In a series of features focusing on FAO projects in southern Africa, Leyla Alyanak, reports on how small-scale irrigation has brought local prosperity

Irrigation schemes to keep young people on the farm

The rains came late to Zimbabwe this year, sending anxious farmers running outside at the slightest sign of cloud, their faces turned upward, hoping for water. But Faustina Chivheia wasn't worried. Her gaze turned to her village's nearly full dam and to the lush green cornfields amidst the otherwise uniform expanse of brittle, pale straw.

"We farm green beans and maize. We eat about a quarter of what we farm and the rest we can sell," she said. "We have a shed where we keep the extra crops. People come in cars and buy them and then take them to Harare to sell again."

Trickle-down: irrigation creates prosperity


Yet Mrs Chivheia remembers that life wasn't always so bountiful in this southeast part of the country. "We had problems just planting one crop per season," she recalled. "When the rain didn't come, we didn't get any food. Now, we can plant almost three crops per season."

"And that's not all," she said. "Before the irrigation was put in, we got four tonnes of maize. Now we get between nine and ten, and for everybody, not just a few people. Our food is varied now, too. We used to eat sadza (pounded cornmeal) with no relish. Now we can buy meat and fish, and nourish our bodies with many different foods."

Things began to change for the farmers in the village of Hama when they decided they'd had enough of droughts and pressured the government into building a dam. The Hama Mavhaire irrigation scheme followed a few years later in 1991, one of 30 set up with technical assistance from FAO and funded through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

While it went far beyond it's original purpose, the scheme was first designed to train Zimbabweans in setting up irrigation projects on their own, with the full participation of local farmers. "The farmers take care of their own plots and are given their own resources. And these farmers do not have any other dryland farms, so they put all their efforts into this one," says irrigation specialist Ananias Dube.

"This scheme belongs to the farmers," said Andreas Savva, FAO's Water Resources Management Officer. "So the farmers feel part and parcel of it because they put their work into it. They dug the trenches. They put down the pipes. It's their scheme, and they feel responsible for it. As a result, local farmers have also become more independent."

When the project started, the local agricultural extension service, Agritex, had only two people who could handle small- and medium-sized irrigation projects. Today, it has a staff of 40, so the initial goal of training local experts has been met. The specialists are also better trained and can put together schemes of up to 600 ha, compared with Hama Mavhaire's more modest 100 ha.

The project is not without its problems, however. Siltation is plaguing the dam, caused by soil running off into the water because there is no vegetation to hold it back. At the same time, settlers are crowding grazing areas, causing erosion, and a resettlement plan is badly needed. Not only must existing damage be repaired by building silt traps, but future damage must be prevented by limiting the number of people who can settle along the water's edge.

Nevertheless, the gains seem to outweigh the losses. Today there are lots of permanent shops and better transport links in the area. The 92 families who each own a one hectare plot in Hama Mavhaire earn an average of 14,000 Zimbabwe dollars (US$1,400) each year, more than enough to meet their needs. In times of drought, the project can make the difference between hardship and security for literally thousands of people, through the informal support structure of extended families that may include up to 40 people.

Confidence that they will be able to earn a decent income helps to keep young people on the land. At 18, Tawanda Gomo has not gone to work in the city, as is the custom in Zimbabwe's poor rural areas. Instead, he spends his days helping his mother in the fields. "If we didn't have the irrigation scheme, I would have left and gone to town because I need to earn money," he said.

"What I have now is better than anything I could have ever expected," he added. "I have a future." His hopes and plans for that future -- including marriage, a house and someday a small herd of livestock -- are built on the foundation of security and prosperity provided by the dam and irrigation scheme.

18 December 1996


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