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New Solutions Offered for Nile Basin Region Smallholder Farmers

Sudanese farmers prepare their land for agriculture on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum, November 2009 file photo.
Sudanese farmers prepare their land for agriculture on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum, November 2009 file photo.

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Kim Lewis
A new book offers unique solutions to the complex issues surrounding the use and sharing of the water from the world’s longest river, the Nile.  The book, The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods, offers new research and analysis that go beyond the subject of irrigation using the Nile’s waters and tributaries.  It focuses on solutions that also involve the role of rainwater and groundwater as a means of providing sustainable agricultural livelihoods for smallholder farmers. 

The Nile River has long been a source of water for its surrounding countries, but its use has been and still is a source of contention.  The biggest challenge for the smallholder farmer in the arid region is having enough water to sustain a livelihood.  The book points out that 180 million people, half of whom live in poverty, rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. 

However, David Molden, former director of the International Water Management Institute and one of the co-authors of the book, pointed out that the first issue lies with the Nile Basin itself, which he said is quite huge.  On the other hand, he said, the basin has only a thin strip of water flowing down the middle. 

“The second is just the whole problem of access, getting water.  That can be, in a nutshell, much needed in this mostly arid or semi-arid area.  So a little bit of water can help agricultural crop production, but it is getting that water.  There are technologies that can do that, like rainwater harvesting or wells to tap into ground water, but are not widely used in the Nile Basin, but could be.  That would allow people easier access,” explained Molden.

Molden says another big challenge is the transboundary nature of the Nile, because it travels through many different countries.

“What’s needed is cooperation, because if one country takes water, it does have an impact on the other countries in the Nile River Basin, and that is a very complex political issue, but one that is essential to get use of the Nile water resource,” said Molden.  

The book stresses the importance of commitment and trust between the eleven countries that share the use of the Nile.  This involves not only sharing in the benefits, but also sharing in covering the cost of the river’s use.

“There have been past agreements on the Nile.  Some of the countries question whether those past agreements are fair or not.  So that’s one of the major stumbling blocks.  And then the other type of agreement is how much water the different countries should get.  Then what we’re trying to do is say, well, maybe if we should - -rather than focus on the water so much - try to figure out what are the benefits that could be received, and how to equitably share those benefits.  But that political discussion requires a lot of confidence in each other.  It requires that people are willing to share data,” said Molden, who added the book offers solutions regarding the Nile that have not been tried before.

“Most of the solutions in the past on the Nile focus very much on irrigation.  While this book says irrigation is important, we also have to focus on farmers who rely heavily on rainfall, and who do not have easy access to the Nile, and there is not enough of that water to go around.  But, what we say if we look at all of the water resources, from the rain and the groundwater, there are opportunities for smallholder farmers to tap into ground water; it can really help them get past dry spells and droughts, and really raise their productivity and increase their livelihood,” he explained.

Molden said the book is unique because it opens doors on a range of possibilities for using water in agriculture, so that all countries along the Nile River Basin can benefit and thrive.

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