Soil and water conservation and the community

Soil erosion

by Will Critchley and Olivia Graham.

Soil erosion - the removal of good soil by wind or water - is a growing problem world-wide. As the world population increases, more pressure is put on land to produce food, fuel and building materials. Trees are removed to grow more crops. Often land is no longer left to rest between cropping. With the removal of trees and forests, there is a direct effect on water supply. Less rainwater is able to soak into the soil and, in some places, wells and springs dry up. As good soil is removed through soil erosion, yields are reduced.

Soil conservation generally involves a lot of work with few immediately obvious benefits. It may take several years of effective soil conservation measures before the benefits begin to be appreciated. Soil conservation is rarely a priority for poor farmers struggling to produce enough food for this year, with little time or energy to be concerned about yields several years in the future. However, without the conservation of the farmer’s most precious resource - the soil - the future is very bleak.

Soil conservation is rarely straightforward. Without a stable system of land ownership, few farmers are prepared to put effort into preserving the land for future generations. Land inheritance systems may need consideration. Holdings are often fragmented as land is passed on, making it very difficult to encourage conservation.

Concern about soil erosion is nothing new. Various programmes set up by colonial administrations in Africa earlier this century have had a poor record of success. Many lessons in erosion control have been learnt since then. Mistakes have been made. Successes have been achieved. Though the methods developed may be different for each culture, climate and country, there are some general principles that apply everywhere.

ORGANISATION 

Participation 
Participation is the key to success. Farmers are the main part of the solution, not part of the problem. In some countries, unpopular colonial rules and regulations were often used to provide forced labour for large scale erosion control programmes. After independence, governments in these countries have found it difficult to motivate people in soil conservation. Any project must win the respect and co-operation of the local people. They must be involved from the very beginning in all aspects of planning, training and action through to monitoring and evaluation. 

Motivation and training
A person with plenty of knowledge and skills, but no motivation, achieves little. On the other hand, a motivated person will easily develop his or her own skills and knowledge. Local people need to be helped to understand how land becomes eroded and how to improve land management. Once motivated, appropriate skills need to be put in the hands of the people themselves, not just a team of extension workers. 

Use existing groups
An existing group (eg: church group, farmers’ co-operative, women’s self-help group) is almost always easier to work with than one which has to be specially formed.

What are other groups and organisations - both government and non-government - doing in your area or nearby? Work together with them whenever possible, to avoid confusion.

Life of the project
The life of a project should not be so short-lived that it has no chance to become truly effective. Effective soil conservation develops over many years. Projects should always plan for the eventual withdrawal of outside support. 

Monitoring and evaluation
Adequate monitoring and evaluation systems need to be included in every project in order to collect data for analysing the costs and benefits of various techniques. Improvement of soil productivity is a slow process. Keep records and measure your success.

A project should be willing and able to alter its work plans in response to the experience with on-going monitoring and to people’s priorities. Flexibility is not necessarily a weakness, but may be a strength!

TECHNICAL ISSUES 

Choose appropriate systems
Has anyone studied the local conservation systems? Could they be adapted or improved? Build on what people already know and practise. Suitable systems survive with minimum support from outside.

  • Are the systems you are planning appropriate?
  • Do they use local resources?
  • Are they cheap to implement?
  • Will they be easily maintained?
  • Have they been tested locally?

Think carefully before any kind of mechanisation is introduced.

Special planning is needed to ensure that the project is reaching the poorest.

Ensure rapid benefits
Farmers want success now, not in ten years’ time. Does the technique improve productivity or make yields more reliable? Give emphasis to water conservation as well as to soil conservation. The benefits of soil conservation may not be clear for several years after the work is done, but the benefits of water conservation can often be seen in the next crop. 

Use incentives with care
For many years there has been a debate about the use of incentives in development work. It is not easy to generalise. Incentives can be useful in some soil conservation activities, particularly since there are so few rapid benefits. Food for work or cash payment are generally best avoided. Tools for work may be a better choice. 

Land use management
Conserving soil and water is only the starting point. A village committee is needed to take responsibility for land-use management; to plan grazing of land; to control gullies; to plan fuelwood supply; to plan communal waterways and the health of springs and wells, etc.

This article was adapted from the introduction to the book Looking After Our Land, reviewed on the Resources page.

Will Critchley works for the Centre for Development Cooperation Services, Amsterdam and has considerable experience of conservation and farming systems in Africa.

The loss of our soil...

Soil erosion is like theft. Some theft happens slowly over a long period of time - a little is stolen each time. You don’t notice what’s happening until one day you realise how much has gone. Other theft is sudden, perhaps violent - you see it happening, and suddenly everything has gone.

With soil erosion, a slow steady flow of water or wind on a gentle slope can lift and move the small particles of soil evenly over the surface. This is called sheet erosion. It is not easy to see it happening until a lot of soil has already gone and you are left with the stones and gravel on the surface.

Over an uneven, sloping surface, water will collect in small channels called rills. The water collects and moves faster cutting deeper rills, and carrying away soil. The rills also collect together forming gullies, carrying great quantities of water and soil. Rill and gully erosion can happen very suddenly. After just a single storm, the farmer may look with despair at the damage - small rills can suddenly develop into deep gullies.

Soil is not the only thing stolen. Precious water has also been lost. Perhaps because the soil was not covered by crops or trees, water has not had time to soak into the soil. Instead it has run over the surface to be lost from the farm. After a heavy rain storm, the farmer may dig down in the soil to find only the top few centimetres wet. Below that, it is completely dry.

There are other signs of water loss, too. Springs and wells may dry up. the ground water reserves are not being refilled. The streams and rivers are dry for most of the year. Further down the river valley, the opposite may be happening. There is flooding due to the sudden flow of water coming down the gullies and streams.

Too little water in one place and too much in another - all because the soil is no longer acting as an effective store for water.