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Enough is enough: how West African farmers judge water sufficiency

  • Roncoli, Carla1
  • Orlove, Ben2
  • Ungemach, Christoph3
  • Dowd-Uribe, Brian4
  • West, Colin Thor5
  • Milch, Kerry6
  • Sanon, Moussa7
  • 1 Emory University, Department of Anthropology, 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta, GA, 30322, USA , Atlanta (United States)
  • 2 Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, New York City, NY, USA , New York City (United States)
  • 3 Technical University of Munich, TUM School of Management, Munich, Germany , Munich (Germany)
  • 4 University of San Francisco, Department of International Studies, San Francisco, CA, USA , San Francisco (United States)
  • 5 University of North Carolina, Department of Anthropology, Chapel Hill, NC, USA , Chapel Hill (United States)
  • 6 Columbia University, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, New York City, NY, USA , New York City (United States)
  • 7 Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso , Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso)
Published Article
Regional Environmental Change
Springer Berlin Heidelberg
Publication Date
Oct 29, 2018
DOI: 10.1007/s10113-018-1426-3
Springer Nature


This article engages the concept of water literacy, coupled with photo-elicitation methods and long-term ethnographic research, to explore how West African farmers judge water sufficiency. The study focuses on the Upper Comoé river basin in southwest Burkina Faso, an area known for conflict among multiple water users. Pictures of familiar river sites were shown to farmers to explore how they determine whether water suffice to meet their irrigation and livelihood needs. The likelihood of finding water to be sufficient was influenced by who the respondents were (gender) and by where (downstream/upstream) and when (early/late dry season) the picture was taken. Farmers’ sufficiency judgments were framed as a cognitive and linguistic dichotomy that posits water as being either enough or not enough. They drew upon a diversity of indicators in the natural and built environment and hinged on salient attributes, such as the “face” and the “flow” of the water. These two attributes enabled farmers to determine the water’s “force,” a foundational cultural notion that blends material and spiritual considerations. Farmers’ assessments engage multiple time horizons, from memories of the past, to current observations and anticipated future scenarios. By relying upon shared memories and meanings, farmers can compare judgments, analyze options, and collectively mobilize to counteract the dominance of techno-scientific knowledge in official water allocation decisions.

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