Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The gurgling water flowing fast through a canal system at the rehabilitated Silikwe Irrigation Scheme in Gwanda North district has brought cheer to farmers who now look forward to improved yields, livelihoods and food security.
The revival of the 22-hectare Silikwe Irrigation Scheme close to Silikwe Dam, north of Gwanda town, has come as a major relief for smallholder farmers in this dry district.
This irrigation scheme collapsed in 2008 at the height of the economic crisis that hit all sectors of the economy hard.
Irrigation pipes, canals, a water pump engine and a range of equipment were vandalised leaving communities in this drought -prone area with no source of food and largely depending on handouts.
The fence around the scheme was also stolen. No tilling took place at the scheme for the last decade.
Land lay uncultivated and unutilised piling untold misery on the farmers in Silikwe.
However, the coming in of Practical Action, an international NGO, under a US$2,3 million borehole installation and irrigation scheme rehabilitation project, is now set to improve water supply and crop production at Silikwe Irrigation Scheme.
“We have so far drilled nine boreholes out of the 25 we are targeting in seven wards in Gwanda rural district,” said Melody Makumbe, a project coordinator with Practical Action.
“We are making steady progress and we are now engaging contractors to install solar powering systems for boreholes and irrigation equipment.”
In 2017, Practical Action got a US$2,3 million grant from the Swedish embassy through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) to implement the project.
The project is called the Enhanced Agricultural Productivity and Resilience to Climate Change through Solar Powered Irrigation.
The project is now promoting the use of solar to power irrigation and community garden schemes.
Under the project, schemes that were now being rehabilitated included Silikwe, Sukwi, Bhopoma and Reinetsi.
The schemes have a combined hectarage of some 60 hectares. In addition, the project is aiming to establish 15 community gardens to improve household food and nutritional security as well as incomes for local farmers.
“There are some 920 beneficiaries in seven wards of Gwanda rural district with spill-over benefits that could reach some 50 000 people,” said Makumbe.
With irrigation canals rehabilitated, a new solar-powered water engine installed and water flowing, farmers at Silikwe Irrigation Scheme are bound with joy.
“This scheme was dead since 2008 when the country went through an economic crisis,” said Mandla Twala, chairperson of the scheme.
“I can’t believe that water is now flowing through these canals. It’s a miracle. We are so excited by the revival of our scheme. All the farmers are now busy tilling the land to prepare to plant maize.”
There is so much hope that the rehabilitation of the small irrigation scheme will ease the perennial problem of food shortages in this region.
The district is in the grip of the worst drought following poor rains last season. This has led to massive crop failure and livestock deaths in the area.
Most farming families here have endured tough conditions with little food to eat, no access to potable water, health or income-generating projects to improve their livelihoods following back-to-back droughts.
The scale of drought emergency is enormous and without the revival of the Silikwe Irrigation Scheme the impact would unfortunately get even worse.
“We are so excited about the support to revive our irrigation scheme,” said Nomsa Ndlovu, a farmer from Dadata, in Gwanda North district. “Water is life. With water we can grow crops, earn income and feed our families.
“Having a solar-powered water engine pump will help us to reduce our costs and also reduce pollution. We are feeling the impact of climate change and with such technology, we can become strong to cope with the impact of drought and other extreme weather conditions.”
Farmers are upbeat. They are now preparing to plant maize, butternuts, cucumbers, beans and other cash crops to take advantage of the rehabilitated irrigation scheme.
“Before this scheme was rehabilitated, life was so tough,” said Catherine Dube, another farmer from Dadata.
“Many of our children have gone to South Africa and Botswana because of the tough living conditions here. With this irrigation scheme functional, why would I need to go to Joza? I’m very optimistic that I will be able to grow crops and earn a living from farming.
“I’m also optimistic that I will be able to earn income and pay school fees for my children, buy food and even make improvements to my house.”
Drought conditions, triggered by El Niño which ravaged much of the country last season, has affected scores of people in Gwanda North and South district with many people in need of food aid.
Without the revival of the irrigation scheme, farmers here were facing a gloomy situation.
Many were beginning to sell livestock to make enough money for hand-to-mouth sustenance.
For far too long, irrigation schemes in Gwanda North district seemed to have been left off the agenda. Years of neglect led to vandalism and theft of key irrigation infrastructure. People vandalised pipes and water pump engines, agricultural implements and other equipment.
The Silikwe local community felt short-changed after unfulfilled promises were made by some NGOs and other Government departments.
In short, they said, there were given a raw deal, at a time when they were hardest-hit by the impact of climate change.
Relief is now sweet music to the lives of farming families here in Silikwe.
“Hunger is going to be a thing of the past with our solar-powered irrigation scheme and new water canals,” said Bongani Dube, another farmer from Dadata.
“All we now need is to work hard and make the project a success. We can grow food for ourselves, our districts and the nation as a whole.”
Support from Practical Action with support from the SIDA has pumped oxygen into this irrigation project which had been in a deplorable state for years.
Practical Action has rehabilitated this irrigation scheme with new canals, new boreholes and the construction of latrines.
Farmers are now dreaming big as their endeavour to irrigate their fields will succeed this time.
“This project has the potential to change people’s lives by improving incomes, food security and building the resilience of farmers in the wake of climate change,” said Makumbe.
“By growing their own food, farmers here will reduce their reliance on food imports from SA and Botswana as well as from faraway places like Gokwe, Murehwa, Chipinge and other places in the country.”
Farmers in this drought-prone district got training on good agricultural practices, irrigation management, soil and water management, financial literacy, marketing, value chains and maintenance of equipment.
Despite facing numerous challenges, there is renewed interest by Government which was now giving prime attention to irrigation to minimise the impact of climate change- related risk on the livelihoods of the poor.
Government has been working closely with various international partners to revive irrigation schemes at a time when the fiscus is hard-pressed.
Through these irrigation improvement strategies, Government also hopes to tackle problems facing smallholder farmers such as low incomes and living standards, poor nutrition, housing and health and education.
Experts say agriculture employs more than 60 percent of Africa’s working population, but low productivity and high levels of food insecurity persist.
They urge African governments to prioritise small-scale irrigation schemes and other forms of agricultural water management strategies that are critical in building resilience to problems that come with climate change.
Zimbabwe, just like most other African countries, is endowed with abundant water resources that are, however, unevenly distributed across the country.
Very few farmers benefit from water management and the majority still rely heavily on rainfed agriculture.
Investments in pipes, solar water pumps and canals that help water flow to irrigation schemes can help bring relief to drought-prone regions. They can help blunt the worst effects of drought.
Zimbabwe’s 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 206 000 hectares of the developed 263 000ha was functional.
With the rehabilitation of more irrigation schemes, the total developed area is set to increase, helping to strengthen the country’s food and nutrition security.