Family Farming and the Right to Water

Access to water for farming, raising animals and fishing is essential. Although three out of four Africans live off agriculture, such access is becoming more and more limited.  It is urgent that the right to water for family farming is recognised and promoted.


1. The growing restriction of access to water

Several factors contribute to this problem:

Competition for water is mounting because of growing populations, urbanisation and tourist and industrial facilities.  Small farmers[1], in competition with the politically and economically more powerful, are the first victims.  In so many cases, not only is their access to water being reduced but their traditional rights of access are also being taken away.

Water Grabbing: Where land is being grabbed, it is often forgotten that the water is also seized by the purchaser.  In fact, many countries with a water shortage preserve their own resources by acquiring farmland abroad. Africa is a favourite target seen as having great potential as only 2% of the available water for agriculture is actually used.  Unfortunately, African governments rarely negotiate good contracts that take into account the incalculable value of water.  They give away access to water without thinking about other users.  Having become the ‘owner’ of the land, the purchaser assumes the right of unrestricted use, of diverting the flow of water or dumping toxic waste. This has a massive effect on other users.  Where the contract foresees a tax on water, it is often calculated on the basis of the surface area irrigated, not the amount of water used.  The latter is of course vitally important as it varies greatly according to the crop and the irrigation methods brought into play.  Additionally, these contracts do not always foresee what is to be done in case of drought in order to preserve the resource and satisfy all users.

Poor water management: Family farming is dogged by poor water management. As has been said before, the authorities consider access to water either inadequately or not at all when they are negotiating land deals.  Then there is the wastage and pollution caused by large-scale agricultural projects. These use up vast quantities of water on mechanised irrigation. They spray pesticides that seep into groundwater and end up in the water that is drawn, at wells or rivers, by other users. Mining and industries that use water in their processes are also responsible for such waste and pollution.

Diminishing resources: It is easy to understand that the encroaching desert also contributes to rivers and groundwater drying up and the rains becoming less plentiful.  Less obvious is the fact that climate warming is affecting the water cycle – this is causing a depletion in water in several parts of Africa.  The International Group of Climate Experts studying this problem estimates that between 75 and 250 million people across Africa could be facing more severe water shortages by 2020.


2. Supporting agriculture brings many benefits

The benefits of family farming go beyond food for the local community.  They are environmental, climatic, economic and social.  The farming practices of small scale farmers contribute to the fertility of the soil and preserve biodiversity.  As good stewards, they help the management of water, give employment and reduce gas emissions that exacerbate climate warming.  Small-scale fishing does not exhaust the fish supplies in the way industrial fishing does. What is more, family farming (relying on rain and irrigation) can help considerably to produce the extra food that the world will need by 2050.


3. The value of guaranteeing the right to water for family farming

70 to 80% of Africans live off agriculture and water is the key to its success. Denying access to water amounts to removing access to an input of great importance to Africa’s economic and social sector.

So, assuring the right of access to water for family farming contributes to maintaining an economic and social stability where development is possible. It amounts to guaranteeing a country’s food sovereignty.  It is therefore urgent to guarantee concrete water and land rights for farmers working on the land, livestock farmers and fisher people.


4. Legal recognition for the right to water in agriculture

The right to water for agriculture arises from the right of each individual to an adequate standard of living, as recognised in Article 11 of the International Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Even more explicitly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the right to sufficient food and requires that sustainable access to water be guaranteed to subsistence agriculture.  Therefore, the international organisations, the states and even the members of civil society – disparate as they may be – should be guaranteeing farmers fair access to water and to water management systems. Laws assuring these rights should be accompanied by measures that secure access, technical support and capacity building for small farmers.


5. To better ensure access to water for family farming

Helping family farmers to modernise their usage and management of water

Traditional know-how, both collective and individual, has proved itself effective for the sustainable management of water.  Nevertheless, it is useful, even necessary, to improve practices and to share knowledge with as many individuals as possible. Farming can contribute to preserving water resources as long as it relies on suitable agricultural models.  This should be the focus of any political and financial support.  Family farming can increase its productivity if aided by certain types of investment and infrastructure.  These will be more effective if the local users have been involved in the decisions and if there is training in the use of new technology.

Capacity building in the face of competition

Next, the public utilities should strengthen the capacity of small-scale farmer groups that have formed to share the management of the capture, sharing and/or use of the water in a fair, effective and sustainable way.  Even when in groups, they are still fragile when confronted with the financial and political arguments of the major economic actors who are after the same water.

Support for democratic water management

Agriculture’s needs for water interact with the needs of other sectors. This is why it is important to provide spaces for dialogue with other users to ensure an equitable, efficient management and collective protection of water resources. In addition, active participation of these various users in the overall management of water by public authorities would be conducive to collective management is sustainable, equitable and efficient. By contrast, the neoliberal model that transforms water into a commodity for sale is like giving water access to the highest bidder or to most "profitable" project without taking into account the social costs or the sustainability of the users’ practices. And that leads to the whole of society suffering.


6. Some possible actions

Groups of farmers fighting against land grabbing also fight for protection of their access to water; it is obvious in areas like area of Office du Niger. The groups of farmers need supports.

2014 is declared ‘International Year of Family Farming’ by UN. This gives a decisive boost to inform people and to reinforce farmers’ organisations. The IYFF preparation work during 2012 and 2013 opens doors to address local and national authorities in favour of the recognition and promotion of the right of access to water for family farming.

(More information on IYFF on AEFJN website: )


More information on land issue:

Article published in AEFJN Forum for Action n° 58, March 2012

[1] “Small farmer” here refers to family farming as opposed to large-scale agribusiness which is often geared to international trade.

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