Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ agriculture. There are many organisations, perhaps most notably PELUM, the participatory ecological land use management association, that have supported low external input sustainable agriculture initiatives over many years. A new blog has also been started to document some of these experiences, and it includes videos, case studies and more. It is well worth a look, as the examples highlighted show how smallholder agriculture can move ahead, often without the type of inputs and investments that are often assumed to be essential.

One of the first people I met when I went to Zimbabwe in the 1980s was Zephaniah Phiri Maseko of Msipane area in Runde communal area near Zvishavane. Through the connections with Dadaya School, where his father had worked, and his earlier association with Ken Wilson, he came to work on the growing array of activities that became linked to the PhD projects that Ken initiated and I joined in nearby Mazvhiwa communal area. Visiting his home was a revelation. Here was a lush, green land in an area that received barely above 500mm of rainfall. He had broken every rule in the Rhodesian handbook of agricultural practice (like farming in or near a vlei and water source, avoiding traditional contours and more), and it was working amazingly effectively.

In 1987, thanks to support from Oxfam and the EEC, Phiri founded Zvishavane Water Projects. Its mission was to share the experiences of ‘planting water’ that Phiri and his family had developed at their home over the years to a wider community in Zvishavane and beyond. As NGOs, farmer groups and individuals have taken up these ideas – harvesting water in a variety of ways to improve soil moisture and agricultural production – the impact has been incredible. The now famous ‘Phiri pits’ can be seen scattered across the landscape.

Mary Witoshynsky documented the remarkable life and work of Mr Phiri in a fantastic book published by Weaver Press, The Water Harvester. There are also numerous articles profiling his work (for example, here, here and here – the last from 1988, written by Phiri, with Ken Wilson and myself). Many such articles were collected together for the ‘book of life’ presented at the UZ lifetime achievement award ceremony in 2010. Here too is a video of him explaining his water harvesting systems at his home. Phiri certainly has been an inspiration to me, as many others. The possibilities of dryland farming, without complex technologies but with an ecological understanding of water and land, are extensive.

Now in his mid 80s, Phiri is now old and infirm, suffering badly from the injuries inflicted at the hands of the Rhodesian regime when he was under house arrest and in leg irons. But his work continues through ZWP and many other initiatives. Indeed when I was at his home last year, his visitors’ book was full of comments from people from across Zimbabwe, and indeed beyond.

As more and more of the country is farmed by smallholders following land reform, Zimbabwe needs more Mr Phiris, and more similar initiatives to exchange ideas, technologies and practices. The new blog will be an important source for many, and hopefully will encourage others to experiment and innovate.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe

  1. am

    Thanks for the references and the report on Mr Phiri.

    A man near here used the level of his land to identify where run-off water went. He dug a big pit to capture the water there. He directs that water onto maize and veg during dry spells in the rains at his house. The ground there is red clay and about two acres in size. He bought a diesel pump for water distribution. The pit becomes empty during the dry season. Probably two months after the last rain. It is a serious attempt at water harvesting entirely self motivated.

    He is about 35, married with small children, intelligent, physically very strong and also hard working. He is also self motivated but struggling to move on without proper scientific advice and support. His attempts to obtain sponsorship failed at district and chief level because nothing seemed available. What private assistance he has received has been low value and also not very scientific. He does get distracted understandably in the search for the yellow metal.

    My point is how does a man like this move on? It would seem that he would benefit from some project management and advice as well as support. The organisations that can help him probably do not know that he even exists.

    Zimbabwe needs more Mr Phiris. But how are they found and assisted.

    • There has been much talk over the years about ‘innovation platforms’ and ‘networks’, but in the end farmers need support to develop their own organisations to allow sharing and learning of exactly these type of experiences, beyond the immediate locality. Sadly the smallholder farmer union, the ZFU, has been ineffective on this front. Hopefully in the future a strengthened farmers’ organisation will emerge.

  2. Terry

    This water harvesting, which I don’t think is a new concept, is an excellent way to farm. My understanding is that wetland that was on his property was developed by him. In a naturally occurring wetland one should not upset the ecological balance by farming too close as wetlands have other purposes than just providing water for farmers.

    • There are plenty of ways of making use of wetlands without affecting ecological functions. Unfortunately the natural resource regulations in Zimbabwe, dating from the 1920s, prevent cultivation within 30m of a wetland or waterway. This means that farmers are restricted from using some of the most productive lands, especially in drier parts. Work by DRSS, Loughborough university and many others has looked at options for productive and sustainable use of dambos/vleis. See an article Ben Cousins and I wrote in 1994 for a discussion: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08941929409380890.

  3. collin

    if you think well of the next generation ,one should protect the catchment areas by avoiding stream bank cultivations.Water should drawn from well structured dams not every where like what is happening along Mutirikwe River .That’s why sugar farming is at stake

    • There are always risks of environmental degradation from inappropriate farming methods. However, blanket regulations, such as the stream bank restrictions that prevent farming anywhere within 30m (originally 100 feet) of a water course simply do not make sense. They prevent the efficient use of the most valuable agricultural resource, water. And by pushing farming to the uplands, often create even more damage. Much good work has gone on in Zimbabwe on sustainable ways of riverbank, dambo and water course use and management, including cultivation. Old style colonial laws that simply ban potentially good practice have no place.

  4. Pingback: Struggle is not a destination, but a river that runs forever | zimbabweland

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