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Zimbabwe's urban farmers lament rainwater loss

by Marko Phiri | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 27 January 2014 09:41 GMT

Boys carry sacks from a field in Sizinda suburb, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. TRF/Madalitso Mwando

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Urban farmers - many working the land informally - find themselves short of water for the dry season even as the government urges them to do more to help combat food shortages

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters) – Subsistence farmers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, have been watching in frustration as rainwater is lost to run-off, leaving them short of water for the dry season even as the government urges them to do more to help combat food shortages.

Since late November last year, rainfall has been regular, with showers almost every day. 

“The water is too much, but we have no way to harvest it for later use when the rains stop,” said Mavis Gampu, a farmer in Sizinda, a working-class suburb of Bulawayo. “My fear is failing to get enough maize despite all this rain. In the past we have seen too much rain - then it disappears forever, leading to failed crops.”

While the ministries of agriculture and irrigation urge urban farmers to help cushion the country against the food insecurity threatening it, little is being done to assist them in harnessing rainwater because many of their plots are viewed as illegal.

Last year, the government announced draft legislation to make irrigation a compulsory part of the agriculture sector, but there was no mention of how urban farmers would benefit from such an initiative.

Many produce their own maize crops on small plots, boosting their food supply at a time when the country has been forced to import maize from neighbours Zambia and South Africa. 

According to the agriculture ministry, this food relief is targeted at rural communities that have suffered successive poor harvests despite government schemes such as irrigation, small-scale dams and reservoirs to capture rainwater.

Zimbabwe’s poor harvests are being attributed to drought, as well as the government’s lack of resources to support farming and the absence of functioning early warning systems for drought.


The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that, within the next 20 years, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, increasing the need for urban agriculture to meet food requirements.

This will mean more reliance on rainwater harvesting, which remains “relatively untapped” for irrigation purposes in developing countries, the FAO notes.

University of Zimbabwe agronomist Desmond Sibanda said that while urban farming is vital for domestic food security, there are few measures in place enabling it to benefit from abundant rains. 

“It is true that most rainwater in urban areas is lost to run-off, which is a loss to local farmers, but there is little that can be done to assist farmers in that regard,” Sibanda said.

“(The) emphasis has always been on rural areas where large-scale irrigation schemes are possible and rainwater can be harvested on a large scale,” he said.

Municipalities across the country have long opposed urban agriculture, accusing residents of planting in areas earmarked for housing. But as food insecurity continues to haunt urban dwellers, many feel the need to grow their own food.

Maize is grown largely for consumption in a country where large numbers cannot afford to buy the staple food.

Urban subsistence farming is typically practised in areas close to residential housing on landfills, which planners claim are reserved for building new homes. The plots may measure from a few square metres to an acre.


In Bulawayo, urban farming is approved by the municipality in peri-urban areas, but tilling the land within city limits remains a headache for both farmers and city authorities.

Municipal officers sometimes cut down maize planted on undesignated areas when it is almost ripe, as a way of discouraging residents.

The municipality says unlicensed urban agriculture is harmful to the environment as loose soil from the plots finds its way into rivers, causing them to silt up.

Thembani Mkhwebu, a water engineer with the municipality, said flood irrigation and other methods used on approved urban farms cannot be applied on informal plots seen as illegal by the city council. 

“In approved urban farming areas, there are reservoirs that enable rainwater storage, (but) there are no easy solutions for people who complain that the municipality is slashing their grown maize crop,” Mkhwebu said.

“Their crop is fed by rainwater, and other options would be sinking boreholes (that) the residents can share, but where these maize lots are located this is not feasible,” he said.

Sibanda said the authorities must weigh the environmental impacts against the need for food security, and should move to regularise subsistence farming in urban areas.

“These (environmental) issues can be addressed,” he said, noting that complaints such as siltation are also made against rural farmers.

“The authorities need to come up with mechanisms where urban agriculture is not wholly seen as illegal. From there, issues around water for the sector will be dealt with,” Sibanda added.

“I don’t think it’s prudent to have a situation where every rainy season the people who need the water most just look on as rainwater literally goes down the drain.”  

Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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