Socio-economic study on water conservation techniques in semi-arid areas
July 2004



In recent years, increased use of appropriate productivity-increasing technologies has provided many countries an avenue for dealing with the problem of food insecurity among their populations and the whole area of sustainable development in agriculture and natural resources (Sanders et al., 1996; Byerlee and Husain, 1992; Byerlee and Eicher, 1997). However, a much greater effort is needed to promote greater intensification on small-scale farms.

The majority of small-scale farmers are located in less favoured agro-ecological conditions, with poor soils, and low and erratic rainfall. The development and transfer to farmers of production practices and techniques that encourage water and soil conservation, and increased water use efficiency can provide small-scale farmers with an opportunity to increase agricultural production. It is in response to this need that agricultural researchers at the Agricultural Research Council - Institute of Climate, Soil and Water (ARC-ISCW) at Glen Research Station in the Free State developed new production techniques based on in-field rainwater harvesting (IRWH) to help improve productivity and production of rain fed agriculture in semi-arid areas. However, before these water conservation techniques and other new production technologies can be transferred to farmers, analyses to assess their economic viability, social acceptability and environmental sustainability are required.

Using Thaba Nchu as a case study, this report deals with social, economic and environmental issues in rainwater harvesting systems designed to improve water management for crop production among smallholder farmers in semi-arid areas. Across most of the developing world, many water conservation projects have failed, despite good techniques and design, because of the failure to investigate their social and economic aspects. In other cases where improved water management and conservation techniques have been introduced, their sustainability and environmental impacts have been overlooked.

New technologies (tangible creations as part of material culture) not only present opportunities for communities to improve its material well-being, it also influences the non-material culture (intangible creations such as beliefs, norms and values) of a community. One of the most urgent challenges facing a community is the need to adapt its non-material culture to material innovations. Such adjustments and acceptance are not always immediate. Sometimes they take decades; sometimes they never occur. Changes in the material culture take place at a faster pace than the non-material aspects of a community's culture. It is important to be aware of this difference when assessing the social acceptability of new technologies.

When considering this project, one of the conditions for the success of water conservation techniques is the acceptance by resource users - the farmers. Among other issues, chances of acceptance of new technologies are much greater if new production techniques are developed with adequate involvement of resource users, and when a context is created in which the level of skills of community members and the organisational capacity of communities can be improved to allow their effective management of the techniques. Furthermore, profitable technologies that are thought to result in socio-economic inequities and disruptions to the social organisation may be resisted by communities.

Smallholder farmers already operate in an environmental fraught with high levels of risk due to climatic and price variability. The risk levels and profit potential for investment of labour and other inputs must be acceptable, if the new techniques are to find use among farmers. The benefits generated by the new production technologies must be apparent to farmers as early as possible in the technology development or on-farm adaptation and adoption phase.


On-station trials for the water harvesting/conservation techniques that are examined in this study took place at the Glen Research Station in the Free State. The farmers targeted to benefit from the use of the water conservation techniques are small-scale farmers in semi-arid areas, in particular farmers involved in crop production in the villages of Thaba Nchu in the Free State. In addition, a large area of land in the vicinity of Thaba Nchu has been earmarked for the establishment of small-scale farmers (Botha et al., 2001) and it is hoped that the new farmers, once they get established on the land, will also benefit from the adoption of these water conservation techniques. It is hoped that with a better understanding of water conservation technologies, in the future efforts will be undertaken to promote more widespread application of rainwater harvesting techniques among farmers in all parts of South Africa.

Thaba Nchu is found in the eastern part of the Free State Province about 60km east of Bloemfontein. The area comprises the "peri-urban" town of Thaba Nchu (estimated population of 109 400 people ) and a rural area consisting of 42 villages covering a total of 70 364 hectares. The 42 villages are spread across the area, north and south of Thaba Nchu town (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Map of Thaba NchuFIGURE 1: MAP OF THABA NCHU
Source: Department of Geography, University of the Free State


The main aim of the study is to carry out economic viability and social acceptability analyses, and an assessment of the environmental sustainability of in-field rainwater techniques. Although the study is conducted with smallholder farmers in the Thaba Nchu agricultural district, it is hoped that there will be some generalisability in the major findings of the analyses, and that the methods employed in the study can be applied in other parts of South Africa and the sub-region and help shed light on issues facing smallholder farmers in other semi-arid areas.

