of poor rural households’ income (IFAD Poverty Report 2011), focusing on crops means focusing on only 25% of these households’ income.

  2. Doug Merrey says:

    We all agree, but it is very difficult to change mindsets of people [including researchers]. You should keep using your bully pulpit on this, but perhaps the CPWF researchers also need to think more out of the box. Still, it seems to me the Stockholm Water Week has succeeded in putting water for agriculture [inclusive use] more firmly into the global dialogue.

  3. Francois Onimus says:

    Thanks Alain, this is indeed a useful blog. Indeed the issue of technology uptake is a crucial one, and I also like the associated blog from Terry on the topic.
    I suppose the problem lies as much (or more) with the performance of extension services as with that of researchers. But indeed we get this question as development practitioner in agricultural water: why is it that solutions developed by IWMI over the years are not adopted?
    The question reaches also to the type of model that is proposed to the farmers: productivity through specialization (e.g. the increased crop yield) or through diversification and integration of various activities? And the follow up question then becomes: is the integrated smallholder farm production system competitive in the current environment, and under what conditions?
    Finally, let’s keep in mind that the vast majority of the farmer population (in Africa at least) did not chose to be farmer, they just do not have other opportunity. The target for the researcher and the extension services should probably be on those farmers who really want to make their main living out of their farm (including this woman raising three goats)?