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Rainwater harvesting: increasing food security in South Africa

Published on: 09/10/2009

It is estimated that 19 million people in South Africa are rural survivalists with traditional agrarian lifestyles, and over 15 million are living below the poverty line.  Levels of food security have been increased in some villages using in-field rainwater harvesting (IRWH) and conservation.

Farming contributes only 10% of material income for rural livelihoods. Furthermore, land resources in communal areas are largely under-utilised. In some villages in the Eastern Cape and Free State province, levels of food security have increased by means of maize and vegetable production in homestead backyard gardens. In the last mentioned case, this has been achieved through the technology and practice of in-field rainwater harvesting (IRWH) and conservation.

This technique has been developed over fifteen years of on-station and on-farm research. It can be classified as a micro-catchment, on-farm method of water harvesting with runoff strips. “Through technology exchange the application of IRWH expanded to more than 1 000 households in 42 rural villages around Thaba Nchu” says Dr Gerhard Backeberg a Water Research Commission Director, in his paper presented in Göttingen, Germany, 14 to 16 July 2009 during the 2nd International Seminar on “Land Resources and Land Use Options”.

Large areas of croplands surrounding these villages are currently lying fallow and indications are that this land has not been productively cultivated for the last 25 years or more. There are clearly opportunities for up-scaling of IRWH from household food gardens to communal croplands. “Results of research station experiments demonstrate that e.g. maize yields increased by up to 50%, compared with conventional production techniques” says Gerhard. Innovative procedures have been developed and tested to identify suitable soils for rainwater harvesting. Through modeling the minimum area of farmland has been determined to meet the food security needs, expressed as either income or caloric requirement. It has also been shown that IRWH is viable in terms of conservation of soil and water resources, reduction of risk, social acceptability and economic feasibility. However, delineating suitable soils and calculating sizes of land holdings is only part of the solution to improve water productivity and rural livelihoods. Surveys in the area have shown that low levels of education are found amongst household members and that widespread poverty exists. Although the expectation is that exploitation of this land can enable households to produce enough staple grain crops for own consumption and also earn cash income with sale of surpluses, various obstacles have to be overcome.

In his presentation he mentioned that the current state of land use at Thaba Nchu is the result of a history of conflicts over legitimate rights and economic means to earn livelihoods. As for the whole of South Africa, a process of land reform is under way, which involves amongst others obtaining tenure security because of past discriminatory practices. The contention is therefore that communal croplands will only be accessed sustainably with secure land tenure arrangements. A pilot project to develop a land register of holdings by households on the communal croplands has confirmed the near collapse of the land tenure system. After consultation a participatory process has started to formulate rules that explicitly define the land holding and ensure exclusive use of the land for cultivation. Various formal groups have been established to ensure enforcement of rules and enable transfer of use rights by means of share-cropping or leases between those who are interested and not interested to farm. Successful up-scaling of IRWH will again require demonstration plots to change unrealistic perceptions regarding prospects of conventional tillage. Farmers, who are mostly women, must also receive skills training and have aspirations to improve livelihoods through more productive farming activities. “The available guide for farmer trainers and facilitators should be implemented for practical skills development to the benefit of women and revitalisation of rain-fed farming” says Dr Backeberg. Further applied research is also being undertaken to investigate appropriate marketing channels of food crops, financing of production inputs and support services of extension which have to be provided to farmers.

Read the full paper

Related web site: Multiple Use water Services Group

Source: Hlengiwe Cele, WRC, 18 Sep 2009


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