Urgent action needed to prevent food shortages in West Africa’s Volta Basin

15 July, 2013 by (comments)

Tens of thousands living in West Africa’s Volta Basin could be displaced in 15 years because they won’t be able to grow enough food where they live.

Their once fertile land is becoming so severely degraded due to poor land management practices that scientists predict food production in the area could drop by as much as 40% by 2028 – unless urgent action is taken, according to new studies.

Volta River

Add to that the pressure of rapid population growth, and the strain on food security is already causing many to migrate.

The short term financial benefits of riverbank cultivation, deforestation and bush burning have become common practice at a huge cost to the environment and future food security, particularly in Northern Ghana, which receives less rainfall.

Scientists from four institutions are working with communities in the Volta Basin to address the causes of land degradation, find solutions to mitigate its detrimental effect on eco-systems before it is too late, as part of the Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE) research programme. The Volta Basin Development Challenge Program falls under the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), and ongoing work includes scientists from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Le Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) and Wageningen University.

The biggest hurdle is how to encourage communities to change the way they use the land when so many rely on it for their livelihoods, which can often be in direct conflict with each other.

Scorched landscape due to bush burningFor example, for farmers, bush burning is a way of life – a massive 80% of the landscape is set ablaze to prepare for the next planting season. It also saves on labour, has been reported to increase soil fertility in the short term, and results in fresh grass sprouts that serve as feed for livestock. But it also leaves the land with little vegetative cover, kills microbial activity in the soil, reducing agricultural productivity in the long term, and leaves farmland highly vulnerable to erosion. Soil washed away by rain silts up dams, reduces water availability and increases the risk of flooding, whole also affecting water quality and fish stocks. Further afield, the productivity of hydroelectric plants supplying power to urban populations is affected by reduced water flows.

Dr. Jacob Tumbulto, basin resident and Director of the Volta Basin Observatory, in the Volta Basin Authority, explains how soil erosion has affected his community. “In my village, apart from learning how to swim in a small reservoir, we harvested fish, snails, frogs and some edible fruits from water plants on a yearly basis from it. We were in primary school then. Now, one can play football on part of the area that used to be permanently underwater. These small reservoirs that were once very productive in terms of ecosystem services are now dry lands because of soil erosion.”

Sediment deposits in the white volta riverFred Kizito, CIAT Senior Scientist on soils, water and landscapes, added: “We’re not just looking at one small area of the basin; we’re looking at the entire landscape, where land use in one area is affecting ecosystem services, livelihoods and food production in another. If the land is to be managed sustainably, the different needs and perceptions of the people involved must be addressed. The only way to do that is to bring those living off the land together with traditional leaders and civic society to identify regional land and water management issues and find sustainable solutions.”

At a recent workshop to identify alternatives to bush burning and river bank cultivation in the White Volta River Basin, farmers, district leaders and regional administrators from the Golinga and Digu communities unanimously agreed which interventions would be most effective, and will now work with the Water Resources Commission of Ghana to raise funds to implement them.

While it will be a long, time-consuming process, bringing all the stakeholders together will build the most crucial element to resolving the problem – collective ownership. Without it, no one will have an invested interest in changing the way they use the land and preventing mass migration from the area over the next 15 years.


Fred Kizito from CIAT will present his work on 16 July at the CGIAR booth at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week in Accra, Ghana. For the latest on the event, follow the AASW Blog and Twitter feed #AASW6.

The Volta Basin, one of the major river basins in Africa, traverses Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo. The White Volta River Basin, one of the four main sub-basins of the Volta Basin home to over 1.6 million people, provides 20% of the inflow to the Volta Lake where much of the region’s electricity is produced from hydropower stations. The northern section of the White Volta river basin is characterized by smallholder mixed crop-livestock systems, mainly subsistence, farmers growing mostly millet and sorghum with poor and unpredictable rainfall distribution.

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