Identifying the pathways to nutritional security through irrigation
While irrigation is largely accepted as a critical component of increasing agricultural production, the direct links between irrigation and nutritional outcomes have been less clear. Irrigation investments have only recently been reexamined against nutritional goals. ILSSI’s research shows that substantial biophysical and economic potential exists for the cultivation of nutrition-enhancing crops in the dry season through small scale irrigation. Evidence from research is being applied to design future investments in irrigation to be more nutrition sensitive.
Read our project note for a summary of research findings.
Undernutrition is a persistent challenge. The number of people suffering from acute hunger and undernutrition is on the rise, especially following disruptions related to COVID19. Even prior to the pandemic, around 135 million people suffered from acute hunger, while 820 million people regularly go hungry. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, food demand is expected to at least triple with population growth and urbanization. Many factors are contributing to this regression in nutritional security. Irrigation with intensified cropping is considered necessary to begin to close the supply gap for food security.
Households with access to irrigation often benefit from better nutrition than non-irrigating households
ILSSI research findings show that children under five in irrigating households have higher weight-for-height z-scores, meaning they are less wasted (a key predictor of child mortality) than children in non-irrigating households. Irrigation can lead to increased production, higher diversity of production and reduced food insecurity overall. Greater dietary diversity can also be achieved from irrigation through the cultivation of vegetables and fruit, as well as through cash crops when the income is spent on a wider range of foods including animal-source options. For example, irrigators in northern Ghana are more likely than non-irrigators to consume meats, poultry, milk and milk products, fruits and vegetables, sugar and honey, through both an income pathway and a production pathway.
Four main pathways link small scale irrigation with improved nutrition and food security
These pathways are: increasing farmers’ agricultural production, increasing their income, empowering women, and providing water for domestic and sanitation purposes. Research by ILSSI has found that irrigation has a strong, positive effect on a household’s economic access to food and dietary diversity (but not always to improved nutrition resulting from increased diversity). Irrigation also helps to fill dietary gaps in dry seasons and droughts, and enables, but does not guarantee, consumption of more nutritious foods. Irrigation can be a pathway for women’s empowerment if it increases their decision making over the technology or the irrigated produce, or alternatively if their time burden in agriculture or for collecting water is reduced. There are indications that this empowerment may in turn lead to more of a household’s resources being allocated to nutritious foods and healthcare. Irrigation can also provide water for sanitation and hygiene, and improve health and nutrition through this pathway. However, this could also risk undermining nutrition and health goals by causing water pollution and contributing to water-related diseases. Irrigation must, therefore, be carefully designed to avoid these undesirable outcomes.
Nutrition-sensitive irrigation policy and program design are improved by understanding the specific pathways between small scale irrigation and nutrition
The potential for irrigation to influence diets appears to be highly context-specific. It is important therefore to understand which pathways and entry points for nutrition-sensitive irrigation are at work. The types of water sources, irrigation technologies, irrigated crops and water management approaches can positively (or negatively) affect nutritional outcomes, so nutrient-smart irrigation approaches are needed.
A gender-sensitive approach is required for women farmers to benefit fully from irrigation
A gender-sensitive approach to irrigation that enables women farmers to access irrigation technologies, benefit from and be empowered through, irrigation may have implications for the health and nutritional status of women and their children.
However, research findings indicate that the links between irrigation and nutritional outcomes for women farmers and their families are complex. In some contexts irrigation interventions focused on women farmers have improved nutritional outcomes. Whereas others studies indicate that the varying extent to which irrigation affects women’s labour can have a negative impact on household nutrition.
Small scale irrigation strengthens the resilience capacity of households and communities to deal with shocks and stresses
The resilience capacity of a household can be enhanced through small scale irrigation in three important ways; absorptive (for example enabling greater crop diversification options), adaptive (for example enhancing inclusive income pathways in irrigated value chains) and transformative (such as increasing access to insurance by reducing climatic risks). The high seasonal variation in the diets of women, children and the household overall, plus commonly a general lack of dietary diversity, can be partly offset and improved by irrigation. In fact, ILSSI research results from Ethiopia and Tanzania show that the nutritional benefits from irrigation are stronger in drought-prone households.
Substantial biophysical and economic potential exists for the cultivation of nutrition-enhancing crops in the dry season through small scale irrigation
ILSSI research identifies that around 1 million hectares in Ethiopia, 750,000 hectares in Tanzania, and 211,000 hectares in Ghana are suitable for irrigation of nutrient-dense crops and irrigated fodder. This could benefit up to 9.5 million farmers. Extensive irrigation may pose water scarcity risks so an effective balance between reaping the benefits and mitigating the risks will need to be found during planning and implementation.
Hunger and undernutrition limit human development, resulting in less productive individuals, who are more prone to disease and so often unable to earn more and improve their livelihoods. Without effectively addressing hunger and undernutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, other sustainable development goals such as education, health, gender equality and ending poverty will be impossible to achieve. Small scale irrigation has the potential to significantly improve nutritional outcomes and food security, which is why it’s so important to understand how it can best do so, and to support the wider use of diverse, context specific irrigation technologies and approaches.
DOWNLOAD: ILSSI brief on nutrition
Contributing to solutions
Facilitating access to small scale irrigation
Households with SSI access often benefit from better nutrition than non-irrigating households. ILSSI’s partners are innovating ways to increase access to irrigation technologies and practices that can increase household incomes and household consumption of diverse foods. We work with partners in the public and private sectors to accelerate and catalyze investments in small scale irrigation.
Informing approaches to target and empower women through irrigation
One pathway from irrigation to improved nutrition is women’s empowerment. However, achieving equity in access to irrigation and the benefits faces numerous challenges. ILSSI’s research provides the basis for tools and guidance for gender-sensitive interventions. From diagnostic tools and checklists for public and development implementers, to sensitive credit scoring tools being used by companies, our research is helping to shift investments toward stronger equity and opportunities for empowerment.
Contributing to global dialogue and national policy
Nutrition-sensitive irrigation policy and program design are improved by understanding the specific pathways between small scale irrigation and nutrition. ILSSI research partners are generating unique datasets and undertaking both quantitative analysis. Peer reviewed publications, participation in global networks and forums, and targeted policy briefs are contributing to the evidence available for decision makers.
Improving resilience through household access to water for irrigation and other uses
Small scale irrigation strengthens the resilience capacity of households and communities to effectively deal with shocks and stresses. ILSSI research is highlighting the pathways through which resilience can be strengthened through irrigation investments. In addition, our activities point to the use of irrigation water for both productive and domestic purposes. That further enables development investors to consider the interaction of multiple purposes, including the urgency of risks to water scarcity and water quality as agricultural production is intensified.
- Evaluating the pathways from small-scale irrigation to dietary diversity: evidence from Ethiopia and Tanzania
- Nutrition-Sensitive Irrigation and Water Management
FRENCH: Irrigation et gestion de l’eau tenant compte de la nutrition (World Bank)
- Irrigation-nutrition linkages: Evidence from northern Ghana (IFPRI working paper)
- Linkages between small scale irrigation and women’s empowerment
- Meeting the nutrition and water targets of the Sustainable Development Goals: achieving progress through linked interventions (WLE paper)
- Improving irrigation access to combat food insecurity and undernutrition
- Irrigation and women’s diet in Ethiopia: A longitudinal study