Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, September 2015. Terje Oestigaard (to the right) discussing water and food during a field study excursion to the Blue Nile, together with NAI-researchers Mats Hårsmar and Atakilte Beyene, who also contributed to the recently completed book series 'A History of Water'.

Water and food in Africa – a story of rain and paradoxes

The Green Revolution with its plant-breeding innovations and irrigation schemes transforming farming in Asia has not spread to Africa. Small-holder farming and collectivism are still dominant in most African countries. There are two main explanations for this, according to researcher Terje Oestigaard – unpredictable rainfall and a landscape generally unsuited to irrigation.

Earlier this month, the last book in a nine-volume series entitled A History of Water, was published. This marks the end of a project that began 15 years ago. More than 250 researchers worldwide have contributed a total of 5,500 pages.

“The aim has been to create the most exhaustive work on the human ideas and use of water, throughout the world, and down the ages, from Jericho to Las Vegas, and from the Stone Age to post-industrialism,” says Terje Oestigaard, a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. Together with Professor Terje Tvedt, the main editor of the book series, Oestigaard has been the co-editor of the last four volumes.

Balancing out the blessings and curses
The concluding volume deals exclusively with Africa. Among the questions it raises are those relating to agro-water variability, meaning the unpredictability of the rainfall essential to farming. Rainfall in Africa fluctuates more than anywhere else in the world. According to Oestigaard, this largely explains why farming there has evolved differently from farming on other continents.

”Rainfall can be hard to forecast anywhere in the world, but in parts of Africa the unpredictability is higher than elsewhere. This is due partly to local variation, partly to intensity. Traditional African farmers know very well that it may rain in one part of the village but not another, directly affecting what to grow where and when. They also know that tropical rain can devastate a whole harvest in 15 minutes. In these circumstances, collectivism and small-scale represent the best strategy for survival. The chances of balancing out the blessings and curses of capricious rain improve, if you have scattered patches of land and a spirit of neighbourly care,” says Terje Oestigaard.

Unfavourable topography
In Europe and North America, where rainfall is relatively abundant and stable, investments in irrigation are generally unnecessary, and rainfed agriculture dominates. In Africa, where irrigation would be advantageous in many places, the topography is often unfavourable. Vast plains at the foot of mountain ranges high enough to feed big rivers are perfect landscapes for irrigation. It is this type of topography that generally characterises the catchments of the Himalayas in South and Southeast Asia, where irrigation has a long tradition. With the exception of a few places, like Gezira in the Sudan, there are few such landscapes in Africa.

”African agriculture is mainly rainfed, and will remain so. But traditional farming is under pressure. With increasing urbanisation, climate change and a growing interest among domestic and foreign investors in purchasing land, smallholder farmers have been forced to abandon their fields or find new ways of living off them. The knowhow that has been passed on down the generations is at risk of being lost, with possibly devastating effects for food security,” Oestigaard warns.

Historical paradoxes
The book describes the many paradoxes in Africa’s history. The continent that we today most associate with famine was in past eras known for its rich harvests. For millennia, Egypt exported grain and was known for being the breadbasket of the Roman as well as the Ottoman Empires. Many other surplus-producing agricultural civilisations have come and gone over the centuries on the continent.

”This paradox is partly due to technical development. A comparative advantage in one phase might be a drawback in another. Such was the case when the industrial revolution spread throughout the world in the 19th century. Access to rapids and control of water then became important for energy generation and the relative flatness of the Nile landscape became a disadvantage. What had been an ideal water landscape for earlier agricultural civilisations, wasn’t suitable for water-mills and hydro power, at least not before the construction of the Aswan Dam,” Oestigaard concludes.

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