Post U.S. Exit: Agriculture Can Power Women’s Growth in Afghanistan

Author: Hannah Davin, Research Intern (Spring 2021), Center for Strategic and International Studies

Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

On April 14, President Biden announced that the U.S. would begin a sequential withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan. The original U.S. – Taliban Peace Deal, signed in February 2020 under the Trump administration, called for a complete and immediate U.S. military exit by May 1. To uphold the original agreement while achieving full withdrawal of the remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan by the Biden administration’s target date of September 11, the administration will begin the withdrawal process on May 1. In coordination with the U.S. military, NATO has also announced foreign troops under its command will complete their full withdrawal by September 11. 

While Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan may signal ending the “forever war,” there are a growing number of concerns that a final withdrawal will allow the Taliban and other insurgent groups to expand their jurisdiction and hinder the country’s significant political and economic gains. Furthermore, there are concerns that the exit of foreign troops will be a catalyst for notable regressions in human rights, specifically those for women and girls. Women’s rights in Afghanistan have improved substantially over the last two decades. Even so, many believe that the retreat of the U.S. military could negatively impact women’s employment rates, education, and healthcare outcomes. As the U.S. prepares to leave Afghanistan, the Biden administration should take measures to ensure stability and prevent insurgent groups from ascending to power. Policy initiatives that promote women’s rights and participation in the economy would be instrumental in this regard, primarily in the sector that employs a large majority of the nation’s workers: agriculture. Ideally, this would take the form of more opportunities and provisions for women in the sector.

Currently, women who work in Afghanistan’s agriculture sector face numerous challenges. While approximately 42.50 percent of Afghanistan’s population is employed within the sector, it is Afghan women that power its broad-based success. According to the World Bank, in 2019, 64.96 percent of those employed in agriculture were women compared to only 36.60 percent of men. Women’s main activities in the agriculture sector typically involve unpaid, arduous labor such as weeding, watering, and harvesting. Women are also primarily responsible for breeding livestock and for a majority of the tasks related to animal caretaking and upkeep. While women are responsible for a majority of the sector’s makeup and production activities, they are seldom able to participate in market ventures such as the buying and selling of produce and seeds. These positions are disproportionally reserved for men. This suggests that men hold a majority of the power in the sector and typically oversee the relationship between the household and the market.

Due to a lack of both education and funding, access to agricultural capital and land for women with entrepreneurial or self-sustaining ambitions remain largely unattainable in Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan typically do not have access to land rights, even if they have inherited land or it has been legally allocated to them. When women are successfully able to own land and run farms, unfortunately their crop yields are 20 to 30 percent lower than those of farms run by men.

Providing equitable agricultural opportunities for women in Afghanistan has the potential to create new opportunities for women while it boosts GDP and rates of employment and improves the country’s human rights record. However, a hasty U.S. departure coupled with a potential expansion of Taliban control will likely make it more difficult to provide opportunities for women that enable them to make social and economic gains. To protect and expand the rights of women and girls and advocate for their participation in the economy, the Biden administration should look to create opportunities through policies and programs within the agricultural sector as it implements a more gradual withdrawal.

Women’s empowerment in agriculture starts with a restructuring of government policy. Strong laws and policies designed to ensure that women are allowed to contribute to the economy and to validate their status and rights as workers will be essential first steps. In Afghanistan’s agriculture sector, four out of every five female rural workers are considered “unpaid family workers”, compared to only one in five men. It is essential that women participate in local markets and receive agricultural training. Women’s economic opportunities must be expanded through increased access to value chains and regional and national production networks.

Much of women’s economic participation in agriculture remains within Afghanistan’s informal economy as women continue to remain “economically engaged but not economically empowered.” The provision of agricultural skills and marketing training must be prioritized for both women and youth. This could be achieved by providing agricultural courses that are sensitive to the obstacles women face every day, both in Afghanistan’s economy and within the sector itself. It is also evident that women should have the opportunity to own land and run their own farms. Achieving this goal will require removing barriers that do not allow women to obtain personal identity information, as a lack of documentation further restricts their rights to secure land and property.

