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Managing variability and scarcity. An analysis of Engaruka: A Maasai smallholder irrigation farming community
Stockholm University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Human Geography.
2015 (English)In: Agricultural Water Management, ISSN 0378-3774, E-ISSN 1873-2283, Vol. 159, 318-330 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

This article examines the common-pool regime of Engaruka, a smallholder irrigation farming community in northern Tanzania. Irrigation is a complex issue due to water asymmetry. Water use is regulated in Engaruka through boundary, allocation, input and penalty rules by a users’ association that controls and negotiates water allocation to avoid conflicts among headenders and tailenders. As different crops – maize and beans, bananas and vegetables – are cultivated, different watering schemes are applied depending on the water requirements of every single crop. Farmers benefit from different irrigation schedules and from different soil characteristics through having their plots both downstream and upstream. In fact, depending on water supply, cultivation is resourcefully extended and retracted. Engaruka is an ethnically homogeneous and interdependent community where headenders and tailenders are often the same people and are hence inhibited to carry out unilateral action. Drawing on common-pool resource literature, this study argues that in a context of population pressure alongside limited and fluctuating water availability, non-equilibrium behavior, consisting in negotiating water rights and modifying irrigation area continuously through demand management, is crucial for the satisfaction of basic and productive needs and for the avoidance of water conflicts.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2015. Vol. 159, 318-330 p.
Keyword [en]
Smallholder farming, Canal irrigation, Common-pool regimes, Non-equilibrium behavior, Tanzania
National Category
Agricultural Science Human Geography
Research subject
Geography with Emphasis on Human Geography
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-118821DOI: 10.1016/j.agwat.2015.05.015ISI: 000359330000029OAI: diva2:839809
Sida - Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SWE 2010-209
Available from: 2015-07-05 Created: 2015-07-05 Last updated: 2015-10-27Bibliographically approved
In thesis
1. East African Hydropatriarchies: An analysis of changing waterscapes in smallholder irrigation farming
Open this publication in new window or tab >>East African Hydropatriarchies: An analysis of changing waterscapes in smallholder irrigation farming
2015 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This thesis examines the local waterscapes of two smallholder irrigation farming systems in the dry lands of East African in a context of socio-ecological changes. It focuses on three aspects: institutional arrangements, gender relations and landscape investments. 

This thesis is based on a reflexive analysis of cross-cultural, cross-language research, particularly focusing on the role of field assistants and interpreters, and on member checking as a method to ensure validity.

Flexible irrigation infrastructure in Sibou, Kenya, and Engaruka, Tanzania, allow farmers to shift the course of water and to extend or reduce the area cultivated depending on seasonal rainfall patterns. Water conflicts are avoided through a decentralized common property management system. Water rights are continuously renegotiated depending on water supply. Water is seen as a common good the management of which is guided by mutual understanding to prevent conflicts through participation and shared information about water rights.

However, participation in water management is a privilege that is endowed mostly to men. Strict patriarchal norms regulate control over water and practically exclude women from irrigation management. The control over water usage for productive means is a manifestation of masculinity. The same gender bias has emerged in recent decades as men have increased their engagement in agriculture by cultivating crops for sale. Women, because of their subordinated position, cannot take advantage of the recent livelihood diversification. Rather, the cultivation of horticultural products for sale has increased the workload for women who already farm most food crops for family consumption. In addition, they now have to weed and harvest the commercial crops that their husbands sell for profit. This agricultural gender divide is mirrored in men´s and women´s response to increased climate variability. Women intercrop as a risk adverting strategy, while men sow more rounds of crops for sale when the rain allows for it. Additionally, while discursively underestimated by men, women´s assistance is materially fundamental to maintaining of the irrigation infrastructure and to ensuring the soil fertility that makes the cultivation of crops for sale possible.

In sum, this thesis highlights the adaptation potentials of contemporary smallholder irrigation systems through local common property regimes that, while not inclusive towards women, avoid conflicts generated by shifting water supply and increased climate variability.

To be able to assess the success and viability of irrigation systems, research must be carried out at a local level. By studying how local water management works, how conflicts are adverted through common property regimes and how these systems adapt to socio-ecological changes, this thesis provides insights that are important both for the planning of current irrigation schemes and the rehabilitation or the extension of older systems. By investigating the factors behind the consistent marginalization of women from water management and their subordinated role in agricultural production, this study also cautions against the reproduction of these discriminatory norms in the planning of irrigation projects.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University, 2015. 81 p.
Meddelanden från Kulturgeografiska institutionen vid Stockholms universitet, ISSN 0585-3508 ; 150
smallholder irrigation farming, local gender contract, landesque capital, common property regimes, dry lands, feminist epistemology, member checking, Kenya, Tanzania
National Category
Human Geography
Research subject
Geography with Emphasis on Human Geography
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-120591 (URN)978-91-7649-206-2 (ISBN)
Public defence
2015-11-06, De Geersalen, Geovetenskapens hus, Svante Arrhenius väg 14, Stockholm, 14:00 (English)
Sida - Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SWE2009-210

At the time of the doctoral defense, the following paper was unpublished and had a status as follows: Paper 4: Manuscript.


Available from: 2015-10-15 Created: 2015-09-14 Last updated: 2015-11-03Bibliographically approved

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