‘Bone-dry’ sand river of vital importance to Zimbabwean farmers

Written by Annelieke Duker, on 11 September 2019

In a seemingly bone-dry area of Zimbabwe, farmers still manage to find water. They’ve found a unique water source in meters thick sand layers. Researcher Annelieke Duker of the IHE Delft discovered remarkable differences between the operations of farmers’ collectives and individual farmers. She traveled the region and examined their struggles and successes in this fascinating region.

See Annelieke's original blog on weteschappen.nu: ‘Kurkdroge’ zandrivier van levensbelang voor boeren in Zimbabwe

I cross the bed of the dry sand river, the sun high above, scorching my face. Occasionally I stumble across the footprint of an elephant, my shoes sinking into the loose sand. I am in one of Zimbabwe’s driest areas, on the border with Botswana. That border is formed by the river Shashe, which has known a history of trade for several decades. Zimbabwean farmers sell their crops to acquaintances from the other side, in trade for fuel and foreign currency, both hard to come by in Zimbabwe. That diesel is then used to fuel the pumps that extract water from the sand rivers, which they need to irrigate their fields.

Hence it turns out the river bed isn’t quite that dry. In fact, the thick sand layers contain enormous quantities of water, and provide a reliable water source for these small-scale collective irrigation systems. The systems themselves are heavily outdated and stem from the 60s, when Zimbabwe was still called Rhodesia. At the time, the government ensured the system’s operations by supplying farmers with seeds, fertilizer, diesel, tractors, and a (mandatory) market. Success has been intermittent since the country’s independence in 1980.

Limited perspectives for the future

Government agencies and (inter)national NGOs come and go to bring new technologies and improve canals, pumps, and basins. This allows the farmers to continue their farming for a couple of years. However, without this external support, the farmers struggle to maintain and operate their systems. Despite numerous capacity-building trainings, they still depend on financial and infrastructural help from outside. More recent “support programs” are characterized by the government’s iron hand, and yield marginal returns at best.

For example, farmers were forced to grow wheat and maize for several seasons, using seeds and fertilizers provided by the government in the form of a loan. Under the watchful eye of the army, the farmers paid back these loans with their harvest. Because the estimated yields were unrealistically high, farmers barely had any crops left after paying back their debts. Nonetheless, some farmers are still active, hoping for better times. Little yield is better than none, and they do not want to lose their lands in the schemes.

The rise of individual farmers

Adjacent to the stagnating collective irrigation systems, a new movement has started. More and more individual farmers are settling along the shores of the sand river. They have bought (secondhand) pumps and simple irrigation tools. A few use solar cells to pump water. They grow maize, beans, and different kinds of vegetables and fruit. Some travel up and down from their homesteads, while others have built simple huts to spend the week on their fields.

These families have made a conscious choice to operate independently. They choose when they grow which crops, and on which market they sell them. They avoid the discussions and conflicts that trouble collective systems, and can manage their own business clear of external interference. Many have stopped working in the collective systems because of the minimal returns, and the lack of innovations as far as crops and markets go. The availability of relatively cheap motorized pumps contributes to the growing number of individual farmers.

It’s still unclear how successful they actually are. The definition of success depends on the importance of irrigated farming in comparison to alternative sources of income, such as from  livestock or temporary jobs nearby, or in South Africa. Market knowledge, technical know-how, and, above all, cooperation between farmers seem to be important ingredients for a sustainable existence as an individual farmer.

A pump and pipes cost several hundreds of dollars, which raises the question who can afford them. Do these farmers mostly come from families who make their money doing other jobs in this strongly migratory economy, or do the poorest also stand a chance to gain from this potential goldmine? And what are the roles for men and women? These are questions I want to answer in order to judge the impact of this individualization process.

Plenty of water. Now what?

Water availability is often one of the biggest challenges for irrigated farming. Surprisingly, I haven’t met a single farmer along the Shashe who was troubled by physical water scarcity. The sand layers contain enough water for the current use, even during the past few years in Zimbabwe, many of which were characterized by disappointing rainfalls. This water lasted up to the end of the dry season, which shows how important this source of water is to this arid area of Zimbabwe. This holds also true for many other parts of Africa that are home to these so-called alluvial groundwater systems.

Although the physical water system is thus not a limiting factor, individuals trying to farm productively still face plenty of social-economic challenges. Matabeleland South, the province traversed by the Shashe, has historically been economically disadvantaged. This is noticeable in infrastructure, facilities, and economic activity, among others.

One of the farmers’ most prominent problems is access to the market. This limits their access to the right necessities (seeds, fuel, manure and fertilizer), and their ability to sell produce. Additionally, when they manage to enter into a contract with, for example, a supermarket, it is challenging to meet the constant demand and prolong these contracts. Add to that the scarcity of diesel and petrol, which makes it hard to keep the pumps running. Regular maintenance is also crucial, because sand can easily get into the machinery.

Little recognition

The advantages and potential risks are barely on the radar of governments and NGOs. There is little recognition and attention for the individual farmer’s families in this area. They are part of an informal sector, separate from the officially licensed farmers and water users. On the one hand, this is what drives them. They can make their own choices about which crops they grow and who they sell them to. On the other hand, they are met by constraints, for which they could get useful (indirect) support from external actors.

Additionally, more and more farmers are trying their luck along the sand river. This intensification comes with risks. Farmers are often only active for a few years, leaving their fields behind when they move on. This results in erosion of both crop land and river bed.

Another unknown factor is the exact amount of water in the sand river, and the pace at which it is replenished during the wet season. These physical limits can result in competition between farmers locally, and may negatively affect downstream nature and water users. The Shashe is a tributary to the Limpopo, which provides drinking and irrigation water to important parts of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

I’m analyzing satellite images that show that the amount of fields has increased over the past years. There’s also many fields lying fallow. Using a comprehensive survey on the ground, I’m now depicting how, when, and why farmers irrigate, how important it is to them, which markets they serve, and which adjustments they want and are able to make. I need answers to these questions to say something meaningful about the use and necessity of possible future measures in Zimbabwe.

My research takes place in the context of A4Labs, an IHE Delft research project in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Its goal is to gain a better understanding of the properties of sand rivers. Together with farmers and other stakeholders, we’re testing different ways to abstract water and use it for productive purposes. This way, we hope to contribute to reducing poverty and improving food security for rural families.

Back into the field

I’m walking back to the Zimbabwean side of the river, and climb the sandy shore. One of the farmers is waiting for me with a bag full of freshly harvested oranges. He shows me how he’s experimenting with different pumps and irrigation methods. For him, it’s a welcome addition to the pension he receives from abroad. But for others, the sand river is the primary and hence vital source for feeding their family. Reasons enough to dig further into the possibilities of the use of this river.


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