The specific objectives of the study are as follows:


The study employs participatory research techniques, such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and Participatory Action Research (PAR), to facilitate involvement of smallholder farmers in the diagnosis of constraints they face in their production activities and the formulation of technological interventions that can be employed to help overcome these constraints. The report discusses the essential features of the PRA and PAR methods, and the procedures followed in conducting PRAs and PAR in the study villages are described. Past experience has shown that while the perspective of outside experts often drive the research into new technologies and production practices, expert opinion may not always coincide with farmers' felt needs and priorities. Thus, the resulting technologies are often inappropriate leading to low rates of adoption by farmers (Chambers, 1983; Chambers, 1992). As others have shown elsewhere, there is a need for close co-operation between farmers and communities who are the intended beneficiaries of agricultural research, and outside researchers in designing the research agenda, analysis of opportunities and constraints in the agri-system, and during the technology development process. Successful implementation of participatory research approaches requires a multidisciplinary research team. In the study reported here, a research team consisting of agronomists, agricultural economists and a sociologist was assembled.

There are ecological, climatological and economic constraints to production in semi-arid regions. When all other management practices are carried out efficiently, rainwater harvesting technologies may provide an opportunity for optimising production by increasing the available water for plant use. However, the expected gains to farmers from new technologies are an important consideration for farmers in deciding whether or not to adopt new production technologies. Economic and social analyses, and assessments of the ecological impacts of new agricultural technologies/ practices need to be carried out. Enterprise budgets are used to evaluate the impact of employing in-field rainwater harvesting techniques on farm household income, and to determine the area of land that an average household would need to bring under cultivation in order to produce enough food or generate sufficient income to acquire adequate food to meet its energy and nutritional requirements. In order to practice in-field rainwater harvesting, farmers first need to invest labour and other resources in creating the requisite infrastructure such as the basins for collecting water, and the runoff areas/micro-catchments. Although it takes large amounts of labour to construct the basins and the micro-catchments areas in the first year, these last for several seasons. An important consideration for farmers is whether the investment will payoff in the long-term. In the study, calculation of net present values generated by the production techniques help to answer this question.

Farmers select production techniques for their ability to minimise the impact of production and other risks. In the study, cumulative distribution functions for yield and returns based on simulated production are used in a stochastic dominance analysis to assess risk and its effect under the new production techniques.

A primary goal of many governments in developing countries is to ensure food security for all their people. The area of land that a household would need to plant maize to provide enough maize grain for a family of 5, and a surplus output to generate adequate income to allow the family to acquire other food items was calculated assuming a daily caloric requirement of 2 500 kilocalories per adult equivalent as the required minimum energy level for healthy and active life (and that carbohydrates supply 60% of total energy requirements). In other scenarios it was assumed that households sell all their maize output either as grain or green mielies, and in each case the area cultivated to maize to enable farmers to generate sufficient income to buy adequate food to meet their daily energy demand was calculated.

Other considerations, such as how the new technology fits in with other household activities, social and cultural considerations also play an important role in the decision by farmers to adopt new technologies. These considerations are dealt with in a social analysis of the IRWH techniques. Analysis of the environmental impacts has become an integral part of determining the desirability of new production technologies. In the present study a limited assessment of the impacts of IRWH techniques was carried out and involved measuring soil erosion effects and soil moisture levels across the production cycle.


The new technologies should provide significant economic returns if farmers are to be persuaded to undertake the required investments. Profitability analyses using enterprise budgets show that there is a significant increase in farm income when farmers adopt rainwater harvesting compared to the income levels achieved under conventional crop cultivation. By adopting the simplest form of in-field rainwater harvesting - without the use of mulches in the basins and the runoff area, farmers can increase their income by about R800.00 per hectare in the case of maize production. Analyses of on-station production data suggest that farm income can be increased further with the use of organic or stone mulches.

