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Zimbabwe seeks to water crops with irrigation investment

by Marko Phiri | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 11:15 GMT

Farmers lose harvests as floods and dry spells alternate, highlighting need for better water management

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For Dalumuzi Moyo, a small-scale farmer in Lupane, northwest of Bulawayo, floods in December and January followed by a dry spell spoiled the fruits of his labour.  

“I wasted my strength working the fields,” he said, staring miserably at his wilted maize crop in hard red earth the government deems more suitable for cattle ranching.

“We had too much rain in December (and now) we are facing hunger. This is just cruel,” Moyo said, adding that recent rains had come too late to save his harvest.  

The government declared a crop failure in March, the month when farmers expect to be harvesting maize, with more than three quarters of crops lost in some parts of the south.

Heavy rains returned again from late March into April, compounding the misery for farmers across the country.

Their struggle with weather extremes has prompted a renewed focus on rainwater harvesting and irrigation, with the government now seeking investment in new infrastructure.

Earlier in the year, President Robert Mugabe - who has long touted agriculture as the country’s economic bulwark - lamented Zimbabwe’s inability to harness rainwater effectively, according to state media.

“Rains fall for two months and go but we lack water harvesting. At the end of the day, we have the maize crop wilting faster than other crops. If we have dams, we (can) resort to irrigation,” he was quoted as saying in February.

For farmers like Moyo, the president’s observation came too late.

Many existing dams - like the 50 or so in Zimbabwe’s two Matabeleland provinces - are old and failing to capture enough water, while irrigation schemes are in a state of disrepair, according to Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa who has been tasked with mobilising resources for irrigation.

Elisha Moyo, principal climate change researcher at the environment and climate ministry, said investment in irrigation should not be seen as a “standalone initiative” but as part of a sustainable solution to water issues.

“It entails strategically positioning the dams and installing irrigation facilities, especially where climate change impacts are most felt,” Moyo said by email.


Those places might include the Matabeleland provinces in the west, which experience a mix of floods and long dry spells each year.

The environment ministry believes the best way to adapt to the climate extremes that are worsening food insecurity is to build more dams to provide water for irrigation schemes.

But dams costs money.

Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government cut the 2015 budget for the agriculture and irrigation ministry to $174 million for 2015 from $391 million last year, in a move that will constrain the country’s ability to invest in irrigation and rainwater harvesting infrastructure.

The hope is that foreign funding could help fill the gap. In April 2014, the European Union provided 6 million euros ($6.5 million) to rehabilitate irrigation schemes in Manicaland and Matabeleland North and South provinces.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is also assisting smallholder farmers in the eastern highlands with an irrigation support programme. But the agriculture ministry said that out of 113 irrigation scheme applications in the region, FAO was only able to assist 10 last year.

Tapiwa Gomo, a disaster management expert at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that while irrigation can be a response to droughts the country faces, more investment in climate monitoring is needed to combat food insecurity.

Zimbabwe is part of the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum, which provides seasonal forecasts, Gomo noted.

“Last year's climate outlook was very clear on which areas of the country would receive normal to above-normal rainfall. But this advice was ignored because our government had other priorities,” Gomo said in an interview earlier this year.

At the African Seed Trade Association congress in February, Joseph Made, the agriculture minister, told delegates this is “the time we should talk about irrigation”.

But Zimbabwe’s initiatives have often stalled due to a lack of financial backing.

Last year, the finance minister announced that the government was drafting a “master plan” to support climate-resilient investments to develop and manage water resources and irrigation infrastructure, including dams.

That plan is subject to the government getting assistance from its development partners, including the FAO and other U.N. agencies, which has yet to emerge.

(Reporting by Marko Phiri; editing by Megan Rowling)

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