How Women Can Maximize the Nutrition and Health Benefits of Irrigation for All


by Elizabeth Bryan | October 26, 2015

In response to increasing interest in how health has bearings on the gender-agriculture-nutrition framework, A4NH organized a seminar on Agriculture, Gender, and Health: Tracing the Links on October 20, 2015. The seminar provided three case studies in how gender dynamics in rural livelihoods influence health, and in turn, nutrition. Kelly Jones shared an overview of gender issues in health research and then presented on recent research that traces how livelihood shocks increase HIV transmission through transactional sex, especially for women. Delia Grace introduced a gender-sensitive participatory risk assessment framework for addressing food safety. Elizabeth Bryan shared research on the links between small-scale irrigation adoption, gender, and health and nutrition outcomes. In this blog, Elizabeth builds on the agriculture-nutrition framework to examine the gendered pathways through which small-scale irrigation can affect nutrition and health outcomes.

Photo: Freweni Gebre Mariam Source: Flickr (IFPRI Images)

Photo: Freweni Gebre Mariam. Source: Flickr (IFPRI Images)

Gaining access to water is one of the main challenges facing agricultural households in Africa south of the Sahara. Water is essential for every aspect of the life and livelihoods of smallholder producers, from drinking and bathing to watering crops and livestock. Yet most agricultural production relies on rainfall that is variable and becoming increasingly uncertain under climate change, and too many households still do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities.

In this context, the potential for small-scale irrigation to lead to dramatic improvements in the well-being of rural producers is immense. Small-scale irrigation can affect nutrition and health outcomes through several pathways, all of which are strongly influenced by gender. Paying careful attention to gendered differences in access to as well as needs and preferences for water technologies and their uses, is essential to ensure that irrigation interventions provide the greatest benefits in terms of health and nutrition while minimizing risks. This blog describes the ways in which gender interplays with the key pathways through which irrigation can contribute to improved health and nutrition outcomes.

Photo: Yonas Bogale. Source: Flickr (IFPRI Images)

The production pathway. Irrigation can double or triple crop yields and expands the production calendar into the lean season, enabling farmers to plant crops multiple times per year. It can also reduce production risk, by providing supplemental water when rains fail, which might well occur more frequently with climate change. However, the extent to which these production gains translate into improved health and nutrition outcomes depends greatly on who in the household adopts and how the technology is used. There is some evidence to suggest that women are more likely to use irrigation to grow crops for household consumption including more nutritious crops such as leafy green vegetables, while men tend to prefer to use irrigation to grow cash crops.

The income pathway. Small-scale irrigation may indirectly benefit nutrition and health outcomes to the extent that income gained through the sale of irrigated crops is used to increase food expenditures or health spending, such as on malaria treatment or prevention. Irrigation may also create opportunities for employment due to increased agricultural productivity and expansion of the production calendar into slack periods. This would increase the income of agricultural workers even if they do not cultivate their own lands, thereby providing an income pathway for these households to improve nutrition and health outcomes. Gender is a key factor influencing the extent to which increased income leads to improved nutrition and health outcomes. Men and women tend to spend income in different ways with women more likely to spend the income they control on food, health and education. Therefore, women’s control over income from the sale of irrigated crops and from agricultural employment is essential for realizing health and nutrition gains from irrigation.

Photo: Milo Mitchell. Source: Flickr (IFPRI Images)

Photo: Milo Mitchell. Source: Flickr (IFPRI Images)

The water supply and sanitation pathway. Irrigation water can often be used for other domestic or productive purposes such as drinking, washing, livestock watering and aquaculture. These multiple uses of irrigation water may be unplanned or by design. Again, the extent to which gender preferences are considered may lead to different outcomes. Given women’s and children’s responsibility to collect water for domestic purposes, the more women are involved in the design of irrigation systems, the more likely multiple uses of irrigation water will be integrated. This can lead to more dramatic health benefits, such as a reduction in diarrhea incidence due to the presence of more water for hygienic purposes.

The health risks pathway. Irrigation may also increase health risks, through an increase in the incidence of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, and through an increase in pollution from agricultural production, given increased use of agricultural chemicals which are often used to complement irrigation. Gender roles in the household will influence how this pathway plays out. For example, time spent caring for sick family members, a typical role of women in the household, is likely to increase with the growing incidence of vector-borne diseases. Women may also play a vital role in mitigating any negative impacts of irrigation by increasing preventive measures, such as purchasing bed nets, or engaging in agro-environmental prevention measures related to livestock and water management.

The women’s empowerment pathway. Women not only influence the pathways through which irrigation affects nutrition and health outcomes, but are also directly affected by the introduction of irrigation. If not carefully planned and targeted, irrigation may lead to negative outcomes for women by increasing their time burden or increasing the gender gap in decision-making authority and asset ownership. At the same time, irrigation can contribute to women’s empowerment to the extent that women are able to access irrigation technologies that meet their needs, and have control over irrigated crops and the income from crop sales. There are several examples of irrigation projects targeted toward women, such as the Hellen Keller International homestead garden program, which show direct benefits for women participants, such as an increase in assets and income controlled by women.

To investigate the ways in which gender interacts with irrigation and nutrition and health outcomes, IFPRI has developed a modified Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), which includes more details on irrigation. In particular, it includes details on gender differences in decision-making regarding irrigated food crop and cash crop farming, autonomy in decision-making regarding which crops to produce, access to productive capital including irrigation equipment, access to information regarding irrigation, and time spent irrigating. The modified WEAI also adds several response options to questions on credit and savings, to determine the extent to which men and women use these financial resources for irrigation.

This modified WEAI is being rolled out as part of two projects examining the impact of small-scale irrigation in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Tanzania: The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation and the Impact of Irrigation on Agricultural Productivity, Nutrition, Health and Women’s Empowerment in Ghana. These projects will analyze data from irrigating and non-irrigating households these countries to determine the extent to which women’s empowerment or disempowerment contributes to nutrition and health outcomes as well as the extent to which irrigation contributes to women’s empowerment. Early results show slight differences in WEAI scores for irrigators and non-irrigators in Ethiopia and Tanzania, with women irrigators in Tanzania more empowered than non-irrigators and non-irrigators in Ethiopia more empowered than irrigators. IFPRI will be examining the reasons for these differences over the next several months. Stay tuned for more results on this topic!

For Further Reading:

This post is part of a blog, the Gender-Nutrition Idea Exchange, maintained by the CRP on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health. To add your comments below, please register with Disqus or log-in using your Facebook, Twitter, or Google accounts. You must be signed-in or registered in order to leave a comment.