A joint CIAT-FLAR initiative that has allowed farmers in Nicaragua to grow a bumper crop during dry seasons has been recognized for its exceptional innovation.

The water harvesting project allows farmers to capture and store rainwater for use during the dry season, was among the five projects declared winners of the contest organized by FONTAGRO – an alliance of Latin American and Caribbean countries supporting agricultural research.

FLAR’s Santiago Jaramillo and Ed Pulver were recognized at a special ceremony in Washington, DC on May 17th, at the headquarters of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Their award-winning work was made possible by funding from the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), as well as Fondo Latinoamericano para Arroz de Riego (FLAR) members in Nicaragua (Nicaraguan Rice Association-ANAR) and Mexico (Mexican Rice Council).

The project, “Transforming Rain-fed Farming to Irrigation through Rainwater Harvesting in Nicaragua and Mexico”, was based on the creation of reservoirs on smallholders’ farms that collect and store rainwater. These are drawn on for irrigation during the dry times. In addition, the project provided advice on improved crop management to further boost yields.

In Nicaragua, some participating farmers saw rice and bean production double or even triple during the pilot initiative between 2008 and 2012. This has proven a boon for farmers like Alexis Cáceres, who has a rainwater catchment on his farm that serves him and two neighbours. Speaking of the system, he said previously, “it was the best decision I have ever made”.

The reservoirs are dug after careful analysis of farmers’ land, taking into account the way water would naturally flow over a given area as well as other considerations. During the rainy season, the ponds fill, forming a ‘stockpile’ of water. The size of the pond is calculated so that a sufficient amount of water is held for crop production despite losses caused by evaporation.

“We are delighted that the work has been so well-received. But most importantly, we’re excited that it has brought real benefits to farmers in a very short period of time. The potential of this work in other countries is enormous.”

Santiago Jaramillo

Water Harvesting Specialist, FLAR

By enabling farmers to produce crops in the dry season, it means they can take advantage of better growing conditions – including more sunlight and lower risks of pest and disease outbreaks. The project provided advice on improved crop management to further boost yields.

Dry, cracked earth
Water harvesting - reservoir

Many of the ponds are also filled with fish, providing an extra source of protein to residents as well as the possibility of greater economic opportunity. As well as triggering bumper harvests during the dry season and increased incomes, the work also resulted in farmers being able to diversify the crops they planted, and provide food and employment all year round.

The project saw 11 reservoirs constructed in Nicaragua, and three in Mexico. The idea has proven so successful that FLAR now reports it to be among its most in-demand projects. The project also features a major training and technology transfer mandate, which has involved farmers and local institutions during and after the construction process. This has resulted in Mexico moving ahead with the construction of up to 100 reservoirs.

In 2015, CIAT Geographer Glenn Hyman, with support from USAID, began developing specialised GIS tools to help identify suitable sites for the water harvesting system in new areas.

The same year, CIAT and FLAR began assessments of the socio-economic of rainwater harvesting on food security and family income in Honduras, with funding from USAID, Global Communities, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of Honduras.

Work is also underway to combine the water harvesting approach with other areas of CIAT expertise, from linking farmers to markets, to improved agronomy.

“This could help make investments in water harvesting well targeted, more sustainable and even more successful,” said CIAT’s Marcela Quintero, the organisation’s theme leader for ecosystem services.

In addition, scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), hope to conduct a feasibility study to see how effective the water harvesting approach could be in Senegal. The country’s aim to to become self-sufficient in rice production means new areas for growing the crop are currently under consideration that could benefit from the approach.

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