The Global Water Initiative (GWI) was an action-research and advocacy programme that ran from 2008-17. The project is now closed. This site is no longer being updated, but allows access to GWI outputs until 1 October 2020 when it will also close. After that date, information about the project and core GWI technical publications will continue to be available from the IIED website and Publications Library.

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Water for agriculture (2012-17)

Large scale irrigation for rice production is a key governmental strategy for food security in West Africa. Of the 150 existing dams in the region, 90 already support irrigation. An additional 39 dams are on the drawing board.


However, the productivity of existing irrigation systems is far below the acceptable performance standards for many reasons, including the following:

  • they suffer from serious capacity underutilization;
  • crop yields are low;
  • financial risk and uncertainty are high;
  • water conveyance and water use efficiencies are among the lowest in the world.

The low agricultural productivity rate in large-scale irrigated areas is one of the reasons that rice is the most important agro-food import in the region. It is imported mostly from Asia, representing around 20 per cent of agricultural imports within West Africa over the last thirty years. Niger basin countries envisage a quadrupling of large scale irrigation to over 2,000,000 ha by 2025, at costs of up to US $ 20,000 per hectare.

Agriculture in current large scale irrigation schemes needs to be made to work for both the State, in terms of economic returns and national food security, and for the smallholders whose livelihoods depend on it. As for the future, States need to decide (based on robust and comprehensive evidence) whether large scale irrigation schemes are the best use for their money and whether these are 'quality investments'.

GWI work on water for agriculture in West Africa is implemented by IIED and IUCN, to find out more see About us. Our work is based on three key objectives and a cross-cutting focus on the role of women:

Making the right investment and policy choices

We want to develop awareness and debate about the livelihood impacts and economic viability of intensive, large scale irrigation schemes. This has particular relevance to how food security is being addressed in a variable climate.

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Empowering smallholders across the agricultural value chain

We want to increase support to smallholder farmers in existing large scale irrigation schemes to improve agricultural practice and productivity sustainably. This includes the sharing and adopting of innovative agricultural practices and institutional arrangements.

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Strengthening governance and sharing the benefits

We want to improve the governance systems around current and future dam-fed irrigation systems. This would ensure that water, land, and economic benefits are shared equitably and conflicts reduced.

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Valuing women’s work in dam-irrigated agriculture  

We want to ensure that women are able to play a greater role in shaping agricultural policies and processes. This also means providing women smallholders with access to secure land tenure and the resources and support necessary to improve their livelihoods.

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