Incorporating sustainable agricultural practices into Afghanistan also has the opportunity to provide economic sustenance for women. Targeted agricultural courses can teach sustainable farming practices including new planting techniques, tree disease prevention, and proper irrigation methods. In Afghanistan, 30 to 60 percent of harvested fruits and vegetables are lost due to insufficient transportation and temperature control. This can be addressed with solar food dryers which are capable of saving 50 to 70 kilograms of produce in three to five days on a small plot of land. Other agricultural initiatives, such as micro-greenhouses, may be able to reduce the unemployment rates of women during the agricultural off season. For example, in the past, unemployment rates in Afghanistan have increased to 44 percent in the winter up from 20 percent during the summer in rural areas.  Micro-greenhouses provide a way to empower women by providing a source of income during the winter months, as women can cultivate this produce for market as well as for their own consumption.

It is also important for development agencies to continue their work on projects that empower the women already employed in Afghanistan’s agricultural sector. The Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP) and the National Horticulture and Livestock Project (NHLP) are two examples of development projects benefitting Afghanistan’s agriculture industry. The AREDP in particular establishes small-scale enterprises in six districts in the Parwan Province. Of the 868 savings groups established by the program, 488 were for women, enabling them to run small enterprises. Furthermore, the NHLP project has helped over 390,000 male and female farmers. The project focuses on improving access to technology and providing trainings on best agricultural production practices, post-production practices, and how to gauge markets.

As U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan, protecting the rights of women and girls is of paramount importance. Facilitating women’s participation in the agriculture industry, through strong government policies and sustainable agricultural initiatives, has the potential to be an effective means of addressing this priority. Providing opportunities and making space for women in Afghanistan’s agriculture sector opens new doors for economic opportunity, trade, and human rights outcomes. Through an emphasis on stronger sectoral engagement, better access to markets, and the implementation of sustainable agriculture practices and programs, steps can be taken towards sustaining the country’s agricultural sector and furthering gender equality in Afghanistan after the departure of foreign troops and for years to come.

Hannah Davin is a Research Intern for the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based think tank. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she studied Environmental Science and Public Health. She has previously worked for WE ACT for Environmental Justice and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sen. Bill Brock, RIP

Remembering Senator Bill Brock: A Conservative Internationalist who was in the Arena

I’m going to miss Senator Bill Brock.  The former Tennessee Senator Bill Brock passed away at age 90 on Thursday, March 25th, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Senator Brock was a major statesman of the 20th century, but few under the age of 50 know him. He dedicated his life to public service and worked tirelessly to revitalize the Republican party in the late 1970s after Watergate. Mr. Brock was long associated with CSIS and worked closely with CSIS’s co-founder, Dr. David M. Abshire, also from Tennessee. He contributed immensely to CSIS, both as a Counselor and as a Trustee.

I first met Senator Brock when he was campaigning for the Senate in Maryland in 1994. I voted for him, but he lost that year against Senator Paul Sarbanes. 

Born a Democrat, Senator Brock began his career as a Republican in the late 1950’s. His family owned The Brock Candy Company. The company was founded by Brock’s grandfather, William E. Brock Sr., who served as a Democratic senator from 1929 to 1931. In 1962, Bill Brock was elected to Congress from Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional district, the first Republican to win the seat in over 40 years. Mr. Brock would go on to serve four terms as a representative before running against Senator Al Gore Sr. in 1970. Senator Brock defeated Senator Gore and served one term as a senator where he sponsored and co-sponsored a series of significant pieces of legislation. While in the Senate, he advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment. He was a senator in the tradition of other conservative internationalists from Tennessee such as Howard Baker, Bill Frist, and Lamar Alexander. Mr. Brock lost his bid for re-election in 1976 to Democrat Jim Sasser.  Jimmy Carter, a Southern Democrat, easily carried Tennessee that year, and Jimmy Carter had “coattails.”

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Brock was named chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC). His leadership came at a time when the party was recovering from the Watergate scandal. Between 1977 and 1981, he worked to bolster the image of the Republican party. Mr. Brock was widened the reach of the Republican party and made significant efforts to get Republicans elected to local and state offices.  He was called the “architect of the Republican revival” in 1980, playing a major role in Ronald Reagan’s victory and GOP control of the Senate, winning 12 seats.

