Scarcity of Water as an Impediment to Pastoral Fulani Development




Ismail Iro, Ph.D.







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Water is one of the most decisive ingredients of Fulani pastoralism. Starting by cataloging the importance of water, this article analyzes the problems of the access, utility, and extraction of water. After reviewing government's water policy, the article then assesses the impact of government water schemes. My observation in this discussion is that the beneficiaries of water schemes in Nigeria, either because of the design or how the water is being delivered, are farmers rather than grazing Fulani.

The Importance of Water

Water comes next to grazing land in importance among the pastoralists in Nigeria. The Fulani see the provision of water as an antidote against the predicaments of marginal environment. The sinking of wells, boreholes, and earthen dams brings previously un-grazed sites to the immediate use of the pastoralists. The creation of additional water sources helps in even deployment of herds (Bourgeot 1980). Well-situated water-points allow the extensive use of fodder. The Fulani have explored various sources of water, including dams, wells, ponds, rivers, and pipe-borne running water.

Survey data on the extent of human and livestock uses for water sources indicate that only a few pastoral Fulani have access to tap water. The majority of the respondents travel about two miles to fetch the untreated, drinking water. The Fulani drinking from the same pool or rivers as their animals.  Seventy-two percent of the Fulani survey say their may sources are rivers and lake. Ten percent of the Fulani rely on ponds and another ten percent on dams. Since they do not boil their water before drinking, the Fulani are exposed to potential hazards of un-safe drinking water.

Access to Water

The search for water takes must of the herding time. The Fulani and their herds walk one to eleven kilometers to water-point. Although the median distance to a water source is about one kilometer, the long queues of animals taking their turns at water-sites imply that something is amiss with the distribution system. The failure of the government to spread water sources in the rural areas causes the Fulani to create their own water-points.

The de facto claim to a water source goes to the person or persons who dig the well, make a path to it, or rid the site of predator animals and harmful objects. Anyone wishing to use artificial water sources must first get the owner's permission. Benevolence, however, requires that such permission be given, with or without fees, depending on the relationship between the provider and the requester (Bourgeot 1980). Unguarded wells are public domain, and they can be used without consultation. But within such wells, the Fulani must bring their own ropes and buckets to draw the water.


Because animals need water, the demand for it among the Fulani exceeds that of the rural people. Where subterranean water is inadequate, the Fulani pastoralists reduce the frequency of watering their animals. The Fulani water small stock every other day in the dry-season. Watering intervals for simple-stomach animals can take several days in the cold season (Riesman 1977; Horowitz 1980; and Western and Finch 1987).

Problems of Water Extraction

Water extraction in northern Nigeria is labor-intensive. Since family labor is usually not enough to cater to the water needs of the stock, the Fulani hire outsiders to fetch water for the animals. Hiring is, however, expensive and affordable by only the wealthy herd-owners. Labor availability, therefore, can widen the gap between the rich who can pay for water extraction and the poor who cannot (Sandford 1983). The availability of manpower to draw water sometimes dictates how many animals a pastoral Fulani can keep.

The positive aspects of water extraction include cooperation between the Fulani and the farmers. Mutual benefits accrue when the farmers agree to let the Fulani use the water facilities in exchange for milk or dung. The Fulani also build their own concrete cisterns (kwakware) through communal efforts and contributions of cash. But the greatest cooperation comes when the Fulani collectively press the government to provide water amenities.

Collective use of water source can, however, lead to competition and water abuse. Competitors respond to water deficiencies in various ways. It is not uncommon to find the competing groups or individuals going to the extreme of sabotaging the very public water supplies, so as to monopolize the facility. For example, to repel rival competitors, well users intentionally foul the community water sources by dropping dirts and stones into the wells (Famoriyo 1971). Cases are reported where the well users hide the ropes and buckets used in drawing the water. In Daura and Kazaure Districts the settled Fulani plant hedges around the water sources to halt trespassing by unfamiliar herders.

Impact of Water Extraction

An increase in water supply will save the time and effort of the herders, resulting in the improvement of the welfare of the livestock. However, when the increase in the supply causes competition and destruction of the land around the water-sites, the consequence is usually an impoverishment in the condition of the livestock. Water supply, therefore, helps where grass is adequate. If grass is scarce, water development can be potentially harmful (Sandford 1982).

Although they welcome water projects near their camp-sites, the Fulani worry that such projects will draw a large crowd of herds that will overgraze the area. For some Fulani, therefore, excavated holes or water depressions spell danger. Fulani herdsmen around the Tiga Lake and the Kainji Dam in northern Nigeria complain against transient farmers who are building permanent camps around the marshy areas and taking way the grazing land.

Review of Government Hydraulic Policies

The provision of water is the easiest and most visible state's interventions in pastoral production. The government understands the importance of water to the Fulani and gives it a high development priority. Government water policy is geared toward relieving the hardship of the Fulani in getting water, in preventing the overuse of water sources, and in reducing the struggle between the Fulani and the farmers over water use.

