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Home > Basin > Andes > Basin Focal Project (PN54)


The Basin Focal Projects of the Challenge Program for Water and Food provided strategic insight of the links between water, food and poverty in river basins. Based on the best scientific analysis within ten River Basins these projects answered the following key questions:

  1. How much water is there?
  2. Who uses the water? Irrigators, rainfed agriculture? Livestock systems? How much flow remains?
  3. How well is water used? What is its water productivity? What do we know about the eco-efficiency of water use systems?
  4. What is known about the Institutions that manage food and water systems?
  5. What are the impacts of water use patterns on poverty and livelihoods in Africa, Asia and Latin America?

In essence, the BFPs define ‘blueprints’ for each of the CPWF basins. They translate the global goals of the CPWF into specific research objectives for each basin, while maintaining coherence of the program through common methodologies. Through whole-basin analysis of hydrology and poverty, coupled with more detailed analysis of livelihood support systems, each research project defines specific problems of water and agriculture, the people they affect, the areas over which they occur. Further analysis identifies potential opportunities for impact through research from both existing and future projects. An essential part of the BFP effort is to identify the pathways to impact from projects, in collaboration with the institutions that will deliver it.

The relationship between water, agriculture and poverty
  • Water poverty: The loss of livelihood support that occurs as a result of water-related factors. This occurs as a result of either poor water availability or low productivity (i.e. poor conversion), or both.
  • Water availability: Measured crudely as the per capita availability within countries (UNECA, 2004). People who have access to less than 1700 m3/capita per year are regarded as water stressed. Those with less than 1000 m3 /yr are regarded as water scarce. Agriculture is the dominant user of water.
  • Agricultural water productivity: Measurable as the net gain per volume of water consumed. Typical figures for WP are (for irrigated rice) a little under 0.2 kg/m3 and (for wheat) about 0.8km/m3 (Kijne et al., 2005). To maintain a cereal intake of around 250kg/person, which is the average for South Asia (Dyson, 1999), at the present levels of water productivity, rice growers would need to be guaranteed about 1250 m3 /capita of water.
  • Food security: One way water supports livelihoods. Other demands for water are also increasing. In addition, there is a growing recognition of the need to maintain essential river functions through environmental flows.
  • Low water productivity can occur because the water resource is regarded as of low cost users lack other resources such as land, infrastructure, fertilizer or credit that are essential to enable most productive use because the water resource itself is highly uncertain and difficult to manage
Generic solutions to increase overall water productivity include moving water to situations in which it is more likely to produce benefit and increasing water productivity in situ, through better agronomy or risk management.Specific solutions are often highly complex. Many are described in the CPWF research portfolio.
Research Highlights
The BFPs provide insight into the global condition of water, food and poverty, disaggregated in sufficient detail to support intervention within river basins. Some of the insights emerging include:

  • Relationships among water, food and poverty are variable, subtle and complex. The relationships between twin pressures on water and food depend on the overall development status, condition of water resources and characteristic of the agricultural system. A simple 5-class concept of water-related poverty has been posted for discussion here
  • The simplistic notion that “water scarcity increases poverty” is rarely adequate. It is true that some people are pushed into poverty as a consequence of water scarcity. More often, however, the ability to access, organize or exploit water and land resources seems more influential than total availability.
  • Poverty is increased by inequitable development of land and water resources. Lack of access is more important than total water availability. This remains true even in industrialized economies. For example, some people have been left behind in poverty within the Sao Francisco – an otherwise prosperous and (relatively) “water-rich” basin.
  • The loss of pre-existing livelihood support due to inequitable water and land governance is common and often under-reported. It tends to affect the poorest, such as those who rely on fish in the Mekong, or on livestock in the Nile, Volta or Niger. These people often lack a voice.
  • People are poor when they are unprotected against water-related hazards, such as drought, flood or water-related disease. The ability to cope, or even exploit, the “hazard” is more important than the hazard itself. For example in the Limpopo, floods are feared, especially after the catastrophic flood in 200. Conversely, many people depend on annual Mekong floods.
  • Water productivity – that is, the conversion rate of water into food – is generally very low. This is true almost everywhere in rain-fed systems. This is both bad news; the situation seems widespread, and good: there is ample scope for improvements which will lead to improvement of the common good.
  • Estimates suggest the potential water productivity of wheat is approximately 2 kg/m3, but it is rare to find systems with productivity greater than 0.4 or 0.6 kg/m3 (major exceptions occur in parts of the Ganges, Yellow River and Nile delta). This is the case for many other staple foods such as rice, sorghum or millet.
  • Water use accounting indicates that grassland systems dominate water use globally. In African basins, this importance is even more pronounced. Grassland systems in the Limpopo, Nile and Volta process by far the largest volume of water passing through the basins (52%, 45%, and 80%), yet much less is known about how such systems support rural livelihoods, even in the Nile, where the vast majority of people depend on livestock for an important part of their livelihood. More recent analysis of livestock water productivity indicates that these systems can be relatively efficient and valuable converters of water into livelihood support.
  • Runoff in relatively dry basins is less than 15% of rainfall received. By contrast, in the Mekong, a relatively wet basin, annual runoff is almost 40% of total water balance. This delivers an estimated average of 440 bcm of water to the system, which supports an aquatic environment over much of the basin on which most (estimated at 65%) of the population depend.