Wetlands and Agriculture in Africa: Sustainable Development?

By Alan Dixon.

2014 has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Family Farming

– and in recognition of this the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance this year chose the theme of ‘Wetlands and Agriculture’ for its World Wetlands Day events back in February. As an academic who has spent almost 20 years researching the dynamic interrelationships between wetland ecosystems and peoples livelihoods and agriculture in Africa, I cannot help but feel that this recognition, while welcomed, is been long overdue.

The relationship between wetlands and livelihood development

Wetlands have played a key role in the livelihoods of people in Africa for millennia, not least because they have been sources of food and water for people living in often dry and semi-arid environments. Indeed, much has been made in the academic literature over the last 30 years of the capacity of wetlands to provide a diverse range of ecosystem services which have benefitted people and the environment. However, the relationship between wetlands and livelihood development (and arguably the very survival of people) has, up until now, been neglected in the global discourse of wetland management which has largely been dominated and driven by environmental and conservation concerns. While one positive effect of this in Africa has been an increasing recognition among policy makers of the environmental importance of wetlands and the need to conserve them, this has often gone hand in hand with a persistent view that local people constitute the principal agents of wetland destruction; the transformation of wetlands by drainage for subsistence agriculture has, and continues to be, regarded in many places as unacceptable. Consequently, many wetland management initiatives have sought to actively exclude potentially ‘destructive’ farmers and pastoralists from the planning and decision-making process.

Wetland Management and Sustainable Livelihoods in Africa

In my recent Earthscan book “Wetland Management and Sustainable Livelihoods in Africa”, I and my co-authors argue that such policies and practices are no longer acceptable or indeed relevant in the light of the challenges facing human development and livelihood security throughout Africa in the 21st Century. Rather, we argue that peoples’ use of wetlands for multiple sustainable benefits, of an economic, social and environmental nature, must be the main focus. The majority of Africa’s population (estimated to be around 1 billion) continue to live in rural areas where a life of smallholder subsistence agriculture, and a lack of access to basic needs, such as food and water, have entrenched many people in poverty. Despite some progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, recent statistics suggest that food insecurity and under-nourishment continues to rise and this will remain a major challenge not least because of population growth. It is currently estimated that 239 million people are undernourished in Sub-Saharan Africa, and around 340 million people across the continent (the majority of whom live in rural areas) continue to lack access to safe drinking water. Furthermore, recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that climate change across the continent is also likely to compromise food security and agricultural livelihoods due to changes in growing seasons, increased rainfall variability and water shortages.

Wetlands have a critical role to play in supporting and developing peoples’ livelihoods

These are the issues that must be addressed, and wetlands have a critical role to play in supporting and developing peoples’ livelihoods, reducing poverty, improving food security and, in the wider context, contributing towards sustainable development. We are not advocating the indiscriminate agricultural conversion of wetlands by people, but rather a balanced approach that seeks to optimise and sustain the benefits for poor rural populations while simultaneously safeguarding vital ecosystem services. There is evidence that this can be achieved; in our book we draw upon a range of case studies from around Africa that highlight that win-win scenarios for environment and development are possible, providing that local people are given the opportunity to participate in, and contribute their skills, knowledge and experience to, the policy-making and management process. This is not rocket science. It is merely about recognising that local people themselves have a vested interest in sustaining the benefits from wetlands. It is also about looking beyond the environmental discourse and seeing wetlands more holistically as dynamic socio-ecological systems where social and ecological adaptations and trade-offs take place. There is much more work to be done, not least in terms of evaluating the experiences and challenges facing smallholder wetland-users in Africa, but at least in 2014 these issues are finally on the international agenda.

Dr Alan Dixon
Principal Lecturer in Geography
University of Worcester

For more information on Alan’s book see:



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