Hesperian Health Guides

Use Water Wisely

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 15: Sustainable Farming > Use Water Wisely

Every farmer needs water. If you live in a dry place, the best way to conserve water is to grow plants native to your area or plants that need water only during the rainy season. Green manure and mulch help hold water in the soil, and contour barriers save water by keeping it from running off. Other methods to save water on the farm are:

  • planting shade trees to protect plants and soil from drying out in the sun. Some trees bring water up from deep in the ground for shallow-rooted plants to use.
  • planting crops close together to shade soil so it does not dry out. The air between plants close together holds a little moisture so plants do not wilt. This can be done with green manure or by planting a variety of crops together in the same field.
  • drip irrigation from pipes laid on or under the ground, which uses much less water and does less damage to soil than water poured onto the ground from above.
A woman pours water into a pail hanging from a scaffold, which drips water onto her crops.
Small holes in pipes or hoses allow water to drip into the ground slowly.
Alternating ground-cover and non-ground-cover plants grow along a slope.
  • strip-cropping (growing different crops together along contour lines) to help crops share moisture. A ground-cover crop is planted uphill from the contour line, and a crop that gives only a little ground cover is planted below it. Water collects on the ground cover and flows to the downhill crops.

Crops growing in planting pits.

Dig holes about 15 centimeters deep during the dry season.
Pile soil from the pit downhill, to form a small wall.
Add manure or compost to each pit.
The distance between pits is 1½ times the width of the pits.

Make planting pits

Planting pits collect rainwater to help plants grow even in very dry conditions. Planting several crops in the same pit makes the best use of water. The crops that need the most water grow best at the downhill end. Crops that can live with less water grow well on the higher side of the slope.

In the second year, plant in the same pits, or dig new pits between the old ones. If you dig new pits, over the years the whole area will be fertilized.

Stone walls prevent erosion and save water
The central plateau of Burkina Faso is a mix of flat ground and gentle slopes. Rainfall has always been low, but there has been even less in recent years, and the land and people have suffered. To conserve water and prevent erosion, farmers build low stone walls across fields. The walls slow down the flow of water, allowing time for it to soak into the ground. The walls also prevent soil from blowing or washing away and catch soil that erodes from higher slopes.

Farmers also dig large planting holes. They fill the holes with compost or manure to fertilize the crops and hold water.

Farmers digging planting holes next to a gully.

Where gullies have formed, people fill them with stones. If a gully is too big to fill, they build a stone wall across it. Just as on the field, the stone wall slows water down and keeps the gully from getting worse. Over time, soil may fill the gully.

By using these methods, farmers in Burkina Faso are able to make the land richer and improve crop yields even with less rainfall. And with more food, people’s health has improved.