This article was originally published on Devex.
Despite producing the majority of the world's food, many family and smallholder farmers live in poverty. Unequal land redistribution and little investment and recognition of their importance mean that small family farmers occupy only limited proportions of agricultural land in most countries, frequently under insecure and uncertain forms of tenure.
Water management is a key component to the success or failure of crops, and in the case of small family farmers, bad water management can mean catastrophic loss of livelihood. The climate crisis is leading to droughts and floods, rendering farms unviable and prone to crop failures.
When farmers and water users unite as cooperatives for community-based water management, it is easier for them to access government assistance such as loans and sophisticated agriculture technologies that can support irrigation in harsh times. It also increases the sustainability of the water and agricultural systems and ultimately boosts food production and security.
Our experience in Kyrgyzstan, where regional water scarcity is proving a major setback for small farming, provides lessons for the Central Asia region and beyond to improve sustainable water management and food systems.
Water scarcity, poor management, and climate change
In 1995, the Kyrgyz government underwent a huge land reform that centred on giving individual land plots for its people to boost economic productivity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This resulted in a surge of family farmers. However, over the years, these family farmers have struggled with accessing agriculture support services and infrastructure, such as irrigation. The government, on the other hand, also finds it challenging to provide assistance to individuals and/or single families.
“Family farmers and small-scale producers must be given their rightful place in feeding the world of the future.”
Water scarcity has also increasingly become a cause of conflict in the wider region. Many nations in Central Asia have been suffering from water feuds for a long time because of rivers and other water sources that overlap multiple borders. Countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have abundant water supplies while others do not.
In most countries in Central Asia, agriculture is highly dependent on irrigation. Kyrgyzstan, for example, is made up of huge mountainous ecosystems, and with climate change, the winter season gets drier and leads to frequent and extended droughts. Traditional pastoralist lifestyle, or nomadic herding, across Central Asia is increasingly compromised by rapid climate change and the alarming rate of land degradation exacerbated by overgrazing, poor land use planning, and the denial of land and resource-ownership rights.
Local solutions from the ground up
The National Union of the Water Users’ Association is a civil society organization that champions community-based resource management as a solution to addressing the impacts of climate change in Kyrgyzstan and is a member of the International Land Coalition.
NUWUA connects local farmers and pastoralists with Water Users’ Unions, which are Kyrgyz NGOs that manage, operate, and maintain irrigation systems at a local level. Other than for crop irrigation, the water may be used for animal husbandry, drinking, and day-to-day use.
NUWUA also organizes capacity-building sessions for the Water Users’ Unions for increased water management efficiency and effectiveness. Innovative technologies such as drip irrigation systems, adding more water pumps to arid farmlands, and supporting the local government’s programs to construct water reserves are some of the local solutions we’ve seen succeed in alleviating water shortages.
Glaciers and snowfields are the main sources of water in Kyrgyzstan. However, climate change has caused a sharp increase in glacier melting. According to the United Nations Development Programme Kyrgyzstan, the total area covered with glaciers had decreased by 16% to 17% from 1940 to 2021.
Solutions such as artificial glaciers, initiated by Pasture User Unions, have benefited local communities in the event of extreme climate change. Artificial glaciers are ice stupas constructed during the winter and used as a source of freshwater in late spring and early summer. With rather affordable and basic techniques, local communities in rural Kyrgyzstan are now able to use meltwater from artificial glaciers for raising livestock and crop irrigation during severe water shortages.
In the country’s northern regions, grain crops such as wheat, barley, corn, and others are more common. Yet family farmers in the country have also adapted to alternative agriculture techniques to offset the impact of extended drought. In southern Kyrgyzstan provinces such as Osh and Jalal-Abad, where the climate is warmer, farmers have been practicing agroforestry, or the integration of agriculture in the forests, as it proves to be more beneficial.
Crops such as apples, cherries, and apricots require much less water, making them more suitable for lands with limited irrigation systems. The return to agroforestry techniques in southern Kyrgyzstan also allows farmers to grow many crops close to each other, where for example, fruit trees act as a shelter to vegetable crops as they are taller, providing shade from the sun and soil moisture for the shorter crops.
Family farmers and small-scale producers must be given their rightful place in feeding the world of the future. Encouraging better land and water management among small-scale farmers can also help in adopting long-term farming perspectives, ensuring they can provide their families with sustainable incomes and improved livelihoods while boosting food production and repairing damaged ecosystems.
The time is now for governments, civil society, donors, and other stakeholders to build the resilience of family and small-scale farmers, pastoralists, and food producers in the face of the globally escalating climate crisis. By giving these communities access to and control over land and water, they will invest more in agricultural practices for a healthy diet and planet.