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Rural Women Diplomats: Mediation of a Longstanding Conflict in the Volta River Basin

This piece was originally published on the WLE Thrive Blog

Mediation of a Longstanding Conflict in the Volta River Basin

Ban Ki Moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations, has said that water should serve as a “catalyst for cooperation not conflict among communities and countries.” Citing examples in his remarks at the 2013 Budapest Water Summit, he mentioned a high-level political agreement on the Nile River Basin, regional diplomacy in Central Asia and European protection of transboundary watercourses.

If he or his successor, António Guterres, were to give the same speech today, a more complete picture of the world's catalysts for water cooperation might include smallholder women farmers from Africa's Sahel. Particularly those who play an effective role in peacefully resolving conflicts between competing uses for water. By bringing these women's important contribution out into the open, we offer an instructive example from water management of “women in the changing world of work” – the United Nations' theme of International Women's Day in 2017.

Volta villagesPhoto:Communities engaged in mixed crop-livestock production in the Volta region have been juggling differences in water use priorities for generations. Credit: Nana Kofi Acquah/IWMI.

In rural settings, women are not typically seen as political activists or public figures involved in front-line negotiations. Yet, according to a new CGIAR study, they do help resolve potential conflicts around the use and benefits of land and water, working through diplomacy and facilitation with the main parties involved. The research underlines why it is important for scientists working on smallholder farming systems to get beyond simplistic notions on gender relations, which sometimes give rise to misunderstandings about rural women’s roles and responsibilities. 

Conducted by Augustine Ayantunde of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in partnership with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the study focused on five small reservoirs in Northern Burkina Faso. The results were published recently as an IWMI Working Paper, titled “Multiple Uses of Small Reservoirs in Crop-Livestock Agro-ecosystems of the Volta River Basin with an Emphasis on Livestock Management.”

Ayantunde and his co-authors underline the need to empower local water-use associations, making the leadership more representative of those who have a stake in peaceful co-existence between the main users of the small reservoirs. The paper gives particular attention to the role of women in fostering constructive dialogue about water use among different beneficiaries. Women farmers are the main users of the small reservoirs, growing vegetables under irrigation, whereas mostly men and boys use them to water livestock, with more than 40 percent of all users under the age of 16.

Occasional flare-ups between these groups are rooted in patterns of cooperation and conflict between pastoralists and sedentary farmers (engaged in mixed crop-livestock production) that go back many generations. Their coexistence has come under increasing pressure because of rapid growth in the human population and worsening scarcity of land, water and animal fodder.

Cattle crossingPhoto: Researchers gave particular attention to the effects of livestock management practices around small reservoirs. Credit: Felix Antonio/IWMI.

In response to a series of severe droughts, governments in the Sahel began creating large numbers of small reservoirs during the 1980s. These are defined as having dams no higher than 10 meters and normally covering areas of three to 30 hectares. Intended mainly to help pastoralists, the uses for these reservoirs have diversified from watering livestock to irrigating crops, particularly high-value vegetables, as well as fishing, brick making, aquifer recharge and domestic use.

Researchers examined the dynamics involved in multiple uses of water and land around the small reservoirs, giving particular attention to the effects of livestock management practices. They observed that the main pressure points are rapid expansion of irrigated vegetable production and increasing livestock numbers, which have led to increased competition for water. Two concerns that farmers identified are the slow deterioration of small reservoir capacity resulting from sedimentation and the expansion of irrigation on land around the reservoirs, which blocks the passage of thirsty animals, causing crops to be trampled and eaten.

Much is at stake for the livelihoods of women and men, as population and environmental pressures in the Sahel continue to build. So, it is more urgent than ever to support rural women diplomats, as they pursue peace through persuasion for sustainable water use.

With funding from the European Commission and technical support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the research was conducted as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), supported by the CGIAR Fund donors.

Women collect water in west Africa
Photo: Women are the main users of small, multiple use reservoirs in the Volta River Basin. Credit: Sanjini de Silva/IWMI.