Securing water supply in the Limpopo Basin

A research project studying agricultural water management in the Limpopo Basin in South-eastern Africa is helping to maximise the use of available water and improve food security for the 14 million people living within it.

In Africa, water is a social and political issue. There are over 60 internationally shared river basins that stretch over the continent, which has implications involving the differing interests of national, regional and international entities.

The Limpopo basin covers roughly 413,000km2 or the African continent and spreads over parts of 4 countries: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Whilst the basin is characterised by heavy rains, these are unreliable, and in the semi-arid environment any rainfall quickly evaporates. People living by the major reaches of the Limpopo basin may see water flowing for only 40 days or less in a year.

Agriculture accounts for some 70% of global water use, primarily through irrigation.  In the Limpopo basin, food security is a constant problem: without a safe and sustainable use of water resources, farmers’ ability to feed themselves and their communities is greatly at risk.

Alongside irregular weather patterns, rapid urbanization and increased demands for agricultural water and land are leading to degradation of vegetation and freshwater ecosystems along the river, endangering an important source of food and income for local communities.

The Limpopo Basin Focal Project is part of a series of similar programmes around the world initiated by CGIAR’s Challenge Programme on Water and Food, led by FANRPAN and the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa (ARC). The project entails analysing the current availability and access to water, along with the management challenges faced by local communities, to develop a better knowledge base on which to improve agricultural water use efficiency.

An inequitable distribution of water resources is one of the issues that the project is addressing. Many large areas of the Basin are private holdings, allowing the owners to secure water rights, but for the majority of the people living in communal structures, tenure rights are less clear and subsequently few invest in measures to control floods and to provide a consistent water supply. Cultural, social, economic and political practices are also responsible for a history of skewed access and distribution to natural resources across the basin.

The research project aims to identify the appropriate technologies, methods and policies that can be introduced to the region to help improve sustainable water management. The project’s participants aim to provide their findings to policymakers, governments, research organisations and NGOs to ensure that each area receives the agricultural tools and innovations that will be beneficial to the local conditions and the challenges faced.

Amy Sullivan, the Project Leader, who works at FANRPAN said, “There are millions of pounds worth of technology that are sitting on the shelf waiting to be used. We are looking at previous and potential interventions to see which methods would be best for improving water productivity for small scale water users in the Limpopo basin.”

One simple technology that has been gaining traction recently is rainwater harvesting. This ranges from rooftop harvesting in households, where rainwater is stored in tanks, to field-level harvesting, where contours and other techniques are used to increase the soil’s water retention capacity. This technology is being tested and rolled out across Southern Africa, with NGOs, the UN and the South African government all investing in it.

Similar projects are taking place across the world as part of the CGIAR’s programme to research water productivity in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Identifying water and food challenges in large river basins, rather than by country, allows the programme to bypass political and social boundaries and help secure access to water for large numbers of people around the world.

Farming First

Farming First is a global coalition of 131 organisations representing the world’s farmers, scientists, engineers and industry as well as agricultural development organisations. With one shared voice, Farming First highlights the importance of improving farmers’ livelihoods and agriculture’s potential contribution to global issues such as food securityclimate change, and biodiversity.

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