Drip irrigation: Not a Perfect Solution
Policy makers welcome drip irrigation as an ideal way to reduce water scarcity and poverty. This project, focusing on Burkina Faso and Morocco, found a gap between these high expectations and reality and focused on understanding why this is not made known.
Drip irrigation may not be the miracle cure for poverty and water scarcity that it is perceived to be. Only few smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa continued using the low-cost version of the technology after external support ended. Besides, only some farmers who adopt and use the technology realise water savings, whereas increases in productivity often come at high social and environmental costs. The technology is part of a larger intensification of agriculture, which provokes the exploitation of small farmers by big companies. Surprisingly, the use of the technology also bears the risk of increasing the gender gap. Given these questionable development impacts, why do policy makers and other actors keep up the image of a miracle solution?
The main question that the project results raises: will negative impacts of new technologies be made known if there are powerful interests at stake and large sums of money involved in presenting them in a positive way? In the case of drip irrigation there is a strong and powerful coalition to keep silent about the down sides of drip irrigation. Discussions about the technology are clouded in a selective and very strategic ignorance by a range of actors, with policy makers emphasizing the technology’s potential to save water, increase the efficiency of use, or improve water productivity. They also expect that low-cost, easy to use drip kits contribute to poverty reduction among smallholder farmers in developing countries.
Most actors engaged in drip irrigation prefer to remain quiet about its contribution to the further depletion of water basins and its failure to help poor farmer families. The reason for turning a blind eye is that there are many other interests that drip irrigation helps meeting. Not only is the sale of drip irrigation a very profitable business, but promoting drip irrigation also helps development organisations stay in business. Therefore these NGOs, say the researchers in their article A Wakeup Call from the Drip Dream, “often act as suppliers of drip irrigation kits without giving much critical attention to whether and how such kits are used by farmers.” Besides, drip irrigation can bring parties with very opposing political agendas together. It unites for example those lobbying for water-saving and those promoting agricultural intensification.
But what about the expected positive effects of drip irrigation? Even when drip is successfully adopted, it brings about societal transformations which are questionable from both developmental and ethical perspectives. Drip irrigation is much more capital-intensive than traditional farming, relying on the further exploitation of both human and natural resources. For example, thanks to drip-irrigation farmers can switch to water-intensive high-value crops. The technology also increases the influence of global private actors, who often marginalize smallholder farmers. For the small low-cost version of drip irrigation, the project revealed early on that only few, if any, farmers continued using the technology after external support ended. Actual gains of drip irrigation - in terms of water savings and increases in productivity - are only realised in some places and by some smallholder farmers. Low water quality and water pressure are among the causes, but more important is that many farmers choose using the technology not for saving water but for extending areas irrigated – as drip irrigation allows irrigating on slopes.
Increasing the gender gap
Discussions on technologies such as drip irrigation often remain technical (see article at the UNESCO-IHE website). But is a political issue where the saved water goes to and who benefits and who loses out when the technology is introduced. What is moreover easily overlooked is that cultural settings influence this. The use of new water technologies - such as drip irrigation - allows some farmers to position themselves as 'modern.' By using advanced drip systems, male youngsters are given the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their fathers, with their clean and high-tech way of farming. For girls it is more difficult to positively associate with this new technology. So the technology might increase the gender gap in an unexpected way.
The members of the interdisciplinary research team developed a common theoretical framework and language for the entire project. In particular the continued insistence to focus on what technologies ‘do’ in their context of implementation (rather than on what they are) turned out to be helpful. It formed a relatively straightforward way to talk across disciplines and cases.
drip irrigation, smallholder farmers, drip kits, developing countries, developing countries, water scarcity, agriculture, Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty reduction, Burkina Faso, MoroccoOfficial project title: