The Covid-19 pandemic is having wide ranging effects on agricultural systems including major disruptions in food supply chains and other shocks affecting food production, as well as rural households suffering significant losses of income and remittances. These impacts threaten to exacerbate existing poverty and food insecurity in many low income countries. Indeed, the World Food Programme recently estimated that that 265 million people could face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 due to the effects of Covid-19 on agricultural supply chains, food prices, and labour availability – an increase of 96% (130 million people) since the start of the crisis. How will governments respond post-Covid-19? Can increased investments in agriculture and irrigation to tackle the impacts of Covid-19 on agricultural systems and livelihoods simultaneously address existing chronic problems of food insecurity and rural poverty?
Mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 on food systems
Alarmed by a potential rise in food insecurity during and after Covid-19, many countries are implementing policies to attempt to mitigate shocks to food systems and their impacts on households. Critically, the differences in the timeline of the pandemic’s development across countries has precluded a globally coordinated response, leading countries to adopt isolationist policies to tackle problems related to food systems. For instance, Kazakhstan and Vietnam have suspended exports of wheat flour and rice, respectively. Russia, Egypt, Serbia and Cambodia have banned the export of some crops, thereby disrupting food supply chains. Due to the strong dependence of most countries on international food trade, these decisions threaten to further exacerbate near-term food insecurity challenges in particular in poor countries that depend significantly on food imports.
Responses to food crises in the past have often involved interventions by governments on behalf of increasing food production, lowering food prices, and providing access by poor households to food. Ensuring a sufficient and stable water supply for cultivation is a key component of achieving these measures, especially in countries that experience distinct rainy and dry seasons and large rainfall variability. Historically, the main approach to overcome these challenges has been the through the expansion of irrigation, including multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects such as irrigation dams and large irrigation schemes.
Irrigation investment in response to crises
Evidence shows that investments in irrigation, particularly large-scale schemes and infrastructure projects, have been heavily driven by major shocks to global food supply chains and markets. For example, the number of new irrigation and rehabilitation projects in Sub-Saharan Africa peaked in the 1980s following the food crisis in the earlier decade. Investments in projects dropped globally in the 1990s and early 2000s due to a combination of stable cereal prices and controversies surrounding large water infrastructure projects. However, this was followed by a significant renewed interest in large-scale irrigation investment triggered by another peak in world food prices from 2008, which is still influencing irrigation development narratives today.
The pressure for countries to increase their food reserves surge post-Covid-19 is only likely to increase efforts of many nations to enhance food self-sufficiency, with investments in large irrigation schemes and dams at the forefront of national development plans. Yet, evidence suggests that such strategies should not be seen as panacea solutions. Many irrigation schemes have significantly fallen short in delivery of expected agricultural production areas. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the median rates of delivery are as low as 16 %, with larger schemes that propose over 10,000 ha of irrigation proving far less efficient, delivering 10-20% and almost never reaching their intended goals of expanding irrigated agricultural production.
Returns on investment
Several factors have contributed to inefficiencies in past investment. Over optimistic proposals are driven by the need to promise unrealistically high returns in order to generate investment (e.g. planners of the Pwalugu dam in Ghana claim it will deliver 20,000 ha). Furthermore, performance remains limited by the complexity of large schemes – in terms of technology and maintenance, and bureaucratic constraints to governance of development and implementation of large scheme investments.
Learning from the past for a sustainable future
Overall, increased investments in agriculture and irrigation to tackle impacts of Covid-19 on agricultural systems and livelihoods present a valuable opportunity to simultaneously address existing chronic problems of food insecurity and rural poverty. However, responses should not be reactionary and must consider lessons from past successes and failures of irrigation development in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is not to say that large-scale irrigation is not required. Investments in water storage and distribution infrastructure will be essential to cope and adapt to increasingly variable market and climate conditions. However, the way in which large-scale irrigation is designed and implemented must change, with greater emphasis needed on sustainable and profitable business models for schemes along with support for and integration of wider informal farmer-led irrigation initiatives.
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