Adapting to Climate Variability and Change in West Africa: the Role of Irrigation Development

  • Sarah Redicker

Student thesis: Phd


West African smallholder farmers are facing the adverse impacts of climate change, which threaten the food security and well-being of millions of households. The situation is projected to become more precarious as the global society fails to address climatic change, the adverse impacts of which will result in increased rainfall variability, increasing temperatures and shortened rainy seasons. Irrigation development has been put forward as part of policy agendas in countries across West Africa as a means to intensify agricultural production under difficult environmental conditions. However, despite significant potential to expand and intensify irrigated agriculture, agricultural productivity in the region remains low and smallholder farmers remain vulnerable to climate change impacts. Therefore, understanding the role of irrigation development for heterogeneous farming systems and diverse farm households to adapt to changing conditions is crucial to improve the development of public policies for climate change adaptation. This thesis explores smallholder farmers’ adaptation to climate variability and change in West Africa. Specifically, I analyse the role of irrigation development to increase climate resilience through three empirical essays that aim to bridge experiences and knowledge from the past, the present, and predictions for future sustainable development. The analysis addresses the complex and multi-layered issue of adaptation to climate variability through a mixed-methods approach based on findings from a case study in Ghana and related literature review. The central argument this thesis makes is that sustainable irrigation development in West Africa can be a valuable tool to increase resilience to climate change impacts. The first essay investigates shortcomings of past irrigation projects. The systematic review of irrigation scheme performances across West Africa shows that past projects underperform across the region irrespective of their size and design. Reasons for underperformance generally relate to an overestimation of achievable benefits and poor maintenance over time. The observed problems are rooted in unclear project objectives, lack of post-project accountability and failure to consider all stakeholders, particularly smallholder farmers. Based on primary data collected from northern Ghana, the second essay develops a case study to analyse the impact of rainfall variability on smallholder farmer livelihoods. The analysis shows that agricultural production is threatened by an increasingly late onset of rainfall and subsequent rainfall shocks. Farmers adapt to these shocks in different ways, for example, through income diversification, crop choice, and irrigation. The analysis highlights the importance of irrigation access for the intensification of agricultural production in the face of rainfall variability. However, income diversification remains an essential risk diversification strategy to cope with rainfall variability and yield loss. The third empirical essay employs an ex-ante approach to assess the impacts of climate change on rice yields and the efficiency of adaptation strategies in mitigating impacts of variability. Rice is a major staple crop across West Africa and rice production contributes significantly to the overall food markets. I find that the adaptation of farm management strategies (namely irrigation and adjusted planting dates) has the potential to significantly increase rice yields in the region. I further find that climate change will likely shift precipitation volumes to a later onset and that even limited irrigation in the first weeks after sowing will be beneficial to offset negative impacts of delayed planting. Together, these essays highlight the potential benefits of an increased irrigation development for agricultural productivity, to enhance livelihoods, and as a means to mitigate climate change induced production risks. However, while irrigation development remains an impor
Date of Award31 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTimothy Foster (Supervisor) & Ralitza Dimova (Supervisor)


  • Mixed methods
  • West Africa
  • Climate adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Development studies
  • Irrigation

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