Why we need to investigate young farmers as new actors in the Food-Water-Environment Nexus

As an environmentalist carrying out research in the agricultural development and youth livelihoods, one of the things that struck me most was the lack of awareness among many young farmers on the need to conserve the natural resource base for sustainability of their agricultural activities. The challenge of water is never highlighted in the world of youth agricultural livelihoods that I currently research. 
However, water, just like land, is essential in determining what livelihood opportunities will be available to young people now and in the future. In Kenya, young farmers, who had failed to find jobs after completing their education engaged in horticultural farming for local and export markets. A commendable self-employment initiative to earn them a living and support their families, but their practices had an adverse impact on the water resources and the wider landscape. 
Their continued drawing of water from the already shrinking rivers for flood irrigation meant that they were not only wasting the scarce resource, but also, they were risking the livelihoods of others who relied on the same river downstream. In addition, their excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides would result in loss of agrobiodiversity and pollution of the same water bodies, increasing risks to downstream users. 
Taking an action research approach, I later got involved in exchange visits between these kind of young farmers and others whom I found using water sustainably. My aim was to ensure that all young farmers were aware that not only a livelihood was important, its sustainability mattered, and therefore, smart approaches such as water conservation and organic farming were essential. There was a small group of young farmers who had invested in rain water harvesting technologies and used the water for irrigation and agroforestry practices. Others practised drip irrigation ensuring water efficiency and overall protecting the soil from forming a hardpan. Planting drought resistant crops, which were also indigenous, was not only a water conservation strategy, but also a practice that contributed to agrobiodiversity conservation and increasing the resilience of the farmers.
Overall, my biggest lesson was that conservation efforts, in the context of sustainable development goals, need to consider the challenges of creating new sources of livelihoods; involving new actors such as young farmers, often disenfranchised and seeking quick sources of income; but also often unaware of the need to engage in sustainable practices. With collaborative programmes embracing the food-water-environment nexus, we will be better positioned to address unemployment and livelihood challenges, safeguard our soils, conserve water, conserve agrobiodiversity while at the same time, increasing the resilience of the young people and the landscapes to the impacts of climate change. 
Young farmers setting up for flood irrigation on their tomato farm.
Photo: Grace Mwaura
Crossing the river from which the irrigation water was drawn
Photo: Lynette Achieng
One of the farms practising drip irrigation and crop rotation
Photo: Grace Mwaura
Thriving agroforestry trees watered with rainwater in Kitui Kenya
Photo: Grace Mwaura

This article was part of the Water Flows stories submitted to the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016


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