In addition, investment analyses were carried out to assess whether it was worthwhile for farmers to invest in creating the basins and micro-catchments required for collecting rainwater in their fields. The results of the analyses suggest that farmers can increase their income by undertaking IRWH, and that the investment will payoff over time. Farmers also need to be compensated for the risk that they take by changing from the conventional ways of producing to the new techniques. The results of the stochastic dominance analyses show that farmers will receive more profit with a lower risk of failure when using the IRWH techniques, which contributes to economic sustainability.

The improvement of rural households' food security situation is central to the National Department of Agriculture's policy. In this study estimations of the required farm size to produce enough food or income to meet the requirements of an average household in Thaba Nchu using IRWH techniques were made. It was found that about 8 (14) hectares of land are required to produce enough food (income) to last a family of 5 from one harvest to the next. With rainwater harvesting, these areas are substantially lower at about 3 to 5 hectares. Results from the field survey carried out in the study area showed households' expenditures levels were below the nationally determined poverty line. Improving agricultural production using IRWH techniques, thus provides potential for directly and immediately improving food security for households in Thaba Nchu.

While a conclusive assessment of social acceptability can only be made after several seasons have passed, regarding this project, tentative conclusions can be made regarding social acceptability of IRWH techniques, given the understanding generated about factors affecting social acceptability. The enthusiasm with which the new innovation was received, the high degree of participation by the local farmers during the demonstrations of the workings of IRWH techniques and participation during field trials, and subsequently the high number of farmers practicing IRWH during the first season suggest that these techniques are likely to be employed on a long term basis by many of the farmers in the study area. Based on these findings it can be recommended that extension efforts should be undertaken to encourage adoption and adaptation by farmers.


Critical considerations in the design and conduct of the present study were how to ensure the involvement and participation of all role players (that is, members of particular communities, extension officers and researchers) in the research project, and to focus not only on solving immediate socio-economic problems, but also on ensuring that the knowledge and skills of all concerned are increased. Participatory research approaches have the advantage of combining social investigations, educational work and action, and as such provide an avenue for both the diagnosis of constraints to production activities, formulation of potential solutions and development capabilities of research participants. In the process of undertaking the study reported here, capacity building became one of the important outcomes. Farmers who were interested in learning more about in-field rainwater harvesting techniques and in applying these techniques in their own gardens and crop fields were assisted by the researchers. Training in teamwork, motivation, group dynamics, leadership, etcetera, were also part of the research goals. In addition to empowering farmers during the research process, three students at the University of the Free State will complete their MSc. degrees by conducting further analysis of the information generated during the study.


The results of the study have potential use among farmers, policy makers, agricultural extension officers and the research community. For farmers, rainwater harvesting can help improve crop production, food availability and increase income, while also reducing the risk of crop failure and maintaining or improving productivity of the land/resource base. For policy makers and agricultural extension officers, results clearly demonstrate the production and income advantages of "conservation farming" and this should make it easier to encourage farmers to conserve soil, water and other natural resources. The positive results also provide justification for use of public resources in programmes designed to encourage the conservation of natural resources, for example, subsidies to help farmers to undertake conservation works, and the hiring of more agricultural extension officers. For the research community working on rainwater harvesting and other water conservation techniques, a framework for working with farmers to develop appropriate interventions to address farmers' production constraints is developed and tested in the field with some positive results.


While the preliminary results reported here suggest that the use of IRWH techniques provides social, economic and environmental benefits, these findings come from assessment of the techniques in a short period. There is a need for continued monitoring of the impacts (environmental, economic and social) of these techniques. In this regard it would be necessary to conduct an impact assessment study in three to four seasons from now. This will allow us to have a better understanding of the role that IRWH can play in the farming systems in semi-arid areas. Such a study will also include an assessment of the adoption patterns and its determinants, information which would be useful for guiding future work on water conservation efforts in other parts of the country. There is need for increasing the awareness of policy makers at national and sub-regional levels, of the potential of these production techniques.