Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 573–585 | Cite as

Enough is enough: how West African farmers judge water sufficiency

  • Carla RoncoliEmail author
  • Ben Orlove
  • Christoph Ungemach
  • Brian Dowd-Uribe
  • Colin Thor West
  • Kerry Milch
  • Moussa Sanon
Original Article


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.


Environmental change Indigenous knowledge Small-scale irrigation Water literacy Visual methods Burkina Faso 



We appreciate the collaboration of the Agence Nationale de la Météorologie, the Institut National de d’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles, of the Secrétariat Permanente de la Gestion Intégrée des Ressource en Eau, and of the many stakeholders we engaged during years of research in the Upper Comoé sub-basin. We thank the farmers who participated in this study and Hamadou Issa Diallo, our exceptionally talented research assistant. We are grateful for the contribution of climate data by Dr. Pinghouinde Michel Nikiema and of linguistic advice by Dr. Karim Traoré. We also benefited from GIS work by Dr. Elisabeth Kago Nebié and graphic design by Kristin Tanis. Two anonymous reviewers provided insightful and constructive feedback.

Funding information

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Decision-Making Under Uncertainty program through a cooperative agreement with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (NSF SES-0951516).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.School of International and Public AffairsColumbia UniversityNew York CityUSA
  3. 3.TUM School of ManagementTechnical University of MunichMunichGermany
  4. 4.Department of International StudiesUniversity of San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA
  5. 5.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA
  6. 6.Center for Research on Environmental DecisionsColumbia UniversityNew York CityUSA
  7. 7.Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches AgricolesOuagadougouBurkina Faso

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