Before independence, the colonial government did not legislate or regulate the use of natural sources of water. The provision of water was left mainly to scores of organizations from Europe and North America working on isolated projects (Gore 1979). Water supply to the Fulani often stopped when these organization left the country, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cattle without water. Except for the few state-owned stock ponds and cattle dips, most of the water development projects were not intended for the direct benefit of the pastoral Fulani.

The government's attempts at improving water supply to the Fulani and the rural community have failed because of five main reasons. First the design and scope of water schemes are defective, made without adequate hydrological and biological assessments. Second, the creation and management of water facilities are poorly coordinated. Third, the Fulani do not cooperate fully in the management of public water facility. Fourth, water schemes are abused by corrupt public officers. Fifth, water schemes ignore sociocultural dimensions and the inputs of the target beneficiaries.

Failures of Government Water Schemes

Most water schemes in Nigeria, including the River Basin Development Authorities have failed because they are based on superfluous engineering designs, overambitious scope, lack of clear aims, wrong premises, and lack of geological, hydrological, and agroclimatical assessments. As a result of these deficiencies, most boreholes and public water pumps in Northern Nigeria are either not working or are working below capacity. The Katsina State Water Board reports in 1989 that only twenty-eight of the 737 boreholes in the state have provided water to large communities.

Dozens of cattle ponds and irrigation dams are built without adequate biological assessment. Many of these dams harbor hazardous parasites. For example, the dams in Ruma-Kukar-Jangarai contain snails that cause liverfluke in the animals (Ademosun 1976; and Awogbade 1982). Intestinal and dermatological diseases are common, since animals dip and drink in the same pool (Awogbade 1982). Efforts to purge dams of disease carriers have failed because the responsibility fell on several ministries, which, in Nigeria, means on no one.

The separation of the ministries that collect water fees from the ministries that repair the wells means that money collected goes to the government treasury rather than to the maintenance account (Sandford 1983). Money for maintenance is tied up in complex bureaucracy that results in unnecessary delays in repairing damaged structures. As such, the water-sites are unkempt. Thorny shrubs and unwanted vegetation block the passage to the water-sites, because the Fulani lack the social organization to maintain the water sources.

In few areas, the government collects a token amount of money from the Fulani for water use. This amount, however, cannot meet the upkeep costs. In some places no fee is collected because the Fulani customs frown at insistence on payment of water charges. Courtesy makes the enforcement of a water fee unacceptable. The local inhabitants take advantage of these traditional values to fetch water free and without appreciating the costs of bringing water to them (Sanford 1983).

The Fulani abuse public water schemes because no one oversees them. The poorly remunerated pump operators and security guards assigned to look after the premises embezzle the water fees. Where water is free, self-imposed guards demand bribes. Conversely, the Fulani themselves offer bribes to station managers to open the water gates or to start the engine. Borehole attendants and dam technicians regulate the water use according to their wish, favoring their herds and those of their friends and relatives.

Most government-sponsored water schemes overlook sociocultural dimensions and disregard pastoral knowledge and needs. Engineers who have not stayed long enough to understand the politics, language, and biases of the local inhabitants ignore the pastoral inputs in the construction and management of the water schemes (Sandford 1982). The interests of the water providers differ from those of the government or the Fulani.

Impact of Government Water Schemes

Sometimes, government's hydraulic policies harm more than help the Fulani. Although long-range impact assessment of such policies are lacking, a review of the complaints from the Fulani shows that small- or large-scale water projects have achieved the unintended result. Among the major effects of erecting a new water-point are the disruption of the natural flow of rivers and streams, the escalation of the race for food between domestic and wildlife herds, and the invasion of grazing land by farmers.

Irrigation projects divert, impound, or concentrate the network of streams, thus, depriving the Fulani from reaching spatial water reservoirs and narrowing their range for spatial grazing. Dams cutoff the water supply to the downstream area, rendering the active flow of rivers to mere trickles (Olofin 1980; and Bird 1981). The reduction in water flow has led to microclimatic changes that make the land more susceptible to desertification. These projects also displace cultivators and pastoralists, forcing them to rent the very land they used to own (Bashir 1986).

The provision of watering points has heightened the competition for food among the domestic and the wildlife herds, leading to a de-population of the latter. The wildlife population using the land that domestic stock does not or cannot use faces stiff competition from domestic animals as a result of new water supply. For example, arid-tolerant animals such as camels, who only they can survive on the scanty herbs and shrubs in remote locales, meet challenges from animals coming to drink from the new water sources. The animals not only drink the water, they also consume the little forage on which camels subsist (Horowitz 1980). The extension of wells and boreholes attracts many cattle that denude nearby vegetation.


Government water projects and capital-intensive agricultural schemes lure farmers into areas traditionally used for grazers. The Fulani see these projects as an invitation of non-pastoralists on the grazing reserves and stock-routes. These incursions threaten the development of the Fulani and their livestock.



Ismail Iro works as a Programmer/Data Analyst in Washington, D.C. USA