Research in Burkina Faso exploring water management stimulated villagers' negotiation for fair access to local reservoirs.

Scarce water resources in developing countries are under pressure from climate change, with droughts and extreme weather events particularly impacting rural communities that depend on farming for their survival. Living on this knife edge means that water resources become ever more precious, with a clear potential for conflicts between farmers and other water users.

In Burkina Faso in West Africa, the state has set up Water Management Committees to oversee the management of local reservoirs, with local and state actors such as village chiefs and deputies acting as committee members. Yet, with the local communities represented by elder male farmers, other user groups risk being pushed to the sideline – such as poor women, herders, and fishermen from different ethnic groups.

This was the case for 16 villages in the eastern Boulgou Province, all relying on two local water sources – the Bidiga and Lagdwenda reservoirs – for their livelihoods. The research project Pathways out of poverty for Burkina Faso's reservoir-dependent communities, funded through ESRC-DFID Development Frontiers Research Fund, explored how the water reservoirs could be effectively managed amongst diverse community members across the villages. The answer was 'Innovation Platforms': meeting spaces for the different user groups to exchange views, explore other viewpoints and negotiate equal access to water.

In 2018 the communities came together to discuss the problems and find solutions to managing small water reservoirs. Participants worked within peer groups – such as elder men, younger men, women, and state and NGO actors – and gathered for plenary discussions. This process revealed many of the root causes for the drop in water quality and quantity, and brought out underlying tensions and issues of conflict, such as the use of fertilisers, overfishing, and livestock trampling farmers' crops when the herders brought their animals to drink.

As a result of the project women and young people are now much more involved in the reservoir management process than previously. Herders are now using livestock corridors to avoid damaging farmers' crops, and 2018 was the first year that the fishermen respected 'fishing blackout' periods and didn't use small-meshed nets that capture immature fish.

"Participation in the innovation platforms created a sense of self-awareness about the impact different social groups in the community have on their reservoir, and ways to work together to improve collective management of water resources", says project lead Marlène Elias from Bioversity International. "The community members involved had never before discussed openly and on an equal footing – across gender, age, and livelihood groups – a shared vision and respective responsibilities for their reservoir."

The research team also worked with local residents, high schools, and technical staff at government water and agricultural institutes to design and implement a high-quality low-cost system for data collection from automatic weather stations, mobile phone based surveys, and indicators of soil and water quality – ultimately establishing a locally owned reservoir monitoring system.