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Sunday, 12 August, 2001, 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
Simple pump makes farmers richer
Canal and farmland IWMI
Wastewater for farm use in Pakistan: Its nutrients do the job of fertilisers
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Researchers in Asia say a cheap and simple water pump can help farmers to escape poverty.

The device, a treadle pump, is foot-operated, and ideal for farmers who cannot afford to run a diesel pump.

It gives them access to groundwater for irrigation, and the prospect of higher yields.

It is being launched on Monday in Stockholm, at the World Water Symposium, one of a series of meetings on what many scientists believe is an impending global water crisis.

The pump's potential will be explored by a coalition launched to resolve the dilemma of increasing water scarcity.

The coalition, the Dialogue on Water, Food and Environment (DWFE), brings together scientists and policymakers. Its job is to reconcile the demands of producing food and protecting the environment.

Men operating treadle pump IWMI
Treadle pumps increase harvests - and wealth
Agricultural scientists say farm water use, especially irrigation, must increase by 15-20% in the next quarter century to feed the world's growing population.

But environmental scientists say water use will need to fall by at least 10% to protect rivers, lakes and wetlands, and to meet the demands of cities and industry.

Sustainable use

About 450 million people in 29 countries already face water shortages.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) says about 2.7 billion people, nearly a third of the world's probable population by then, will by 2025 live in regions facing severe water scarcity.

But an IWMI study into the use of treadle pumps suggests they can be an important part of the answer to conflicting demands.

The pumps allow farmers to make sustainable use of an existing source of water, and to grow more food and become richer in doing so.

The study evaluated the use of treadle pumps in eastern India, Nepal and Bangladesh, where 400 million of the world's poorest people live.

Cheap and easy

Enabled to use the region's abundant groundwater, it found, they were able to increase their yields and grow higher-value crops. Many increased their income by 25% or more.

The researchers list some of the treadle pump's main advantages:

  • It is cheap, easy to install and operate, and suitable for irrigating small plots of land
  • Average crop yields are higher than on plots with diesel pumps or other irrigation devices, mainly because of more intensive cultivation
  • The pumps help at least 20% of the families using them earn a net profit of $500-600 more annually (more than 40% of the region's people live on under $1 a day, defined by the World Bank as extreme poverty)
  • The spread of the pumps in a community improves wage rates and employment opportunities for the landless.
The DWFE launch will also be debating the use of wastewater for irrigation - globally, farmers irrigate an estimated 27 m hectares using wastewater or raw sewage, rich in nutrients but potentially risky to health.

Watercress cutting in canal IWMI
Cutting watercress in wastewater, Vietnam
IWMI says: "In rural and peri-urban areas of most developing countries, the use of sewage and wastewater for irrigation is a fact of life, not a matter of choice.

"In semi-arid areas, the use of local sewage is the only water source that supports the livelihoods of millions of poor people who irrigate high-value crops."

Slight health impact

Treating wastewater, it says, means poor farmers have to buy fertilisers they cannot really afford.

It says wastewater can often be used on grain crops and pasture "with little or no impact on public health".

Members of DWFE include the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); IUCN-The World Conservation Union; the World Health Organisation (WHO); and the IWMI.

Images courtesy of IWMI

Margaret Catley-Carlson, Global Water Partnership
"We need to give a lot more thought to the way we are using water"
See also:

13 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Warning over world's water supplies
29 Jun 01 | Media reports
When rivers cease to flow
10 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Severe drought threatens Koreas
22 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
World warned on water refugees
24 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Thirsty planet predicted
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