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Home > Blogs > Director's Blog > Making Our Research Relevant to the People That Matter in the Volta and Niger Basins

After months of planning, the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) is taking its first step toward an integrated approach for research and development. At the end of May, WLE will hold the Volta and Niger Basins Consultation and Design Workshop, the first in a series designed to develop integrated focal region approaches in the Volta/Niger, Nile/Eastern Africa and Indus/Ganges regions. The workshops will bring together key regional experts and partners to begin designing integrated and coherent regional level programs over the course of the year. The Volta/Niger workshop will take place at the end of May in Accra.

We would like to congratulate WLE for taking this first step, which will be one on a long journey, but one that we believe will result in more impact in the long-term. We would also like to share some of the lessons from our own CPWF journey that has, in many ways, been similar.


photo credit: ILRI

The development of the Volta and Niger regional focal programs will be the first opportunity for WLE to show the outside world its plans for integration of its strategic research portfolios, i.e. to demonstrate its potential relevance to the very people and the environments it is hoping to impact. Currently, the five WLE research programs propose a lot of silo’ed solutions ‚ often working in isolation of each other and determined by the researchers. They are not focused on addressing specific problems identified by, first and foremost, the people most affected and secondly, those most influential in bringing about change in a given geographical area.

CPWF’s first phase took a similar silo’ed approach. We quickly found that projects worked with immediate, identified partners but not with the wider development community. We also learned that we needed to include not just research partners but also boundary partners in the design and development of the program. If we wanted to focus on behavior and practice changes, those targeted had to be part of the design, not only viewed as beneficiaries or targets.

We encourage WLE to build upon what already exists. Indeed, our combined CPWF and IWMI experience in the Volta Basin is appreciable. If we consider what we have learnt from CPWF Phase 2 in the Volta (where our research aims to strengthen integrated management of rainwater and small reservoirs so that they can be used equitably and for multiple purposes) we see that:

  • First, there have been clearly identified successes in innovations that contribute to climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification: soil-water conservation, small reservoirs and small pumps are the best examples in the Volta. That said, there have also been failures, most often related to insufficient attention to the cultural and gender dimensions of innovations and socio-economic realities. Grappling with power-dynamics and institutional change alongside technical innovations has proved hard. The latter is an important lesson learnt that probably applies beyond the Volta Basin as well.
  • Second, working with the International Livestock Research Institute alongside INERA and SNV, we have established that linking rainfed crop-livestock farming with market value chains through innovation platforms is a very promising approach to unlock intensification in the drier areas of the region.
  • Third, of the six river basins where CPWF works, the Volta is probably the one where we have progressed the furthest on developing a resilience analysis and applying it holistically across our work in the basin. This type of framework helps evaluate common threads driving or limiting innovations, such as the possibly rapid degradation of water quality in small reservoirs and how it could threaten dependent livestock and fisheries as well as crop irrigation downstream. For example, CPWF research observed macrophyte proliferation in the Boura reservoir in Burkina Faso, and related this to previous research having found cyanobacteria (potentially harmful microalgae) in almost all water bodies in the White Volta Basin. The project concluded that sustained use of pesticides as well as current agricultural practices represent fundamental challenges to the preservation of water quality in the 1700 small reservoirs of the basin. (A statement that is probably true for the 5000 small reservoirs of the Niger basin as well).

While we have not worked as extensively on the Niger, CPWF did conduct some Phase 1 projects in the Niger, including the Niger Basin Focal Project (see also Water International’s article on Niger Basin Focal Project).

Finally, we believe WLE must take seriously its mandate to work on agroecosystems and gender and diversity.

The resilience of the region‚ agroecosystems and the possible quick regime changes that may occur when critical systems pass currently unidentified thresholds will certainly be issues of major concern to decision-makers in the Niger and Volta region. For instance, the expansion of the Office du Niger irrigation project will result in a decreased flood in the Inner

photo credit: ILRI

photo credit: ILRI

Delta wetlands (the largest wetlands and multi-use systems in Africa, at three million hectares). How will this affect the Inner Delta‚ one million rice growers, herders and fishers? How will it change water use for the downstream users of Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria? Who better to answer these questions, and propose others, than people facing the challenges themselves?

Likewise it is imperative that we begin to harness a better understanding of gender and diversity dynamics (mentioned above) as a way to unlock successful pathways to development. Both the Volta and Niger are incredibly diverse areas with a strong history of embedded exclusion. One CPWF Volta project used role-playing games with the objective of facilitating
multi-level negotiations over water management. We observed that the women present were not really participating in representing their landscape activities on the board games. Men would place all the stickers on the board without consideration for or giving a chance to the women, who merely looked on as observers. When the project leader proposed to color code stickers and preserve pink stickers for women only, with men having no right to touch them, the entire dynamic of the game change instantly.

The group was suddenly able to identify key activities (e.g. guinea fowl rearing) and crops (sunflower production) that were predominantly female-oriented but had been missing on the board game. May this anecdote help us remember how the tools we use are potentially critical in revealing nuanced features that would otherwise go unnoticed, and help us listen to the stakeholders we will engage with at the WLE Consultation and Design Workshop.

The Volta and Niger Basins Consultation and Design Workshop will be a key tipping point for the WLE program. We hope it will chart a course forward towards a program that:

  1. Is created around the needs and opportunities identified by people within the basin and builds upon what is already there, focusing on how researchers’ solutions can address real world problems and make a serious contribution to one of the most chronically poor regions of the world.
  2. Recognizes that agriculture relies on ecosystems.
  3. Is designed, and implemented, to take into account the role of gender and diversity, as this is key to addressing local problems.

If these considerations are not integrated into its design then we believe WLE may continue to be but a collection of thematic approaches. In the run up to the Volta and Niger Basins Consultation and Design Workshop, we would like to encourage others to add their ideas and thoughts. What do you see as being essential to the discussions?


Alain Vidal, CPWF Director

Amanda Harding, CPWF Management Team