ESPA Water Futures

This project aims to understand how agricultural productivity can be enhanced and sustained by irrigation, through improved management of ecosystem services, in order to alleviate poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Through case studies in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, we will seek to provide new data and models which can be used to assess the availability of water for agriculture – informed by a study of the social and economic factors which affect poor people’s ability to benefit.

Full project description

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This project is supported by a Partnership and Project Development (PPD) grant through the Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID).


Situational Analyses

Future outputs

The most important output at this stage will be a full proposal for an ESPA consortium project.

That project would aim to develop an integrated suite of modelling tools, which would

  • incorporate both physical and socio-economic processes
  • be informed by a detailed understanding of local conditions and knowledge sets.

Other key anticipated outputs under the proposed research would include:

  • a multi-dimensional analysis of ‘risks’ to livelihoods associated with various local-regional and global drivers, and appropriate pro-poor policy responses;
  • analysis of water allocation and trade-off scenarios between competing demands of agriculture, environmental flows and other ecosystem services;
  • integration of socio-economic analyses of local water and food practices with crop modelling;
  • development and application of new and more sophisticated water availability metrics;
  • integration of climate information (forecasts, scenarios) and the JULES land-surface model; and
  • improved representation of catchment hydrology and especially water stores (groundwater) in the JULES land-surface model.


Evidence and tools developed under the proposed research (consortium grant) would be made available via high-profile publications, training workshops and policy-relevant briefs of research findings.

Researchers outside of the consortium will benefit from the publication of a state-of-the-art review paper on the key challenges of socio-economic and environmental science in reducing poverty through improved use of water for irrigation.

Scientists within the research consortium will benefit from the PPD grant through:

  • development of new conceptual approaches to addressing the complex questions of sustainability and poverty around food and water
  • an improved awareness of the available tools and integrated methodologies, and
  • a grounded understanding, based on stakeholder engagement, of the ecosystem, drivers of change, relevant actors, information needs, and available data.


New partnerships

The ESPA Water for Food Consortium will establish new partnerships between leading physical and social scientists in Africa and the UK, and create a truly interdisciplinary research consortium.




Africa Region


Evidence and models

Water for food production

The production of food plays a fundamental role in social and economic well-being. In Sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture accounts for over half of most countries’ GDP and up to two thirds of the labour force, yet hunger has increased and food productivity declined in recent years. The region is vulnerable to extreme climate variability and climate change, as almost all of Africa’s food production is rain-fed.

Many international bodies call for more irrigation but it is not clear where the water will come from; who will benefit; and what are the trade-offs as competition for water increases.

The evidence base

The current evidence base and metrics on water availability for agriculture in Africa are inadequate for decision making. The ability of poor people to benefit from enhanced agricultural production also depends on access to land, credit and markets. It is shaped by unequal power, social and gender relations.

We will develop a sound evidence base to inform and influence key development processes. We propose to lay the foundations for developing an integrated suite of models representing climate, hydrological, land-use, agricultural and (crucially) socio-economic processes for a number of study basins in East Africa.

Using this framework, sustainable, pro-poor water resource development pathways may be analysed. This will involve:

  • developing and applying new and more sophisticated water availability metrics;
  • analysing water allocation and trade-off scenarios between competing demands of agriculture, environmental flows and other ecosystem services;
  • a multi-dimensional analysis of ‘risks’ to livelihoods associated with various local-regional and global drivers, and appropriate pro-poor policy responses; and
  • socio-economic analyses of local water and food practices.

Involving stakeholders

We will use multi-stakeholder fora run by established catchment management organisations in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania involving farmers and other local water users, local and national government bodies, research institutions NGOs and the private sector.

We will seek to understand how local communities deal with risk and uncertainty, and the opportunities they have – or could have – in shaping adaptation planning around pro-poor, small-scale irrigation.

The fora will identify priorities for ecosystem management, which will be evaluated to assess:

  • the utilisation of land for irrigation over land tenure use patterns; and
  • the viability of enhancing or drawing upon water storage to support small-scale irrigation.

We will establish the different organisations competing or co-operating over water resources development, allocation and management, and understand the various institutional settings defining water and land use.

We will also assess the extent to which these commissions and associations empower small-scale farmers for poverty alleviation. Finally, we will situate local and basin-scale findings in the national/international discourse on climate change, water and food, and related policy frameworks.

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