In disaster-prone southern Mozambique, farmers take command of water

by Jeffrey Barbee | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 2 June 2014 00:15 GMT

Lino Sioush harvests catfish and perch from canals that are part of the Baixo Limpopo Irrigation and Climate Resilience Project near Xai Xai, Mozambique. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Jeffrey Barbee

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A huge system of canals, dykes and levies, along with better education, could help build resilience to climate risks

XAI-XAI, Mozambique (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In this vast agricultural region of southern Mozambique, dark water flows slowly down canals cut into the farm fields. In an area prone to droughts and floods, the canals help deal with both problems, carrying irrigation water to valuable squash and tomato fields in dry times and carrying away floodwater in the wet ones.

The canals and the small-scale irrigation system they belong to are part of a broader 70,000-hectare water management system that is being rehabbed and expanded with investment from the multilateral Climate Investment Funds to boost food security and incomes and lower disaster risk in the region.

Experts hope that the system of irrigation schemes, dykes and levies, coupled with better education and agricultural support for cash crops and processing facilities will help the disaster-prone region build greater resilience to worsening extreme weather and other climate impacts.

Southern Mozambique has already seen the problems weather extremes can bring. Catastrophic flooding in 2000 – the worst in 50 years – claimed 800 lives in the region, left 540,000 displaced and cost the country as much as 10 percent of its annual GDP.

Since then, recurring droughts, punctuated by extreme rainfall, have become almost “normal” weather in the region, farmers say.

In a report on climate change impacts released in late March, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that sub-Saharan Africa could see its maize harvests fall by a third by 2050 as a result of increasingly erratic rainfall and extreme weather.

That’s particularly bad news for Mozambique, one of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, and a rural nation that relies heavily on subsistence agriculture.

The new water management system renovates an older, smaller set of canals that have long existed in the region, and aims to work with other interventions, such as education and crop processing, to reduce climate risks.

The Baixo Limpopo Irrigation and Climate  Resilience Project attempts to address the needs of three distinct farming groups: small-scale famers with less than four hectares, farmers who have formed themselves into farm associations or cooperatives, and large-scale corporate farmers, able to assist with technology transfer and training for the other two groups.


More than a thousand workers are helping dig and maintain the canals, and hundreds more are involved in construction and other projects. At the centre of the effort is an irrigation system driven by a large new pumping station in Xai-Xai. The station, set alongside the Limpopo River, pulls water from nearby rivers to help farmers grow food in dry periods. It can also pump out excess water to keep big floods from damaging vulnerable crops.

It runs on mains electricity but a big new generator will keep it running even when the national power grid fails during catastrophic flooding, organisers say.

Getting the water balance right is key. If the pumps and canals don’t work effectively together, too much water can pool on the floodplains and drown years of agricultural investment. But over-pumping to avoid flooding can dry out crops elsewhere, agricultural advisers say.

If water can be effectively managed throughout the year, however, it means farmers in the region are free to grow food year-round in an area that once had only a four-month growing season.

The water control project is a combined effort with Mozambique’s government and Regaidio De Baixo Limpopo (RBL), a para-state company that manages the water system. It is drawing on $86 million in grants and near zero-interest loans from the African Development Bank, International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, channeled through the Climate Investment Funds’ Pilot Program for Climate Resilience.

The Mozambican government and the African Development Bank chose to use RBL to develop the irrigation project, as part of efforts to build public/private partnerships that can scale up the work. The irrigation project aims to benefit about 8,000 small-scale famers, many of them women, who are learning how to move from subsistence agriculture to becoming what the project terms “emerging commercial farmers.”

The money will flow until 2017, at which point it will be assessed for further funding.

Many of the canals associated with the project have existed for some time, as part of an older irrigation system. But that system fell into decline, and many canals silted up with mud during the nearly three decade-long civil war that wracked this country of 25 million people until 1992.

Now those canals are being rehabilitated. RBL builds, manages and maintains the canals and associated pump houses, with the aim of keeping strict control over water flow and canal levels. During drought or flood, the aim is to ensure farmers are still able to grow an abundance of crops.

Besides its civil war, Mozambique’s government has at times struggled with problems of mismanagement, which has led to slow progress on some economic and social efforts. But farmers associated with the water management programme say this partnership seems to be doing its job.


Antonio Jose Gaveta, 44, and his wife Lucia  have farmed near Xai-Xai since 1988, and are now scaling up their efforts thanks to the improved water supply.

Clearing his field for his first cash crop of beans, cowpeas and carrots, he wipes his brow and looks out over his fields. "Things are much better now in the last few years since RBL started working with us. In fact, it has never been this good,” he said. 

He has been getting training and assistance from RBL's Sebastian Ferro, who likes to say his desk is the front seat of his 4x4 truck.  Ferro helps mentor hundreds of “emerging” and small-holder farmers, spending 12 hours a day criss-crossing the networks of canals and drainage systems. 

A big man with a bigger smile, he is nonetheless realistic about the challenges facing the region.  "Only with real training and daily work will this happen.  There are no shortcuts to farming,” he said.

One of his trainers is also an “emerging” farmer who has been growing crops here since 1984. Miguel Gonca, 53, stands next to his rice crop, which is drying out for the coming harvest. Some of his temporary workers walk through the field shaking big plastic oil cans full of beans to ward off hungry crows. 

"The conditions have gotten a lot better for farming here. Before, I did not see this level of organisation,” he said.

Crucially, he said, the water management project has sought out his traditional knowledge about the area and included him in decision making.

"I did not feel all those years ago that I am a part of the process going on here. I was just told what to do. Now I feel like I know all about it, why and when I must plant, and how I can make more profit,” he said.


It all comes down to money for Armando Ussivane, the CEO of RBL. Before taking up his current job he was an agricultural research scientist running the nation's soil and water conservation program. Ussivane believes that if small-holder and “emerging” farmers can make money from their fields, despite changing weather conditions, then he is doing his job.

"Now we are focusing on climate resilience", he says in his car as he rushes from meeting to meeting after starting his work day at 7 a.m.  "Small-scale farmers are getting microprocessing centers for their produce to maximize cash inputs. Before, nothing was integrated here. Now the production, processing and marketing links up the value chain even for the smallest famers."

This means that farmers like Gonca now have support to help choose, plant, grow and market their crops. 

Ussivane has high hopes, but the challenges facing the project are big ones.

Eduardo Cuamba, 37, is the coordinator of the Sustainable Land and Water Management project for Gaza province. He comes from Chokwe, one of the project areas, and one of the most drought-prone parts of the country.

The twin evils of poor governance and lack of political will that have plagued similar projects are acute in Mozambique, he explained.  Just as important is a lack of basic education.

Mozambique has one of the highest rates of illiteracy on the world, and since the civil war ended 20 years ago the government has struggled to develop its education system.  If people are not educated, Cuamba said, they are unable to grasp the basic ideas of supply and demand and democratic responsible government, and battle to diversify their incomes by learning new techniques and trades.

The overall success of the project’s efforts to boost agricultural livelihoods and incomes in the face of climate change, he believes, will ultimately rest on the success of its efforts at educating farmers about new opportunities and risks.

 “Education is the key,” Cuamba said.

To see more images of southern Mozambique and its efforts to control water and improve incomes and food security, click here.

Jeffrey Barbee is a journalist and photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He focuses on environmental issues including climate change and energy. This article is part of a series funded by the Climate Investment Funds.

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