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Interdependence of Technical, Institutional and Policy Innovation


The ability of technical innovations to generate meaningful benefits depends on whether they are accompanied by institutional or policy innovations





From the beginning, the CPWF focused on problems of water, food and livelihoods. At first, we defined these problems in terms of water scarcity and water productivity. Later, we defined them in terms of water-related basin development challenges. In either case, we sought ways to address them through technical, institutional or policy innovation.  What we did not expect was the strength of the interdependence among these three categories of innovation.

What do we mean by interdependence? We mean that the ability of technical innovations to generate meaningful benefits depends on whether they are accompanied by institutional or policy innovations. These links go well beyond merely placing technical change in a “supportive institutional and policy environment” – it actually means that all three are evolving at the same time, and in ways that reinforce each others’ effectiveness.


A simple example of interdependence is found in CPWF work on “slash and mulch” farm systems on rainfed hillsides in Central America. Traditional “slash and burn” systems resulted in rapid loss of soil cover, fertility and moisture-holding capacity, making farm fields vulnerable to drought (low rainfall) and mudslides (high rainfall or tropical storms). In contrast “slash and mulch” provided soil cover and raised soil fertility and moisture-holding capacity.

However, “slash and mulch” was incompatible with burning of soil cover. Adoption of “slash and mulch” could not be made by individual farm families. Burning of residues in one farmer’s field would spread to other fields. It was necessary for an entire community to agree to “self-enforce” a “no burning” policy: an institutional innovation. “Slash and mulch” technologies and “no-burning” policies evolved together.

Another example of interdependence is found in CPWF work on community-managed fisheries in seasonally flooded areas of Bangladesh. Improved technologies included stocking with fingerlings, mesh at water exits to reduce escapes, and careful timing of fish harvest to give time for the fish to grow. The successful introduction of these practices, however, depended on the development of complementary institutional innovations: community “self-enforcement” of fish harvest dates, and preferential access by communities to lease rights in seasonally flooded areas.

Even in straightforward projects on new varieties and fertilizer use, technical change was linked to institutional change. In Eritrea we found that village-based seed enterprises were needed to produce and distribute new varieties. Open auctions for goats in Zimbabwe was an institutional innovation that dramatically raised sales prices of goats, stimulating rapid change in goat production technologies (including production of dry season fodder) and improving the livelihoods of poor families.

More subtly, in the Mekong, technologies for recession agriculture and constructed wetlands in hydropower reservoirs were developed in conjunction with adjustments in water release rules by hydropower operators. In the Andes, technical change sometimes took the form of replacing resource degrading practices (open grazing on fragile alpine wetlands – a threat to downstream water supply) with resource conserving practices (more intensive dairy production in smaller, less vulnerable areas). However, this technical innovation was intimately connected to an institutional innovation: the development of benefit sharing mechanisms whereby groups of downstream water users could negotiate with upstream communities to agree on financial support for investments in improved highland land and water management.

The above are just a few examples. It seems that wherever we looked, co-evolution of technologies, institutions and policies was essential to success.

Browse the tabs to the left to learn more.


Use of decision support systems to improve dam planning and dam operation in Africa (Working paper)

Construction of large dams is increasing again. Modern decision support systems can usefully input to this process by guiding the analysis of complicated hydrological, environmental, social and economic factors associated with water allocation and assessing the impact of different, often conflicting, management options both in planning and operation of dams. This publication highlights the constructive role that decision support systems can play in planning and operation of dams.

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No-burn agricultural zones on Honduran hillsides: Better harvests air quality and water availability by way of improved land management (Book chapter, p.78)

Farmers practicing QSMAS can produce sufficient maize and beans to meet their household needs and sell the excess in local markets. In addition, innovative farmers are intensifying and diversifying this system by using vegetables and market-oriented cash crops, as well as raising livestock.

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Opportunity in Adversity: Collective Fish Culture in the Seasonal Floodplains of Bangladesh (Outcome story)

Past efforts to increase the productivity of seasonal floodplains have focused primarily on increasing water productivity during the dry season, when farmers are able to plant food crops. This project looked at how to increase floodplain productivity during the wet season through the use of community-based fish culture.

