Flood-Based Livelihoods Symposium: Harnessing the potential of flood water

Flood-based Farming in Taita county, Kenya. Photo: World Agroforestry/Lydia Spilsbury

Researchers, governments and development agencies are hastening to harness the potential of floodwater for securing food security and sustainable livelihoods.

Seasonal flooding is largely considered a destructive hazard that disrupts many agricultural activities and livelihoods. However, according to the Global Resilience Partnership, ‘Floods are not always a hazard. They may also sustain aquatic life and riverine biodiversity, recharge aquifers, enrich soils and in some of the world’s poorest areas they are the main source of irrigation’.

Researchers, governments and various development agencies are hastening to harness the unused potential of floodwater for securing food security and sustainable livelihoods. Approximately 55 people from ten different countries, including Malawi, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Netherlands, joined the Flood-Based Livelihoods Systems Symposium, 4–8 March 2019 in Voi, Kenya. The Symposium shared knowledge of, and targeted investment towards, highly rewarding and inclusive flood-based livelihoods systems in arid and semi-arid regions in Africa and Asia.

Flood-based livelihoods systems are those that harvest floodwater to support farming, fisheries, agroforestry, livestock grazing, recharge and groundwater storage. It is often the poorest and most vulnerable rural populations whose livelihoods and food security rely on unpredictable flood seasons. Investing in flood-based livelihoods systems could lift up to 800 million people out of poverty.

Abraham Mehari oc MetaMeta Speaking at the FBLS Symposium 2019. Photo: World Agroforestry/Lydia Spilsbury

‘Flood-prone areas are increasingly becoming important livelihood hubs as climate change causes a move into dryer climates to produce enough food for increasing populations,’ said Abraham Mehari of Meta Meta. ‘Managing floods is a very important part of the future.’

The Flood-based Livelihoods Systems Network Foundation, established in 2004, aims to maximize the livelihoods’ potential of flood-prone areas by conducting solution-oriented research, building farmers’ networks and contributing to capacity building of young professionals to promote the development of, and investment in, flood-based livelihoods systems. With partners located throughout Asia and Africa, the network has more than 800 members, consisting of professionals, practitioners and farmers.

The Symposium was focused on sharing knowledge and experience between practitioners, local governments, farmers, donors and the NGO community. Sharing knowledge is the most important element of the Network because it encourages partners in the agriculture and water sectors to work together to improve flood-based livelihoods systems by building practices related to water distribution, water governance, soil-moisture retention and fertility, flood-based crops and fisheries, and conflict-mitigation mechanisms.

Scientists from World Agroforestry and partner organizations presented various projects and water-harvesting techniques that demonstrate the potential of floods to lead to increased crop area and higher standard yields.

Participants of the Flood-Based Livelihoods Systems Symposium 2019. Photo: World Agroforestry/ Lydia Spilsbury

Alex Oduor, programme officer with Water Management discussed the benefits of the Household Pond Protocol Application, an initiative launched by World Agroforestry through the Billion Dollar Business Alliance. The alliance promotes farm-pond technology for agribusiness and dryland-farming systems.

‘Small-scale farm ponds are a premier technology that create water independence at a household level given their low infrastructural complexity, modest costs and visible social impact,’ said Oduor.

A farm pond used to capture flood-water in Taita County, Kenya. Photo: World Agroforestry/ Lydia Spilsbury

Other technical innovations discussed included road-water harvesting, the use of mapping and models to identify risks and uncertainties, and remoting-sensing imagery to identify crop performance in Gash, Sudan.

Discussions during the Symposium identified a need to implement efficient and resilient floodwater governance and management systems.

‘Attention must be given to social and economic aspects of water harvesting,’ said Abdulla Noaman, PhD candidate with the UNESCO IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. ‘Water rights, gender and land tenure are all key factors to promote a productive landscape.’

‘There should be stringent plans, policies and governance systems that ensure that we operate our landscapes in a much more sustainable way,’ said Miambo Malesu, World Agroforestry’s Eastern and Southern Africa Programme coordinator for Water Management. ‘Floods are directly related to land-use. The way we manage our land will directly relate to whether the presence of flooding will increase or decrease.’

A dried-up dam in Taita Taveta, Kenya. Photo: World Agroforestry/Lydia Spilsbury

The amount of flood- and rainwater harvested in Kenya remains low, putting significant pressure on water sources during prolonged droughts. Water availability is increasingly under pressure owing to climate change, land degradation and population growth. More than ever, the water-storage potential of floods needs to be realised in order to sustain rural livelihoods.

Following a recent geospatial assessment of potential flood-based livelihoods’ zones in Kenya, approximately 400,000 hectares were identified. Ten counties were noted as possible beneficiaries for investments in water storage and management: Taita Taveta, Turkana, Busia, Marsabit, Tana River, Kajiado, Siaya, Kisumu, Garissa and Baringo.

Prof Fed Segor, Principal Secretary for the State Department for Irrigation. Photo: World Agroforestry/Lydia Spilsbury

‘Flood-based livelihoods systems have the potential to contribute to Kenya’s Big 4 Agenda on 100% food and nutrition security,’ said Fred Segor, principal secretary of the State Department for Irrigation.

A major outcome of the discussions at the Symposium is that the Government of Kenya has committed to constructing 125,000 household water-pans and ten large dams, community-based small dams, lagoons and other forms of water-storage infrastructure by the year 2022 in several flood-prone counties. The Government committed to working closely with partners to realise implementation.

Despite all this effort by committed and hard-working people, much remains to be done. The conference called for governments and development agencies to engage more youth and women, empower entire communities to engage in flood-based livelihoods systems’ activities, strengthen local institutions, and involve the private sector through innovative business models and reviews of national policies to back further investments in water storage, agroforestry, innovative technologies and flood-based farming.

The Flood-Based Livelihoods International Symposium was organized by World Agroforestry, International Fund for Agricultural Development, European Commission, Meta Meta andthe State Department for Irrigation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation. Other bodies, notably, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale ZusammenarbeitKenya and the county governments of Siaya and Kisumu, supported World Agroforestry in financing participation in the Symposium. World Agroforestry hosted six thematic sessions to demonstrate the technical practices and innovations that can be used to improve flood-based farming and irrigation systems. Speakers included representatives from Kenya’s State Department of Irrigation, county governments of Siaya, Kisumu and Busia, National Irrigation Board, International Water Management Institute, CGIAR Research Programme on Water, Land and Ecosystems, Meta Meta, and farmers’ representatives.

Also read:

Govt to construct over 125,000 water pans to harness flood waters

Kenya launches national program to harvest rainwater


World Agroforestry (ICRAF) is a centre of scientific and development excellence that harnesses the benefits of trees for people and the environment. Knowledge produced by ICRAF enables governments, development agencies and farmers to utilize the power of trees to make farming and livelihoods more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable at multiple scales. ICRAF is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. We thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.



Lydia Spilsbury

Lydia Spilsbury is a communications intern for the Eastern and Southern Africa regional office and is based at the headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. She provides communication support at both programme and country levels, producing communication materials, covering events and writing blogs and success stories. She has been with ICRAF since January 2019 and holds a Master's degree in Environment and Development from the University of Edinburgh

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