A pumping station in Niger.

The inside of a pumping station in the neighbourhood of Niamey/Niger.
Photo: ZEF/Sarah Verleysdonk

Can irrigation improve nutrition?

Irrigation holds a potential to improve nutrition, although factors such as water pollution have to be considered. New insights were presented at ZEF by IFPRI’s Claudia Ringler in early October.

One in three people world-wide suffer from malnutrition. Around 822 million are undernourished, while roughly two billion, or 30 per cent of the global population, have a micronutrient deficiency, and two billion are overweight. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 22 per cent of all children under the age of five years were stunted in 2018, with stunting also affecting brain development among many of them. Clearly, Sustainable Development Goal 2, aiming at ending hunger and achieving food security and improved nutrition, is not on track. Claudia Ringler, Deputy Division Director of the Environment & Production Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), looked at entry points to achieve SDG 2 through water in a presentation at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn/Germany.

With a third of the population world-wide experiencing water shortage, SDG 6 – ensuring access to safe water sources and sanitation for all – is obviously not making sufficient progress either. More than half of all households have unsafe and difficult access to water. Ringler maintains that addressing this issue can contribute both to better health in general and to reducing malnutrition. But she also points to irrigation as a means to support better nutrition.

Key elements of linkages between irrigation and nutrition include food production, agricultural income, water access and women’s empowerment, but also water pollution. Irrigated kitchen gardening is a good example of multiple benefits through irrigation regarding improved nutrition and saving labour time.

A study presented by Ringler in Stockholm/Sweden this year looks at results from small-scale farmer-led irrigation schemes in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana. Activities focused on the self-provision of and access to water involving a range of technologies at individual, household or group level. Water was used for various purposes, and high-value crops featured often. No expensive technologies were involved, although IFPRI provided small credits for farmers taking part.

Poor irrigation equipment in various African countries

In Ghana, for example, water was obtained mainly manually, with buckets, whereas in Tanzania, alongside such basic equipment, hoses and cheap pumps were used. Overall, the small-scale systems appeared to be more profitable compared to large-scale systems that were poorly managed. Irrigators in Ghana grew more vegetables and generally consumed more nutritious food, although some of it was purchased through sales of their own produce. Irrigation appeared to have had no adverse health effects. In Tanzania, too, the schemes appeared to have had a positive impact on households.

Ethiopia is experiencing considerable population pressure, leading largely to conversion of pastureland into cropland. Furthermore, the supply of energy, proteins, vitamin C, calcium and other nutrients is highly dependent on seasons. Still, childhood wasting appeared to have been somewhat reduced through the irrigation schemes.

Sub-Saharan Africa is generally suffering from low agricultural productivity and negative impacts of climate change. Just six per cent of Africa’s total cultivated area is irrigated, compared to Asia’s 37 per cent and Latin America’s 14 per cent. And two thirds of this irrigated area is in Egypt, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa and Sudan. In 2017, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for just 3.5 per cent of the continent’s irrigated land.

Climate change and water pollution must be considered

Ringler maintains that more research is required to establish the impact of irrigation on nutrition. Also, the effects of climate change on water-related systems, nutrition and health need to be taken into account. And she calls for more efforts to tackle agricultural water pollution as well as the pollution of wastewater, which in itself should be seen as a valuable resource.

The World Bank is now monitoring nutrition indicators of water projects. Ringler emphasises that while food availability is growing, the environmental sustainability of crops has to be ensured and food waste must be reduced. Furthermore, she calls for more research into gender and social aspects in water and nutrition linkages.

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany