Groundwater livelihood and poverty

Groundwater use in SSA clearly contributes to livelihood through agricultural production - in the form of irrigation supply, livestock support and drought mitigation and in domestic supplies as outlined above. In the context of SSA, the benefits of groundwater use likely accrue primarily to the poor, because they make up the vast majority of rural agricultural producers. While the general connections between groundwater, livelihood and poverty in SSA are clear, quantifying the role that agricultural groundwater use plays in poverty alleviation and livelihood support is difficult.

Small rural communities in many southern and east African countries make use of groundwater from shallow aquifer systems associated with wetlands to produce crops both for household consumption and sale. In surveys carried out in about 20 communities across the southern African region,2 wetland crop production contributed up to 50% of household food, and more than 50% of total annual household income (Masiyandima et a/., 2004). If we assume that 20% of the wetland systems in Zambia and Malawi are cultivated for such uses, about 600,000 ha are under cultivation. At an average annual household gross income of about $200/ha, the total gross income from such groundwater use is estimated to be well over $100 million. This can be compared to a value of $50-55 billion for the irrigation economy of India (Shah, Chapter 2, this volume).

While recognition of groundwater use in SSA wetlands is generally low, it is in fact better recognized than other small-scale uses of groundwater. In general, data on this sector are often limited and data on groundwater use, in particular that related to small-scale uses by poor farmers, are often non-existent as already discussed. Even government departments responsible for groundwater sometimes do not seem to have accurate information regarding the groundwater situation. While information from some government agencies indicates that the area under smallholder irrigation in South Africa is quite small (Nel, 2004, Pretoria, South Africa personal communication),3 Busari and Sotsaka (2001) found that there is at least one community garden in each of the 70 villages around the Giyani area in the Limpopo basin, with gardens ranging in area from 1 to 25 ha. Community gardens are also to be found in many other villages across the Limpopo province. In 2001, the Limpopo province Department of Agriculture had a database with some of the community gardens irrigated with groundwater.4 On the basis of pumping hours and pump discharges detailed in the database, abstraction for irrigating community gardens is estimated at about 3 million cubic metres annually, less than 2% of the reported groundwater abstraction for irrigation in the Limpopo water management area.5 While this use may appear extremely modest from a water-accounting standpoint, it plays a significant role in the lives of the farmers who use it, enabling them to produce food and reduce their dependence on government and donor agencies for food.

In considering the impact of groundwater on livelihood and poverty in SSA, it is important to consider the costs associated with the use of groundwater, particularly drilling and operation and maintenance of equipment. In comparison with India, and perhaps other regions, such costs are high in SSA. Drilling costs, though variable across the continent, are still largely prohibitive. Wurzel (2001) estimated the average drilling cost in Africa to be $100/m, more than tenfold that in India. In 1996, borehole drilling costs were approximately $37/m in Mozambique while in Lesotho it was $23/m (Wurzel, 2001). In Zimbabwe drilling costs were estimated to be about $40/m in 2004 (Masiyandima, forthcoming). Combining these costs with the poor drilling success rate for boreholes (common in hard-rock areas), the cost of development of groundwater may still be difficult to justify in many places, even for targeted use such as rural domestic water supply.

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