Southern Africa has suffered through one of the worst droughts in decades and now small farmers face a long hungry season with growing food aid needs until the next harvest.
Given the growing uncertainty of rainfall in this region, many are turning to irrigation as a key strategy for securing future harvests. The problem, however, is that male and female farmers have deeply unequal rights to critical resources, including water.
Uneven access to water also complicates assumptions about the ability of commercial farming to deliver household food security in the African context.
While women grow the majority of food in this region, public programmes and policies are skewed towards providing water for male livelihood activities. This bias undermines female farmers’ ability to adapt to climate change and weakens the food security of the region.
In the semi-arid, southern African country of Botswana, women rely heavily on irrigation to grow vegetables during the long dry season. These crops are produced for home consumption and to generate needed income.
While the government has provided much needed support for this activity in recent years, they have been disappointed with the results, even considering it an utter failure in some cases.
What these appraisals overlook is the critical role that water access plays in the success of a women’s vegetable production operation, and the overall way in which women’s farming activities are marginalised in the country.
In fact, differences in water access among female vegetable farmers in Botswana had a huge influence on whether or not commercial horticulture helps improve household food security.
Wealthy female farmers have the financial resources, or access to credit, to invest in boreholes. For these women, increasing commercialisation of vegetable production (or selling a larger share of their crop) leads to clear gains in household food security.
This contrasts with poorer female gardeners who can’t afford a well, and water their gardens with purchased tap water. From them, there are only modest food security gains that accompany increasing commercial gardening.
Still others get their water from a river, where the costs are much lower, and they do very well when they focus on feeding their families. Interestingly, this last group sees a decline in household food security when they begin selling more and consuming less of the vegetables they grow.
Why the difference in these outcomes? Wealthier female farmers with land can afford the upfront costs of a borehole, and often have the necessary connections to successfully engage with the market, allowing them to cover the costs of their initial investment and go on to make a reasonable profit that enhances their food security.
Those with lower water costs, the river water users, face less pressure to commercialise to cover costs, and do very well directly feeding their families rather that attempting to negotiate the vagaries of the marketplace.
Tap water users have the most difficult situation because they most commercialise to cover the cost of the water they are using, yet do not always have the connections to negotiate the marketplace, leading to modest income gains and minimal food security benefits.
A national system that gives first priority to male livelihoods forces female horticulturalists to either find creative ways to negotiate these constraints or to see their gardens flounder and household food security benefits dwindle.
Addressing women’s inequitable access to water resources will only become more important in Southern Africa as the region grapples with climate change, increasing rainfall variability and growing need for irrigation.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Female farmers suffer most in Southern Africa drought’.