President Reagan asked Senator Brock to be the U.S. Trade Representative. During his tenure from 1981 to 1985, trade tensions with Japan were very high. And he worked to incentivize the first voluntary quotas of Japanese automobile sales in the U.S.  He played key roles in the US-Canada FTA and what became NAFTA.  He advocated the ‘group of the willing’ negotiating style whereby bilateral or limited country agreements set the stage for precedent-setting multilateral deals.  He also stood firm against trade deals he judged not to be in the United States’ interest.

In 1985, President Reagan asked Mr. Brock to lead the Department of Labor. As Secretary of Labor from 1985 to 1987, he focused on various aspects of job training and productivity. He also actively promoted non-confrontational labor-management cooperation and focused on improving the health and safety of U.S. workers.

He ran Senator Bob Dole’s 1988 Presidential campaign in the primary against George HW Bush.  Bush won the primary against Dole.

After leaving the government, he worked on commissions to reform American education. In 1990, Mr. Brock was invited to chair the Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, which significantly reformed elementary and secondary education. In addition, he would also lead the Commission of Skills of the American Workforce.

Senator Brock competed as a partisan and reached across the aisle when he could strike bipartisan agreement to solve a problem.

He had a long-time and very active association with CSIS.  No matter his busy schedule, he always made time to advise and assist “younger people” like me. When my colleagues or I needed someone of “stature” to help convene a group, he never failed to make himself available.  He always stood ready to contribute his vast experience to help tackle current issues. He will be greatly missed.

How to Turbocharge the Peace Process in Afghanistan

Author: Mark Ward, Afghanistan Country Director, International Medical Corps

I am the country director for a large American humanitarian organization working in Afghanistan that has been providing emergency and other lifesaving assistance to Afghan communities in remote and settled areas since 1984. Because we care deeply about the future of Afghanistan, my colleagues and I read the final report by the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) with great interest. The findings and recommendations are mostly very sound.

Humanitarian organizations are, by their nature, very operational. Consequently, I have a very operational recommendation for the authors and those who care about and support Afghanistan.

The authors wisely observe that “a peace agreement [for Afghanistan] will be sustainable only if it is supported by the Afghan people.” The history of conflict resolution around the world proves this. Peace talks are usually long and full of ups and downs. The parties on both sides are more likely to keep trying to find peace during long and often-difficult negotiations if they know that the people back home are behind them.

The authors go on to urge USAID “to prepare a package of support that will visibly and quickly reach the Afghan people.” Sadly, my experience as someone who has worked both inside and outside USAID has shown that this is not realistic. U.S. government procurement rules and requirements imposed by the Congress on foreign aid make it impossible for USAID to design and launch any new projects quickly. Beyond constraints on the U.S. side, it would take months to begin mobilizing a team in Afghanistan to execute such projects—given the enormous security challenges facing any contractor hoping to work here and the imperative to patiently build Afghan buy-in for any project to be executed. Realistically, it would take up to two years before new development projects could actually start in support of a peace agreement. Even if that process started today, results on the ground would begin far too late to help build support for the ongoing peace talks and any future agreement.

This is a problem. But there is a solution.

To build resilience and self-reliance in Afghan communities, International Medical Corps is providing week-long training sessions to volunteers on how to provide basic psychological first aid to people in Balkh province, an area hit hard by COVID-19.

Humanitarian organizations like mine are already working all over Afghanistan, wherever people are in need. We don’t need lead time to hire staff and build offices. We already have both, all over the country. Communities know us, trust us, and turn to us for help because they know we listen to them. More help from us now would show them that the peace process is having a positive impact on their lives in the present, rather than months from now. With greater funding, support, and access now, we could assist more people in need while building support for the peace talks and provide a bridge to the longer-term development projects envisaged in the ASG’s report.

