Improving water management for rural development within the 2030 Agenda

By Dr Boubacar Barry, Emeritus Head of IWMI West Africa and Scienific Advisor to the 9th World Water Forum

10 Nov 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Three-quarters of the world's poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods as well as on access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene for their health. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 90% of the poorest people live in rural areas. Poor rural development is measured by poverty, health problems due to food insecurity and lack of nutrition and sanitation, low levels of education and training, and the high number of those - households, businesses, farmers, herders and their herds - with difficulties in accessing water (water insecurity). It is also reflected in low agricultural yields and investments, the lack of access to credit and markets, and the continuous degradation of the ecosystem (soil, vegetation, etc.). At the same time, the type of promoted development in most of the more favored regions have often led to the loss of agricultural land, urban sprawl, pollution, and problems of soil fatigue and salinization, impoverishment biodiversity and overexploitation of groundwater, as well as resource grabbing at the expense of rural communities.

This poor development approach has consequences beyond rural areas: increased vulnerability to flooding, the rapid siltation of dam reservoirs, increasing inequalities, continued population growth, rural exodus and the export of poverty to the cities, worsening the risks of food, water and health, climate and socio-political insecurity in the world – especially on the African continent. Added to this is climate change, which, in its relationship with water, land, food and forests, is now a subject of primary importance. Indeed, the latest IPCC reports highlight the high risk of "loss of livelihoods and income in rural areas due to inadequate access to drinking water and irrigation" as well as "food system breakdowns". The worsening phenomena of soil aridity, droughts and flooding are a cause for concern. In addition, it notes the ability of land, water and soil, trough agriculture, forestry and bioeconomy, to strongly contribute to the fight against climate change with a positive impact on the carbon cycle (capture, sequestration, storage, substitution).Furthermore it mentions the possibility of options with high co-benefits (soil conservation and improvement, food security, etc.) adaptation, mitigation, etc.).

Agriculture and rural development need large volumes of water. They could contribute to improving livelihoods, to climate change adaptation and to better water resources management through the creation of wealth to finance its services.


Options exist to sustainably develop the production of goods, services and jobs in rural areas, contributing to the good ecological status of soils and aquatic ecosystems, and land-based waters, the management of green, blue and grey waters as well as their interfaces and they are to be defined collectively in each territory. These include the following.


The challenge is to promote development that can halt and reverse the process of climate change. soil degradation, conserve water in soils and enhance water security, including downstream. This can be achieved by improving the management of green water (the water than infitrates the soil and is available for plant growth).

Promoting, accompanying and supporting nature-based agricultural solutions

Firstly, sustainable, integrated agricultural systems, such as regenerative soil conservation agriculture, agroforestry, sustainable pastures and the combination of agriculture and livestock, with the use of crops and varieties adapted to local conditions, often have many merits: improved incomes, deep rooting and increased soil water reserve, resilience to drought and drought floods, pollution reduction, increased sustainable biomass production, biodiversity, carbon capture, sequestration, storage and Groundwater recharge... Their large-scale development requires a joint reorientation or expansion of policies agricultural and research and development towards an agroecology capable of contributing to the achievement of the SDGs, including SDGs 2, 6, 13 and 15

Aim for rural development and management of the heads of watersheds in the first place. Double gain, for both upstream and downstream

Secondly, watershed heads play a vital role as "water towers" and regulators of the water cycle, which are currently being undermined by poverty, the degradation of agro-silvopastoral systems and climate change. It is important to mobilize and support communities, farmers and ranchers, meet development needs, retain water and soil, and reclaim or restore open habitats of degraded land. This contributes to poverty reduction, regulation of runoff and reduction of the risk of downstream shortages by reducing low water levels as well as the risk of fires and siltation of dam reservoirs and flooding.


Beyond green water, the management of surface water and groundwater – blue water – as well as grey water, which is water which has been polluted by human activity but has not come into contact with fecal matter  - offers options fir sustainable development. The challenge is to promote the development and sustainable management of the resource, as a common good, in order to provide rural communities with the capacity to improve their living conditions and to improve their livelihoods, produce essential goods and services while taking into account other issues.

Managing demand, improving efficiency, reducing and preventing overexploitation of groundwater

Firstly, significant gains in economics and productivity – physical and economic – of agricultural water in the irrigated systems are possible. Demand-side management must also help to ensure sustainability and equitable sharing of the resource. The levers to be mobilized are of an institutional and legal nature (shared governance and quotas at appropriate territorial scales, land tenure security, water rights), financial (incentives, access to credit, investment aid, pricing, meters), economic (sectors), agronomy (e.g. soil conservation agriculture), genetics (selection of adapted crops) or technological (decision-making tools, localized and economical irrigation, etc.).

Develop irrigation and the resource that can be mobilized when relevant and sustainable

Secondly, irrigation, properly designed and conducted, amplifies carbon sequestration, improves land quality and good management of inputs and significantly increases the income and productivity of family farming. Rural development involves hydro-agricultural development to be thought and carried out in a way that takes into account the solidarity and balance to be maintained between upstream and downstream and between cities and villages.

Global warming is causing a combined deterioration in the balance sheet (rainfall-evapotranspiration) as well as the risks of increased salinization in semi-arid environments. The development of the resource to be mobilized can be achieved through the storage of surplus water during rainy periods, the spreading of flood water, the groundwater recharge, transfers from surplus watersheds to deficit areas, and the recovery of treated wastewater (grey water) or desalination. In addition to the service rendered to agriculture, to the rural world and the climate, this development can also make it possible to limit withdrawals from the environment in dry periods, to strengthen resilience to climate change, to support low water levels in the benefit of the natural environment and secure other anthropogenic uses of water. The challenge goes beyond just food: it is the future of territories and their biodiversity as well as the goods, services and jobs produced by the aquatic and agricultural ecosystems that are at stake. This type of development therefore requires a resolutely territorial approach, centered on the principles and challenges of sustainability.

Addressing water quality challenges, ensuring access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene

Thirdly, of the 2.2 billion people who do not have access to safely managed drinking water services, many are rural people (WHO/UNICEF JMP REPORT, June 2019). Two-thirds of rural people (more than 2 billion people) still do not have water and/or soap for hygiene at home and, in sub-Saharan Africa, only 19% of them have permanent access to uncontaminated water. Difficulties in accessing safe water, in addition to serious health consequences, hinder development: the hours spent by women fetching water are too many. This results in reduced availability for education, individual development and income-generating activities. Breaking these vicious cycles and achieving SDG6 targets 6.1 and 6.2 by 2030 requires a strong acceleration of public and private commitments and mobilize a diversity of solutions adapted to each context. Some Territorial approaches to animation, equipment and rural development, which may also involve agricultural and pastoral water as well as domestic water, sanitation and hygiene, should be promoted because positive synergies between the different dimensions of development and water security are often possible.

Securing the quality of water resources for domestic use involves, in addition to diversified and effective sanitation systems, water quality monitoring, and the reduction of other sources of pollution. The fight against diffuse pollution requires more respectful agricultural practices, through the treatment/recovery of livestock manure and household waste, as well as through landscape management and catchment protection plans involving local authorities and the general public. The creation of artificial wetland buffer zones and recycling water from irrigated systems are among the possible solutions.