Sunday, May 3, 2015

Harnessing water for food in Zimbabwe's arid lands

By Busani Bafana

IRISVALE, Zimbabwe -- 'Forward with development' are the lyrics of spirited song the group of women at the dam building sing as they work along.

Trowel in hand, Sihle Sibanda, scoops cements and secures another large stone to raise the spill way of the Matope Dam. Sibanda and other members of the Irisvale Irrigation Scheme grow vegetables and crops using water from the Matope Dam but stop farming half of the year when the dam dries up, forcing them to abandon farming activities.

The situation is changing. The women - who make up the large number of the scheme's members-, are busy building. A local NGO, ProAfrica came to their rescue under a multi-partner initiative. Villagers contributed passion and labour while Pro-Africa provided training and technical advice. Rotary International, through a Bulawayo and US-based club helped secure $51 000 to enhance the capacity of the aged Matope Dam.

Sibanda - the Secretary of the Irisvale Irrigation Scheme - is like an army commander leading the charge against the enemy. In the Irisvale resettlement area in the Umzingwane District, 70 km south east of Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, hunger and poverty have been an undefeated enemy each time there is a drought.

For the quarter of each year, Sibanda is forced to borrow either cash or crops from neighbours because there will be nothing in her garden to sell when she cannot water it.

"Water limitation have affected us from accessing markets for our produce but that is set to change because we are determined to succeed," says Sibanda.

Sibanda from Village 8 in the Irisvale resettlement area is used to the drought but not what it brings - food shortages, livestock deaths and poverty.

The 3.6 hectare Matope Irrigation scheme developed in 2006 - a drought year - supports the livelihoods of its 21 members, a majority of whom are women. The scheme draws water from the Matope River dam built in 1950 serving Irisvale village which has 76 homesteads with an average of 10 people in each. The dam also waters the villagers' livestock including a dairy herd of 20 but dries up every year because cannot hold more water and farmers could not afford to increase its capacity.

But the dam - comprising a 7m high and 450m long earth embankment - dries up every year. It cannot hold more water because it is silted and has a small catchment area.

A solution was to increase the capacity of the dam but villagers did not have the money to undertake this task.

A local NGO, ProAfrica came to their rescue under a multi-partner initiative. Villagers contributed passion and labour while Pro-Africa provided training and technical advice. Rotary International, through a Bulawayo and US-based club helped secure $51 000 to enhance the capacity of the Matope Dam.

Sandy Whitehead, Chairperson of the Foundation Committee of the Rotary Club of Bulawayo South, says the project's potential to change lives through water and sanitation and economic empowerment, resonated with Rotary International focus on sustainable grants.

"We have been impressed by the commitment of the community to the project and eagerness to work," says Whitehead, adding, "Charitable giving and involvement is important because it empowers the local community to help themselves not just a hand out but assistance they want and which to use to make difference in their lives and the Irisvale community are doing just that."

Villagers have worked since May 2014 clearing the brush to extend the capacity of the dam. They have broken sweat raising the spillway by 40 cm.

"When the dam dries, we are forced to stop farming vegetables and maize and wait for the rains but now we can produce crops and vegetables throughout the year. This will benefit our family in terms of food and income," says Gladys Mpofu, treasurer of the Matope Irrigation Scheme. 

Pro-Africa is a member of the Give-A-Dam national project launched in 1992 to build dams in Matabeleland South as a pathway out of poverty. The organisation has promoted irrigation schemes in every dam built and trained farmers on maintenance and entrepreneurship. 

"The Matope project is a success story because the farmers believed in developing themselves and worked for no payment in securing a solution to food insecurity and poverty," says Velenjani Nkomo, the director of Pro-Africa. "On average farmers earn about $500 a year each from the project but with the increased capacity of the dam their income will double."

A Bulawayo hotel, impressed with the Irrigation scheme's produce, has awarded the scheme a contract to supply fresh vegetables.

Mbulelo Mtupha, a assistant agriculture officer with Pro-Africa, says the farmers have been trained on environment conservation and best farming methods which ensures they can deliver produce of the right quantity and quality on time.

"We have helped the farmers scheme to take farming as an enterprise because business skills arm them to succeed," says Mtupha.

Siphephisile Ndlovu, Chairperson of the irrigation scheme says the project has empowered the community by helping them provide food and income security.

"More importantly the project has helped us support widows and more than 15 orphans in our village, by giving them food and assisting with school fees and other needs through proceeds from the irrigation scheme," Ndlovu says.

In the last 14 years, Pro Africa has invested in excess of a million dollars building more than 40 gravity-fed irrigation schemes around dams. Most of the schemes have water throughout the year. 

Piet te Velde,  an engineer with Watermark Consultancy which worked on the design of the project extension, said raised spillway will give the dam a new storage capacity of 169 000 cubic metres of water, enabling the irrigation scheme to operate round the year.

Farmers will earn about $3,000 per hectare per year, income that income can potentially double by increasing the area under irrigation by 2 hectares. Based on this, the investment in the project will be recovered in terms of increased production and returns in seven and a half years.


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