But we must do more than provide emergency aid. We must help communities take the first steps to a more stable future by increasing access to education and improving livelihoods in rural areas, thereby generating more prosperity for Afghan households. More funding for humanitarian organizations would also mean more jobs for Afghans and more revenue for the Afghan companies from which we buy food, medical supplies, and other commodities. Longer-term projects to grow the Afghan economy could dovetail with early humanitarian efforts, creating long-term—and, ultimately, self-sustaining—growth and prosperity.

Recently, USAID approved additional funding for a consortium of six large humanitarian organizations with extensive experience in Afghanistan, including mine, with a goal of providing additional assistance in areas where our organizations are likely to gain more access if the peace talks move forward. Kudos to USAID for thinking strategically, planning for success, and using its funding to build support for the peace process now, instead of waiting to see what happens. We encourage the other donor governments and UN agencies to adopt this same short-term approach, so that their aid budgets can support the peace process now—when support for peace from the Afghan people is most critical.

Mark Ward currently works for International Medical Corps as its Country Director for Afghanistan. During a long career as a committed humanitarian, he has served in a number of positions at the U.S. Department of State, served as a senior advisor at the United Nations and, among a number of positions held during a 31-year career in the Foreign Service with USAID, was director of the Office of Procurement and led the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). He holds a BA and JD from the University of California at Berkeley.

The U.S. Should Remake Its Relationship with Bolivia

Author: Bo Carlson, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

Last Sunday, Bolivia’s socialist presidential candidate won in a landslide victory. After a tumultuous year in Bolivian politics, involving electoral manipulation, an alleged coup, and an interim president who overstayed her welcome, President-Elect Luís Arce presents the country with a serious chance of stability. By taking a conciliatory approach toward Arce, the U.S. can best pursue its interests in Latin America.

As in other parts of Latin America, the U.S. has historically aligned itself with conservative forces in Bolivia. In the Cold War, American officials propped up anti-communist hardliners, unburdened by electoral accountability. During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, the U.S. routinely favored politicians on the right, who were more likely to approve market-based reforms recommended by the IMF and World Bank.

The U.S.’ outspoken preference for conservatives frequently backfired. In 2002, when top American officials threatened to withdraw aid from Bolivia if voters selected left-wing Evo Morales for president, Morales rose from fourth in the polls to a second place finish. Morales later joked that the U.S. ambassador was his best campaign manager, and he went on to win in 2006.

Evo Morales oversaw sustained economic growth and greater inclusion of indigenous groups. At the same time, he sought a constitutionally barred fourth term in 2019, and his management of the election was subject to credible accusations of manipulation. After a military official “suggested” that Morales leave office last November, he and his colleagues resigned in quick succession. The role of the U.S. in what many analysts label a coup remains in doubt, and Trump’s steadfast support of interim president Jeanine Áñez has drawn sharp criticism from advocates of human rights.

After Luís Arce’s victory in last Sunday’s election, a new approach is needed for U.S. diplomacy in Bolivia.

First, the U.S. should use its relationships with conservative leaders in Bolivia to guarantee a peaceful transition of power. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement recognizing the “new, democratically elected government” was a step in the right direction, as was Áñez’s tweet congratulating Arce. However, right-wing politician Luís Fernando Camacho continues to dispute the results, and anti-socialist protests in his home state of Santa Cruz now threaten to turn violent. To the extent that the U.S. diplomats hold sway over Camacho and his supporters, they should urge caution.

Second, American diplomats should encourage the president-elect to preserve Morales’ legacy while avoiding the former president’s excesses. Luís Arce previously served as Morales’ economy minister, simultaneously reducing poverty, curbing inflation, and increasing growth through a mix of market- and state-based policies. His more recent behavior has been encouraging as well. Last Monday, Arce promised a “government of national unity,” and in a subsequent interview, he noted that “If Evo Morales wants to help us, he would be more than welcome; but that doesn’t mean he’ll be part of the government.” By welcoming Arce’s gestures toward the center, the U.S. can preserve political stability in Bolivia while finding agreement on issues of mutual concern.

Third, U.S. policymakers should accept that an Arce government will not agree with their preferences on every issue—particularly in Venezuela. Shortly after his election, Arce noted that he would resume diplomatic relations with the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro. U.S. leaders from both sides of the aisle have recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and a series of sanctions imposed by the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to isolate Maduro’s government. While Arce’s support for Maduro will be a thorn in the side of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, it is neither vital to the Maduro regime’s survival, nor should it eclipse other concerns in the U.S.-Bolivia relationship.

