Climate Story Jeffrey Gogo
Widow Dorcas Jena has lived off farming at the Nyanyadzi Irrigation Scheme of Chimanimani in eastern Zimbabwe since 1976 when she was married, growing mostly the maize staple on her one acre plot.
And until 18 years ago when a tropical cyclone called Eline cluttered irrigation canals, a storage dam and the river systems that support the scheme with sediment, the 59-year old had often enjoyed bountiful harvests, booking in nearly 3 000kg of maize each year, on the average.
But production has declined in successive years, falling to just 750kg at the end of 2016, as water shortages resulting from heavy siltation took their toll. Hunger soon followed.
“Whenever we received heavy rains, my crops would be swept away and those that remained would be affected by water logging and that greatly depressed my crop yields,” lamented Jena, who looks after her 3 grandchildren and a son.
“I was even contemplating stopping farming in the irrigation scheme altogether because each year I had to replant my maize twice and that was expensive as I had to buy inputs again and hire draught power,” she mourned.
By that time capacity utilisation at Nyanyadzi, which supports 721 farmers on 412 hectares, had dropped to just 13 percent, according to Anne Madzara, head of poverty, environment and climate at the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Now that has started to change.
A $3.98 million project to scale up climate change adaptation has carried out massive restoration works at Nyanyadzi, a gravity-fed irrigation system, helping farmers in one of Zimbabwe’s driest, drought-prone regions cope with changing climates.
The programme, which began in 2014 and ending in October this year, is being implemented at different scales across three districts vulnerable to climate change – Buhera, Chimanimani and Chiredzi – by global charity Oxfam in partnership with SAFIRE, University of Zimbabwe and Government. It is jointly funded by the UNDP and the Global Environment Facility.
At Nyanyadzi, sand and sediment were removed from a weir along Nyanyadzi River, and from canals and a night storage dam using excavators, tippers and other machinery.
“Part of the Project’s work involved the construction of four major silt traps on main waterways, 46 gulley checks, 6 over chutes and one hydraulic drop structure”, says Dr Leornard Unganai, the troject manager.
About 3km of storm drains to redirect runoff and discharge it safely into the river system were built, dead level contours opened up over 3ha of land close to the main canal, with trees and grass planted on 180ha of the sub catchments to boost ecosystem health, he said.
“We have diversion drains. These storm drains divert runoff water from the waterways that were bringing in silt into the canal, to safe waterways,” explained Aaron Mwanasawani, a technician with the Zimbabwe Government’s Department of Mechanisation.
“We designed safe waterways after which we trained these waterways so that they do not expand and cause much siltation.”
Water use efficiency
Irrigation is widely considered a key tool for helping rural farmers in agro-based economies like Zimbabwe’s adapt to climate change. The technology has been found to hold potential that redefines water use and water use efficiency to maximise agriculture production systems and yields.
At Nyanyadzi Irrigation, an 83-year old scheme split into four sections of different sizes, water drawn from Nyanyadzi and Odzi rivers has started to reach all areas, “enabling farmers to start planting a variety of crops including winter wheat, tomatoes, onions, sugar beans, maize and groundnuts,” said district project coordinator, Runyararo Munondo.
For Dorcas Jena, the widowed farmer, the major problem during the rainy season prior to the repairs was flooding caused by overflow water from the waterway, which destroyed crops and eroded fertile topsoil. Yet, sometimes her crops could not get enough water because of blockages in the canal system.
But Jena’s initial skepticism towards the irrigation rehabilitation effort has now been replaced by joy. “Had it not been for the conservation works, especially the diversion drains, the 2016/2017 cropping season would have been my worst because the rain was too much,” she said..
“Thankfully . . . my crops were spared as the water was now controlled and the manure and fertiliser remained on the soil.”
That year Jena harvested over 1 300kg of maize, realising $500 that she used to pay fees for two of her grandchildren for a year.
“Even our social relations have improved because we no longer have to fight for water. Everyone is getting enough water. The programme has brought a smile back to my face and I no longer constantly think about my late husband,” said the widow, with nostalgia.
Over four years, the refurbishments at Nyanyadzi are expected to more than double the average annual income for farmers to $6 500 from $2 800, says Dr Unganai. He added that underground water recharge had greatly improved and water loss reduced by 70 percent after the repairs.
Anne Madzara, the UNDP poverty, envinronment and climate head said: “The rural market system was dead. By reviving the irrigation scheme at Nyanyadzi we first obviously increase production then also enhance employment, particularly of women and youth. Once we have Nyanyadzi in production then we will see the rural growth point getting more vibrant.”
Obviously, irrigation is not an end in itself.
“The project prioritised irrigation development as an adaptation strategy for communities in semi-arid agroeco-systems to adapt to climate change,” Dr Unganai explained.
“However, integrated catchment management is critical in climate proofing these irrigation systems . . . construction of conservation works to control siltation are essential in reviving and protecting irrigation schemes,” he said.
Zimbabwe needs about $428 million to renovate 57 000 hectares of dead irrigation schemes, rendered useless by years of neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The total developed irrigated area in 2000 was estimated at 200 000 hectares, accounting for 80 percent of national water demand. By 2017, it was estimated that 78 percent of the developed 263 000 hectares were productive, it says.
God is faithful.