Informal irrigation arrangements used by local Malawian farmers’ groups have been far more successful than top-down projects piloted by development agencies at improving farmers’ livelihoods, and have increased the amount of irrigated land in the country
However, they are creating worrying problems of land tenure and access to water, driven by a surge in the global demand for arable land – according to a new study by the Japanese government’s aid agency, JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency).
A key insight is how the value of land itself is being dramatically affected by pressures to formalise land tenure, led by the attractive prospect of securing land ownership along riverbanks. Meanwhile the amount of stream water is rapidly depleting due to the unregulated spread of irrigation.
These are the findings of Atsushi Hanatani and Mine Sato at JICA’s Research Institute (JICA-RI), the research arm of the agency.
River diversion structures
The study describes how informal and temporary river diversion structures have been developed by entrepreneurial local farmers across Malawi who seek to supplement food shortages and increase their income, leading to the emergence of community-based ‘irrigation clubs’.
These arrangements have been effective. However their success at expanding the amount of irrigated lands is creating a new and worrisome situation.
Crucially, Hanatani and Sato show how the value of the land is linked to the commoditisation of land along riverbanks, as landowners seek to formalise land tenure and begin to extract revenue from renting land to other farmers.
Furthermore, competition among upstream and downstream farmers is becoming intense over limited amounts of water.
Spread of irrigation
“Riverbank land during the dry season – and access to river water – used to be seen by the farmers as a pure public good, but as irrigation expands this is all changing”, explains Atsushi Hanatani, the first author of the paper. “The unregulated spread of irrigation, spurred by global demand for arable land and agricultural output, are responsible for that.”
The study also highlights a ‘disconnect’ between some donor agencies’ attempts to improve irrigation management in African contexts and the local approaches which, in Malawi, have proven to be more successful.
The study suggests donor agencies would do better to engage with these local irrigation methods but will be faced with a dilemma: foster their profitability and pushing them further down the path of commoditisation – running the risk of aggravating inequality between farmers – or attempt to foster the communitarian incentives which made them possible in the first place.