Maduro has powerful backers in Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and Turkey. Moscow, Beijing, and Havana’s support, and perhaps that of Tehran and Ankara, matters far more to Maduro than approval from a weak and internally divided Bolivia. When dealing with Bolivia, the U.S. should prioritize areas of cooperation, with Venezuela as one of several topics for discussion.

The United States’ diplomatic history in Bolivia is a fraught one, and the U.S. government’s reputation is now even weaker after last year’s political chaos. Arce’s victory presents an important chance for U.S. diplomats to remake their relationship with Bolivia; they should not pass on the opportunity.

Bo Carlson is a contributor to the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC-based think tank. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Duke University, and he previously worked at the Organization of American States.

Curbing Water Scarcity Through Micro Agriculture-Targeted Development

Author: Christopher Daly, Research Intern (Summer 2020), Center for Strategic and International Studies

In 2020, more than four billion people live in an area that is water scarce at least one month of the year, and by the year 2050 this number could increase to 5.6 billion. All told, more than 1.7 billion people globally live in river basins where water use exceeds recharge, and demand for water has grown by roughly one percent each year for the last 20 years. During this same time, the land-areas of wetlands, groundwater tables, and river basins have steadily declined. 37 countries are currently water stressed and, of those, 17 are considered to be under extremely high water stress.

Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development are currently engaged in efforts to curb water scarcity through what might appear at first glance to be a counterintuitive method: planting trees. This includes trees in areas that have suffered deforestation due to agriculture, as well as areas which are suffering due to the effects of climate change. More importantly, these organizations are providing support to communities on the ground and empowering them to become better stewards of their own land with the use of Nature Based Solutions (NBS).  

An array of economic and ecological factors contributes to water scarcity, including groundwater and river overdraw, industrial agriculture, lack of infrastructure, and adverse weather events resulting from global heating. Droughts are occurring with increasing frequency around the world and rivers are running dry as glaciers recede and snowpack melts earlier in the year. As ecosystems degrade, the problem of water scarcity increases, as does the stress on existing water infrastructure both natural and manmade.  

22 March 2018 began the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sustainable Development. The objectives of the Decade, which have been set by the UN to coincide with their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), focus on “the sustainable development and integrated management of water resources for the achievement of social, economic and environmental objectives and on the implementation and promotion of related programmes and projects.” The Decade also highlights “the importance of promoting efficient water usage at all levels, taking into account the water, food, energy, environment nexus; and stresses the importance of the participation and full involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including women, children, young people, older persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and local communities.” The agenda puts forth a plan to integrate the fights for human rights, responsible environmental stewardship, and resource management under a holistic framework which can be scaled and put into practice globally. Integrated land and water management practices are at the heart of this framework.   

Many of the stakeholders listed above earn their livelihoods from agriculture as “small-holder” farmers or are involved in some way in community or micro-agricultural practice. Worldwide, half of all habitable land is used for agriculture, and there are 571 million small-holder farmers spread across 161 countries. These small-holder farmers are often among the first to feel the effects of climate and population-driven water scarcity and are uniquely positioned to play a role in regenerating and maintaining degraded hydrological systems. In no small part, they are able to influence those systems because their farming practices can either make or break them—and engagement with small-holder farmers through education and collaboration initiatives can have tremendous outcomes.

Empowering small-holder farmers through various means creates multiple opportunities: to create jobs, to feed populations, and to renew land and water through targeted stewardship practices. It also presents an answer to the challenge posed by industrial-scale agriculture, which degrades soil and consumes 70 percent of the world’s fresh water (of which 60 percent is wasted as a result of poor irrigation). The majority of the world’s soil resources—notably on farmland—are in “fair” or worse condition. Further, the clearing of forests for industrial agriculture and large-scale animal husbandry creates a vicious cycle which puts even more strain on hydrological systems as evaporation and erosion rates increase.

