For smallholders and dams, one size doesn't fit all

Photos taken for the Global Water Initiative in West Africa in villages around the Sélingué dam in Mali show that when it comes to the irrigation schemes surrounding large dams, there is no 'standard' example of a family farmer.

Lucile Robinson's picture
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6 August 2015

Lucile Robinson is knowledge and communications coordinator for the Global Water Initiative – West Africa

A farmer on his motorbike on the bank between irrigated fields. In the background, pylons carry hydroelectric power from the Sélingué dam (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

A farmer on his motorbike on the bank between irrigated fields. In the background, pylons carry hydroelectric power from the Sélingué dam (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

The Global Water Initiative (GWI) has been working with smallholders living near Sélingué dam since 2009 to find out how the dam affects the livelihoods of local farmers and what improvements could be made. The Sélingué dam serves a number of functions, including providing hydropower and irrigation for agriculture – primarily rice.

To reduce poverty and ensure higher levels of productivity, governments need to understand who these farmers are and how best to support them.

Diversification helps smallholders be more resilient

While the Malian government favours rice monocultures, many of the family farmers we work with grow a range of crops or earn a living from non-agricultural activities. This helps them cope with unpredictable weather conditions, as well as changing market prices. The government and family farmers' different perspectives need to be reconciled

Farmers who lived in the area before the dam was built often have access to rain-fed plots and pasture as well as irrigated land. As a result, they have different needs in terms of land tenure and agricultural support services.

(Click on each of the images below to expand them).

Moussa Traoré, a 30-year-old father with one child, is growing okra. His crop has been affected by insects from a badly-maintained neighbouring plot. Next year he plans to grow maize instead. He also grows rice and the two plots are enough to feed his family. He tried mining once but didn’t like it (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI) Moussa Samgare, 18, is a tailor who also owns a plot of irrigated land. He works in the field every morning from 7am, then goes to his shop and works there until 6pm (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

Land allocation according to family needs

Irrigation plots were allocated after the dam was built according to different criteria.

People farming around Sélingué include families displaced by the dam construction who were given plots in the irrigation scheme where they mainly grow rice; families who lived in the area before the dam was built and still have their rain-fed plots in addition to irrigated land; and migrants and retired public servants who have come to Sélingué to start farming on the irrigation scheme.

The size of plot, and the resources and advice services available, determine whether or not they can live off the land or need to rely on non-agricultural income sources.

Diola Coulibaly, 79, is a retired soldier, with a small garden plot (0.04 hectares) that he uses to grow rice. He has a hectare of rice in another part of Sélingué, and also grows okra. Diola has two wives and eight children. His son, Moussa Coulibaly, 19, and his son’s wife Mamou Coulibaly, 18, work with him. Diola has an army pension and his sons do most of the work. The family share their harvest between them (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

Seydou Kassojue, 47, has a garden plot (0.1 ha) where he grows lettuce. He can get four crop yields per year from this plot. He makes 50,000-100,000 CFA per season selling the lettuces to support his two wives and five children. He has been a farmer for 27 years and one of his wives has another plot as a member of a woman's co-op (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

Bogory Carara, 51, and his family came from Dalaba Koro (old Dalaba) when they were displaced by the Sélingué dam construction in 1980. He says the dam improved infrastructure, such as roads and electricity, but initially the family didn’t have any land to grow food. In 1983 he got one hectare to grow rice, in 1985 one hectare for maize and then extra land for maize and rice in 1998 and 1999, for a total 2.82 ha. Now he grows rice on all his land, using mostly organic fertiliser (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)Seydou Haidara, 35, spreading chemical fertiliser on his 0.10 ha rice field. He has another 0.75 ha plot elsewhere and only works in agriculture because the income from both fields is enough to feed the family (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

Benefits of flexible land tenure

Not everyone is able, or best suited, to farm the land that they have. Others, who don't have access to any land, or enough to meet their needs, are seeking farm work to supplement their income or as a way of earning their living.

As the land on the irrigation scheme is public land, it cannot officially be sold, inherited or rented out, even though sometimes this would benefit both the smallholder and others. Many plot holders do hire out land for one or more cropping seasons – informally – usually because they lack resources for seed, fertiliser, labour and so on, to cultivate it themselves.

Different land tenure solutions exist that could provide more security and flexibility for farmers, such as long leases.

Benogo Diarra, 25, needs to earn enough to cover his subsistence as a miner so he looks after cattle for Modibou Diallo, 42, who is an agronomist in the civil service working for the Sélingué dam management agency (ODRS) (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI) Zoumana Coulibaly, 26, has been working as a motorbike mechanic for six years. He repairs three or four bikes daily, and makes 3,500 to 5,000 CFA per day. He also owns some rain-fed land, which someone else cultivates (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)
Responding to the needs of family farmers

If farmers are to be able to increase their productivity, level of income and improve food security, they must have access to agricultural advice and support services, as well as access to markets and to inputs such as fertiliser and seeds.

A family farming rice and cassava, or bananas, needs advice and support for all aspects of their smallholding. The particular needs of women, young people and the elderly must also be reflected and addressed.

Farmers' organisations need to play a stronger role in determining how agricultural services are provided and the dam management agencies need to recognise and be accountable to these organisations. Many of these changes require policymakers to make 'soft' rather than 'hard' investments – in communication and training as well as fertiliser and machinery.

Ogobara Kodjo, the fertiliser company representative in Sélingué, with sacks of phosphate fertiliser (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI) Bakary Diawara, agricultural engineer and chief of the Sélingué advice team (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

A stall selling seeds, and agricultural inputs on market day. Most farmers complain about the high cost of inputs (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI) Fatim Dolo moved here to join her husband. They have a garden plot (0.1 ha) and grow okra and potato leaves. They sell the leaves at the market for 4,000 to 5,000 CFA. With better advice they could probably double their production (Photo: Mike Goldwater/GWI)

Lucile Robinson ( is knowledge and communications coordinator for the Global Water Initiative – West Africa.


IIED and its partners will be holding a side event, titled 'Towards socially just and economically viable dams in West Africa', at World Water Week 2015 in Stockholm, Sweden from 23-28 August, 2015 to share some of the lessons learnt from the work of the GWI in West Africa, and exchange experiences with others from across the globe about how to make large multi-purpose dams more 'socially just and economically viable'.

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