Boubacar Barry: Why water and food security is important for Africa

Dr Boubacar Barry

Dr Boubacar Barry during the interview with ‘Seeds Of Gold’ on January 31. He wants African meteorologial departments to be more active. 

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

Dr Boubacar Barry heads the Global Water Partnership in West Africa. He also the scientific adviser to the secretariat of the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar. He spoke about why the ‘water for food, water for life’ approach is important to Africa.

What is integrated water resource management?

This is a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources to maximise economic and social welfare equitably without compromising sustainability of existing ecosystems.

Just where is the African continent in terms of integrated water management?

Only a section of the continent, mainly in West Africa, is advanced. Burkina Faso and Senegal are ahead of the pack. But many most of the countries still lag behind. Some even so not have the programme in their policies.

Africa is endowed with ground water. How is this significant resource used to fight food insecurity?

There is a need to invest in groundwater. Many studies have shown that the use of modern technology can transform agriculture in Africa and help alleviate food shortages for hundreds of millions of people.

What is the level of understanding of Africa’s ground water?

The continent knows very little about ground water. Studies show that water needs to be harnessed at many levels. Africa needs to start tapping this resource.

Producing crops like rice requires a lot of water. What practices can farmers adopt to use less?

Governments and other key agriculture stakeholders need to train smallholder farmers on irrigation and how best they can utilise water. They should be trained on how much water is needed for irrigation. Some farmers use excess water, hoping to harvest more but end up with less yield and destroying their pieces of land. This information among smallholder farmers is the missing link on best irrigation practices.

Africa lacks an early warning system against hunger. What are the early warning systems and how can they be used to conserve water?

Inter-state organisations in the Sahel have put early warning systems in place. They predict rainy seasons and flooding. We need to be aware of the indicators before the rains and prepare our farms in time for planting.

Drought has pushed 22 million people in the Horn of Africa and other regions to hunger. How should water be used in addressing such calamities?

Apart from drought, the continent has to grapple with conflicts. Using water properly can stabilise the situation. Good water usage can help the fleeing families settle down and be productive. This is possible with the help of the United Nations and Non-Government Organisations. Residents of a particular area can be helped to manage this resource and share it with pastoralists, crop producers and the environment in general.

Why are meteorological services in Africa underutilised?

Africa should create an interlink between meteorological agencies. You cannot do water balancing without meteorological data and information. We need to intensify the density of the meteorological stations. If all these are combined, we shall have a good picture of what is going on in the atmosphere, do good monitoring and make proper predictions. This will be a boost to farmers who depend on rain.

What is crop focus production?

Crop focus production improves farmers’ access to quality food production. Farmers using this system even know the quality of their production. Africa needs to invest in crop focus production and embrace new technology so as to predict yields and feed the rapidly growing population. Farmers should be able to know their expected production using remote sensing, climate data and other systems.

Why is diversifying crop systems important in water management?

Water demands vary from crop to crop. Farmers are therefore advised to plant different crops so that if one fails, the other thrives as they have different water intake levels.

Many African countries have weak or no water policies. What is the danger of such as far as fighting hunger is concerned?

It is a sad affair that needs to be fixed immediately. Policies outside the water sector have a huge influence on water resources, diets, business, agriculture subsidies and energy.

We need to harmonise our policies around water to save our fragile economy. Industry, agriculture, health, environment, transport and other sectors of the economy depend on water. That means water must be at the heart of policies. The African Union is addressing this by bringing ministers in charge of water together.

Why is it important to manage water at the lowest level?

The approach to managing this resource should be bottom-up and not a top-bottom. People know their needs at the local level. If they are in charge, they become responsible for their actions, including misuse and mismanagement of water sources like wells, pans, dams, rivers and ponds.

The lack of finance in water investments is there for all to see. What happens if this continues?

It means the continent is increasingly dipping into more troubled waters. This could easily lead to a water crisis and conflicts that will definitely affect food production.