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Conditions for collective action: understanding factors supporting and constraining community-based fish culture in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam (Working paper)

The objective of the project was to develop locally appropriate models for fish culture in seasonal water bodies where the costs of individual aquaculture systems are prohibitive for poor people. Thus Community Based Fish Culture (CBFC) introduced local institutions for collective management of fish culture although the technical implementation of fish culture does not differ from individual production systems.

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Goat value chains as platform to improve income and food security: the case of imGoats in Inhassaro district, Mozambique (Workshop paper)

Innovation platforms are increasingly used as spaces for interaction between actors in value chains to overcome barriers to development. It involves continuous learning and capacity building – both in terms of innovation capacity and specific technical or organizational capacities. This paper aims to gain some insight in their formation and management by sharing experiences from an Innovation Platform for a goat value chain in Inhassoro District, Mozambique.

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Supporting Livelihoods with New Varieties of Cassava for the Yali Reservoir (Outcome story)

The construction of the 720 MW Yali Falls Hydropower Dam in central Vietnam created big changes for local farmers who were forced to confront new land limitations and variable water levels. One CPWF-Mekong research project set out to introduce a new variety of cassava that would thrive in the reservoirs’ fertile drawdown zone, which is exposed for seven to eight months out of the year.

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Archana’s Story: Community Based Fisheries Research from a Participant’s Perspective

Standing beside her home, a room in a homestead she shares with her extended family, Archana grins broadly as I ask her about the events of the last week. As one of four people from her village to produce the community’s first documentary film, the last 7 days have been something of a departure from the usual daily activities in Melandi village.

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The Goats that Save Water

In the Gwanda district of Zimbabwe, a diverse and active innovation platform has created a strong local market for goats, is helping raise the value of one goat from US$10 to $60. The increased value serves as an incentive for farmers to invest in the survival of their goats, by growing their own stock feed, purchasing commercial stock feed and improving rangeland management.

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Can hydropower benefit displaced communities in the Mekong?

A persistent problem in the Mekong is that misplaced and resettled river communities are unable to continue their original way of living. For example, they may lose access to cultivable land, grazing spaces for livestock, or fishing grounds, which can often mean losing an important source of income. How can new sustainable options be created for these communities?

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Uptake of integrated termite management to rehabilitate degraded land in East Africa

In degraded areas in East Africa, termites pose a major threat to agricultural crops, forestry seedlings, rangelands and wooden structures. Land rehabilitation is necessary for securing increasingly threatened feed and water resources for livestock. A Research Into Use (RIU) project was designed to identify appropriate combinations of technical and institutional options for Integrated Termite Management through a process of shared learning and innovation.

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Online Tool for Agricultural Water Management Interventions Launched

A CPWF project recently launched an online tool that will help policy makers in Africa’s Volta and Limpopo River basins target proper locations for three agricultural water management technologies: conservation agriculture, small scale irrigation and small reservoirs. The online decision support tool will help non-technical users determine what parts of the two river basins have the highest chance of success for particular water management interventions.

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Quesungual Slash Mulch Agroforestry System (QSMAS) Improving Crop Water Productivity, Food Security and Resource Quality in the Sub-Humid Tropics

This poster provides an overview of the QSMAS project background, goals, accomplishments and beneficiaries.

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Innovation platforms to improve small-scale farmers’ access to livestock services in Southern Africa

In this video, André van Rooyen describes ICRISAT's work to improve small-scale farmers' access to livestock services in Southern Africa.

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Collective action in community-based fish culture in seasonal floodplains and irrigation systems (Sourcebook article)

One CPWF project, ‘Community-based fish culture in seasonal floodplains’, focused on developing institutions for community-based management, negotiating access to floodplain resources and creating benefit- sharing arrangements. The variable success of community-based fish culture activities in the project countries led to a deeper consideration of the context and its contribution to the success or failure of collective action under differing socio- ecological conditions.

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Hydropower development and livelihoods: A quest for a balanced approach through research and partnerships (Presentation)

Hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin is advancing rapidly but very little attention is paid to constructing and operating dams in ways that benefit all water users. Riparian and displaced are often unable to engage in their original livelihood activities after dam construction. New livelihood options for these communities can be created or included in dam planning, as made evident by two pilot studies highlighted in the presentation.

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