Celebrating the legacy
of the CGIAR Research
Program on Water, Land
and Ecosystems

At the end of 2021, IWMI celebrated the successful conclusion of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) which it led since launch of the program in 2012. WLE was a global research-for-development program connecting partners to deliver sustainable agricultural solutions, strengthen ecosystem health, and create resilient water, land and food systems. During the program’s 10-year journey, WLE worked in 60 countries, with more than 300 partners, and completed over 200 projects that directly benefitted millions of lives and improved environmental health across the Global South.

Innovations with a long-lasting impact

WLE’s legacy lies with the practical and science-driven innovations that countries and farming communities can adopt to address development challenges and transition to more productive, sustainable and resilient food systems. These examples are just a part of the significant legacy that WLE is leaving for CGIAR and the wider world of research for development.

WLE developed affordable and inclusive index-based flood insurance for flood-prone farmers. The insurance uses flood modelling data to estimate flood depths and duration, and satellite data to help assess flood damage. The approach removes the need to verify claims via field visits, speeds up the payment of compensation from insurers and helps ensure that premiums remain affordable. Another innovation is a bundled insurance product that provides compensation along with improved seed varieties of drought-tolerant wheat or flood-resistant rice, agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, and information on appropriate agronomic practices.

Solar irrigation pumps have received significant attention during the past decade. They are a more affordable, reliable and climate-smart alternative to conventional diesel pumps. Efforts to increase uptake are not sufficiently ‘pro-poor’ and instead favor well-connected farmers with the means to invest in these solar pumps. With the help of IWMI, WLE researchers developed and refined farmer-centric business models that incentivize efficient water use and enhance smallholder access to the benefits of solar-powered irrigation without exacerbating groundwater depletion.

Farmers are struggling with depleted soils, water shortages and climate uncertainty. At the same time, urban areas are becoming vast sinks for organic waste. The way forward is to mimic natural cycles by adopting the model of a circular economy – processing organic food waste, wastewater and human excreta to extract energy, nutrients, organic matter and water for agricultural use. WLE identified opportunities for resource, recovery and reuse using numerous technical and institutional solutions. Recognizing that many of these solutions remain inaccessible to small-scale entrepreneurs and other stakeholders, WLE innovated a business model approach tailored to these groups that can drive circular economies.

Top-down approaches to restore increasingly depleted soils and water resources have had limited success because of a mismatch between the landscapes and recommended solutions, a lack of monitoring and maintenance and, crucially, poor adoption by communities lacking training or institutional support. WLE-supported work to restore degraded landscapes focused on understanding and engaging communities to obtain their buy-in. By demonstrating the potential economic benefits to communities, and securing their agreement and material contribution, restoration activities have been successfully implemented. These activities include landscape restoration and water harvesting practices; contour bunds to conserve water and reduce soil erosion; rehabilitation of traditional water tanks; mechanized micro-water harvesting packages; and weirs to capture nutrients and improve agricultural productivity.

Poor soil health is a major cause of decline in agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. However, interventions aimed at improving soil condition are hindered by a limited knowledge about soil health and degradation. In the last decade, however, WLE-supported advances in technology to measure soil properties transformed the possibilities for ecosystem evaluation. Soil spectroscopy, which uses an infrared light on samples to accurately assess properties such as soil carbon, nitrogen and pH levels, allows scientists to generate data on entire landscapes. The technology now enables ecosystem health evaluation on a massive scale, paving the way for better targeting of land restoration and more sustainable agriculture.

Technological innovations for irrigation – whether they are solar-powered groundwater pumps or ‘smart sticks’ to measure water use – often do not ‘trickle down’ through target groups. WLE research on many fronts has advanced understanding of the constraints that smallholder farmers face in irrigating their holdings. WLE helped advance small-scale irrigation in sub-Saharan Africa by providing research and management tools that improve understanding of how best to support farmers. WLE-supported work consolidated evidence on the multiple productivity, profitability, gender and nutrition benefits arising from small-scale irrigation.

Science-driven solutions for the future

WLE released a series of legacy knowledge products, which demonstrate the scale of WLE’s research for development over the past 10 years. These products were developed to influence future research, planning, policies and investments. They are available on a WLE science-driven solutions platform and include innovations in nature-based solutions for climate-smart development, productivity and resilience for thriving communities, and landscape approaches for restoration, sustainable land use and livelihoods. The 26 summaries and eight legacy products have linkages to approximately 100 detailed knowledge sources, including multimedia content.

Investing in agri-food systems innovations

WLE launched the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (CoSAI) in 2020. CoSAI investigates the current level of investment in agri-food systems innovations and explores how to overcome constraints to more rapid development and uptake of innovations. CoSAI published a baseline study of the current level of investment in agri-food systems innovations in the Global South. Only 7% of current funding for agri-food systems innovations had explicit environmental objectives, and less than 50% of this had explicit social objectives. CoSAI also co-published an innovation investment gap study. This study estimated a global investment gap of just over USD 15 billion per year by 2030 to meet the target of Goal 2 (zero hunger) of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and make progress toward other targets.

WLE’s legacy remains with  CGIAR

WLE’s research is also instrumental in the transition to One CGIAR – a new partnership that integrates CGIAR’s knowledge, assets and global presence. The knowledge and experience that WLE gained will help ensure that CGIAR innovations are deployed faster and applied over a larger scale at a reduced cost. Food, land and water systems are integral to the CGIAR mission, and WLE research influenced the development of several CGIAR Research Initiatives, including NEXUS Gains, Agroecology, MITIGATE+ and Nature-Positive Solutions.

While WLE has ended, it is clear that its impact will continue to resonate and help strengthen our collective response to the climate crisis and the needs of climate-vulnerable communities across the Global South.