Currently, only 30 percent of global land remains forested, and at least two-thirds of this land is in a degraded state. The function that forests and grasslands play in the hydrological cycle is extensive, though not widely understood. Besides slowing evaporation and allowing water to percolate down into the soil, respiration by flora increases humidity and lowers surface temperatures. Near rivers, forest cover prevents erosion and sedimentation, keeping water which can serve as a drinking or hydro-energy source clean. Similarly, wetlands preserve coastlines by acting as buffers against storms, protecting settlements and providing shelter for the fish and other marine life on which many coastal economies depend.

The recent UN World Water Development Report has put forward NBS as one of the most effective tools in the fight against water scarcity. NBS include re-forestation, eco-friendly and diverse agricultural strategies, and preservation of land which contributes to the continuation or stabilization of existing hydrological systems. Funding for successful NBS programs often comes from multiple sources, including public water funds, private philanthropy, or companies, both local and international, whose products depend on the maintenance of the local water supply.

The European Environmental Agency Report on Water Retention in Forests lays out some of the rationale behind NBS. The report highlights the impact that healthy forests have on surface water, in streams and other bodies, as well as on water levels in soil and groundwater. Its findings include how forests retain excess rainwater, moderating run-off patterns and reducing flood damage and how forests release water during the dry season, mitigating the effects of droughts. The report finds that, “In water-basins where the forest cover is 30%, water retention is 25% higher than in basins where the forest cover is only 10%. In basins where the forest cover is 70%, water retention is 50% higher than in basins where the forest cover is only 10%. The results in this report also confirm that water retention in any sub basin (whether it has 80% forest cover, 50% forest cover, or 30% forest cover) is typically about 25 % greater in summertime than in wintertime.”

These findings can be backed up by anecdotal evidence from around the world. For example: the case of a single woman tending a forest on a half-acre plot of land in Kerala, India, recently made the rounds on the internet. Kerala, a state on the Western coast of India, is a narrow strip of land which slopes dramatically from its highest to lowest point. The state’s groundwater levels have been depleted over the last 30 years thanks to deforestation and destruction of wetland, paddy-land, and laterite hills. The net effect of this has been that rainwater is discharged without percolating into the plateau, taking just three days to flow from its highest point to the ocean. The local authorities now recognize the role that forests play in the hydrologic cycle and have begun preserving “sacred groves” which would otherwise be in danger of being razed for development or agriculture. Such groves are often only a few acres, but one grove of six acres can provide water to roughly four ponds and 40 wells. Those who live near the groves report that they do not face water shortages during the summer, as those who live around deforested zones do.

As the World Water Development Report highlighted, public-private partnerships are likely to be a key component of implementing nature-based solutions. There are several non-governmental organizations operating globally which focus on NBS relating to issues of water scarcity, and one of the most active is The Nature Conservancy (TNC). To date, TNC has helped establish more than 35 water funds worldwide which connect governments, local utilities, private partners, and farmers in order to enhance natural hydrological resilience. TNC has also been actively involved in purchasing ecologically vital lands and turning them into conservation areas for several decades.

The first water fund launched byThe Nature Conservancy was located in Quito, Ecuador, and was called Fondo para la Protección del Agua (FONAG). There were six founding members of the fund; Quito’s water company, the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Company of Quito (EMAAP-Q); The Nature Conservancy, Cerveceria Andina Brewery, The Electric Power Company of Quito (EEQ), The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and Tesalia (a beverage producer). The fund’s sole purpose is the protection of the Páramos, a high-altitude scrub-wetland which absorbs and releases mist and rainwater in the Ecuadorian mountains. The Páramos forms the head of a watershed which extends into four river basins: the Upper Guayallabamba river basin, the Antisana river basin, the Oyacachi river basin and the Papallacta river basin.

FONAG uses interest and income on its investment portfolio, as well as two percent of Quito’s water charges to cover its expenses and build up its reserves. It enables water management, site surveillance and monitoring, restoration of vegetation cover, environmental education, training in Indigenous Water Resource Management (IWRM), community programs, outreach initiatives, and other forms of capacity building. Rather than cash payments, farmers receive support for watershed protection programs and long-term improvements to their operations. Jobs are also created in eco-tourism, habitat management, and lobbying, deepening community involvement and transforming the preservation work into a local affair.

