Smallholder farming families Adapt African Alluvial Aquifers to Strengthen Their Own Resilience

The challenges faced by African countries due to climate change and population growth are huge. There is urgent need for accelerated adaptation measures. A4Store seeks to address this by investigating whether it is feasible to enhance the prosperity and strengthen the resilience of vulnerable and resource-poor rural households in fragile African drylands by using nature-based water storage of sand rivers for food production.

In many semi-arid parts of rural Africa, significant nature-based water storage exists in the form of ephemeral sand rivers, which for generations have been accessed by riparian communities to meet their domestic and livestock water needs. More than 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live in arid to semi-arid lands close to sand rivers that at least experience one flow event per year. In some of these river basins (e.g. in Kenya), small-scale farmer-led irrigation activities have emerged utilizing this water source. Yet, in many parts of Africa, this resource remains underutilised and therefore offers significant scope for supporting irrigation-based livelihoods.

A4Store vision

By 2027, the most marginal communities in several rural drylands of Sub-Saharan Africa are empowered to use alluvial aquifers to enhance their wellbeing, strengthen their own resilience to the uncertainties that they face, and learn from their own experiences so as to be able to sustainably manage and conserve their own riparian ecosystem.

A4Store aims to help trigger this transformation by assisting the rural poor in drylands to access and use nature-based water stored in sand rivers in sustainable and equitable ways, through a co-learning approach. A4Store will focus on dryland regions in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and learn from experiences in Kenya, Niger and India.

Key concepts

A4Store is inspired by two concepts, which it aims to critically investigate:

  1. “Farmer-Led Irrigation Development” (FLID), a concept based on the capacity of smallholder farmers to develop themselves. A challenge is how external actors can support farmer-led development, without compromising its bottom-up approach, which is its distinctive strength. Our specific aim is that the poor will indeed be able to lead this process.
  2. “Adaptive Investment Pathways” (AdIP), a new approach for planning step-wise investments towards desired development objectives using a co-learning process in the face of an uncertain future (Prasad et al., 2023). It postulates an alternative to large lumpsum investment (such as dams and irrigation canals) that locks-in to a fixed future scenario. The AdIP approach is embedded in the landscape, which supports a diversity of livelihoods, of which irrigated agriculture is only one. Achieving sustainable development through AdIP requires engagement not only with irrigators but also with other local residents to discuss and negotiate investment choices for meeting social wellbeing, ecosystem sustainability, and equity and justice, while avoiding mal-adaption.


A4Store (2023-2027) will test its thesis in a broad spectrum of different local situations – in certain areas sand rivers are hardly used for irrigation (Zimbabwe), in others they are intensively used (Kenya, India); in some areas the use of sand rivers for irrigation has a long track record (Niger), in others it is very recent (Mozambique). Elsewhere sand rivers are a context of reconstruction after civil war (Ethiopia). This diversity of cases forms a rich base of experiences to learn from.

Action research

The main research question that A4Store investigates is:

How can resource-poor farmers be supported to access and use water stored in sand rivers in socially-just and ecologically-sound ways, which will not only enhance their wellbeing but also their resilience to climate and socio-economic uncertainties and shocks?

Specific research questions:

  1. Sustainable water potential: What is the sustainable potential of water stored in sand rivers to support livelihoods and ecosystems services, and to what extent do smallholder farmers currently use this water for irrigated agriculture?
  2. Support for resource-poor and marginal farmers: What are ways to support resource-poor households to proactively engage in farmer-led irrigation development and become self-reliant and resilient, in areas with sand rivers?
  3. Adaptive Investment Pathways: How can the Adaptive Investment Pathways (AdIP) concept contribute to a co-learning approach which can lead to greater wellbeing and resilience for resource-poor farmers, while empowering riparian communities to manage their water resource sustainably and equitably?
  4. Learning from intensely used sand rivers: What lessons can be learned from regions where sand rivers have been intensively used (India, Kenya, Niger)?


A4Store builds on action research previously conducted in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zimbabwe (through A4Labs (, NaBWIG ( and associated projects), and adopts the following principles:

  1. Social inclusiveness: sand rivers offer realistic opportunities for resource-poor households to develop their well-being and resilience on the basis of irrigated agriculture, because there is no need for expensive infrastructure – no large dams nor large canals. Thus, farming families can individually and adaptively develop their irrigated farms, with direct livelihood benefits.
  2. Resilience: sand rivers can provide reliable irrigation water for individual smallholder farming families. This can enhance their resilience and prosperity, while coping with economic and climatic uncertainties.
  3. Ecological sustainability: sand rivers are relatively shallow (<5m deep) and form a renewable store of water. Each flow event recharges the aquifer fully, so that effects of water abstractions in previous seasons are wiped out and there is opportunity to start afresh. This allows water users to experiment, make mistakes, adjust and learn – ideal for bottom-up processes of institution building for water resources management. Effects of over-abstraction within a season and impacts on the riparian vegetation due to land-use change, however, will require careful monitoring.
  4. Co-learning: sand rivers allow for a local development process that is gradual, step-wise, incremental and intelligent, based as it is on co-learning through continuous monitoring of resource use and ecosystem services by local community groups, both in terms of sustainability limits and in terms of equity and social justice. Use rules can be developed adaptively through learning-by-doing.

A4Store partners

Mekelle UniversityEthiopia
Tigray Bureau of Agriculture and Natural ResourcesEthiopia
Tigray Agricultural Research InstituteEthiopia
Relief Society of TigrayEthiopia
Indian Institute of Technology DelhiIndia
Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and TechnologyKenya
Instituto Superior Politécnico de GazaMozambique
Gaza Provincial Directorate of Public WorksMozambique
IHE DelftNetherlands
Practica FoundationNetherlands
Université Abdou MoumouniNiger
Dabane TrustZimbabwe
University of ZimbabweZimbabwe
Department of Irrigation DevelopmentZimbabwe