Similar to FONAG, the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund was established in partnership between TNC, Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company (NCWSC), Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), and small-holder farmers; also with a notable pilot contribution of USD $150,000 from the Coca-Cola Foundation. Through those organizations’ contributions an endowment of $7.5 million has been set up, from which interest is used to pay for the fund’s programs. The fund is also sustained through an “at-the-tap” tax on downstream, urban water users (a proposal which was embraced by the city’s 4+ million residents, who were eager to adopt a proposal with the potential to increase water availability). Ninety-five percent of Nairobi’s freshwater supply comes from the Tana River, and hydropower from the river generates 50 percent of the city’s electricity.

The highlands around the Aberdare mountains, where the Tana begins, are home to more than 100,000 small holder farmers who rely on the river for irrigation, and before the fund began its operations the impact of their farming practices was being felt downstream, especially in the sediment which accumulated and settled in reservoirs—reducing both drinking-water storage and power generating capacities—requiring expensive interventions by way of municipal filtration. The problem of sedimentation and erosion was being further exacerbated by the Aberdare mountain area’s “new normal,” a shift in rain patterns thanks to climate change which sees an increase in annual rainfall but over fewer days, creating more intense storms and greater storm runoff.

The solution reached by TNC and its partners was to provide a package of land-management techniques, hardware, and outreach to farmers in the Aberdare highlands. The hardware comes in the form of water pans—rainwater-retention ponds which hold 6,000 to 26,000 gallons—which reduce dependence on local streams during the dry season. Farmers excavate the pans, while the fund covers 70 percent of the cost of the pans’ heavy plastic liners. The land management techniques involve the planting of trees and bamboo thickets. The trees provide cover for ground crops along with more diversity in the farmers’ market offering, and the bamboo thickets, planted alongside streams, prevent sedimentation and erosion. Outreach includes the fund conducting surveys of farmers’ practices and needs via text message and sending technical advice, as well as broadcasting announcements about market events where new crop types will be distributed. Together, the packages “sell themselves” because they simultaneously increase yield, reliability, and profits. As of 2018, the fund has affected the lives of 25,000 farmers, with plans to reach 50,000 by 2022. 

There are numerous funds and trusts set up around the world to tackle issues of water scarcity and to support various levels of sustainable agriculture, economic empowerment for indigenous and impoverished people, and small businesses. In conjunction with efforts including the Bonn Challenge, which builds on regional efforts such as the Initiative 20×20 in Latin America and the AFR100 African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, aiming to restore 350 million hectares of degraded ecosystems by 2030;  57 countries, subnational governments, and private organizations have committed to bring over 170 million hectares under restoration under the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Corporate partners such as the Coca-Cola Foundation alongside groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Whole Planet Foundation, and others are already doing this work. What is needed is further investment in such interdisciplinary initiatives by an even more diverse cohort of governments, NGO’s, and private partners.

The challenges to the deployment of these strategies can be both financial and political, as they often require cooperation between multiple stakeholders; including governments, private companies, and individual landowners, and because their success depends on adequate financing, coordination, and local management. These challenges may be compounded by a lack of awareness among policy and business leaders of the hydrological functions of the various ecosystems described in the previous sections.

Now, in the time of Covid-19, the outlines of these challenges are even more distinct. However, the crisis also presents us with a great opportunity to engage with people who were already on precarious footing socially and financially and to rapidly expand existing programs as those people seek relief. As public markets have shut down and other sources of income have been severed, water and agricultural funds could serve as a vital lifeline for struggling small-holder farmers and other individuals who could be successful partners once the crisis abates and economies return to normal. Increased investment now will empower communities and create more resilient and fruitful local economies; in terms of the variety and quality of agricultural products, increased social stability as a result of a more reliable water supply, increased jobs in land management and eco-tourism, and other proven benefits. Most importantly, investment can create a springboard on which local and international economies can bounce back better and sooner. Water and land funds should be elevated in the global discourse around development and considered one of the most effective tools available to us in the fight against hunger, thirst, and poverty.