UNTIL their recent revival, rehabilitation and promotion by the Second Republic led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, indigenous irrigation in Zimbabwe was undervalued to the extent that it did not feature in official statistics and policies, as can be seen in the table below, despite the fact that it contributes significantly to rural livelihoods and sustainable resource management.
Period Policy Objectives
1981-1985 Government emphasises rehabilitation of the smallholder irrigation schemes.
1986- 1990 Construction of new schemes under bilateral and multi-lateral arrange ments; Development of irrigation infrastructure under the National Farm Irrigation Fund aimed at promoting wheat growing.
1991-2000 Steps taken to formalise farmers’ participation in design, financing and management of irrigation; Promotion of self-financing schemes.
2001-onward No clear policy. Resource diversion to undeserving cases at the expense of smallholder farmers.
Source: Manzungu (1999)
Though undervalued, indigenous irrigation contributed to food security and rural wealth in Zimbabwe for a number of reasons, namely:
Simple infrastructural set-up, such as temporary stone weirs for diverting water from the river and earth furrows to convey water to the fields, placed no demands on required construction and maintenance skills,
It was cheaper than Government-constructed schemes owing to the use of locally available materials. For example, intakes are made of brushes, which can easily be replaced, in marked contrast to Government schemes, some of which require expensive pumping equipment. It is quite common for such irrigation schemes to be shut down because of inadequate finances.
Sharing water is not problematic as equity is stressed compared to government schemes where officials often enforce impractical mechanisms;
The State tended not to value the concept of hydraulic property/hydro rights which is created when farmers actively participate in the design, construction and management of irrigation schemes;
Agricultural produce is for both subsistence and commercial purposes unlike in Government schemes with an over-emphasis on commercial purposes against a setting of unpredictable markets;
In most cases, furrows are spread along the river to ensure water supplies and catch run-off from catchments in between water abstraction points thereby limiting the possibility of conflicts over water between different furrows in times of scarcity;
Water rotation schedules are developed to cope with water scarcity and ensure equal distribution;
Labour contribution for canal maintenance at times worked as a water distribution principle along the furrow;
Involvement of traditional leadership appears to have enabled and sustained water scarcity management measures;
No-one is perceived to own water. Everyone who took the trouble to bring the water to his/her land is considered to have a ‘water right’. In times of scarcity, this principle gives each farmer a chance.
Problems in the sector have not abated, especially following the removal of subsidies for smallholder irrigation and the transfer of irrigation management to farmers.
Land reform, through the Fast Track Land Reform Programme, worsened the situation as more smallholders entered into irrigation with limited knowledge of what it required.
The greatest problem was the disregard of traditional or customary water resource and irrigation experiences, which, since most Government undertakings are donor-driven, indigenous principles are not part of official discourse.
For example, smallholder irrigation is said to have been introduced by white missionaries despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Traditional/customary water irrigation could have been used to support food security at the household level.
Due to long-standing difficulties, like lack of secure land and water rights, technical deficiencies, limited farmer participation, smallholder irrigation schemes faced a variety of operational and managerial problems.
This culminated in low agricultural productivity and lack of financial sustainability.
Even in newly acquired irrigated areas, after the land reform, where former white commercial farmers achieved good crop yields and reasonable water use, new indigenous farmers faced sustainability challenges.
State intervention tended to disenfranchise smallholder farmers because of the introduced legal systems.
For example, smallholder irrigators lost their rights over land, water and other resources.
In fact, the benevolence of the State as witnessed by ‘donation’ of smallholder irrigation schemes was a clear manifestation of ignorance of the concept of hydraulic property.
Water legislation plays an important role in promoting productive water use in smallholder agriculture in Zimbabwe.
It is important to look beyond legislation to assess the extent water legislation is matched to the social realities.
It also allows for an inventory of related issues, such as access to markets, inputs and finance, without which productive water use cannot be attained.
Various pieces of water legislation were constructed by the colonial State, which mobilised political, legal, economic/financial, technological and marketing resources in support of a white settler-economy and facilitated the white hydraulic mission and further the economic interests of settlers.
The post-colonial State, on the other hand, was less successful in achieving the much-needed black hydraulic mission because the legislation was not based on an economic ideology that was capable of achieving black economic empowerment in the agricultural sector in general and productive water use in smallholder agriculture in particular.
The water reform process, introduced 18 years after independence, was not only about two decades late but was not geared towards popular productive water use.
An informed analysis shows that this was about risk management. Issues of crop intensification based on market principles, where there is, in reality, no market, presented problems for farmers.
Farmers were, therefore, reluctant to follow all the advice offered by State agencies precisely because of different perceptions they held about risk compared to that of the former.
Some argue that irrigation development can be said to be a process of creating hydraulic property/hydro rights.
For example, individuals who help to build an irrigation system, either personally or through paid labour, receive a right to the water.
Often a person’s contribution to the initial investment equals that person’s share in the water.
Any allocation of water to later shareholders, no matter how complex, may, in principle, be traced to the configuration of initial shares.
The co-owners usually unite in some kind of self-governing association with elected officers to define and enforce rules on the exercise of rights by members.
Those wishing to join the association of owners of hydraulic property will have to either buy rights or be granted usufruct on the condition that they take responsibility for the maintenance of all or part of the infrastructure for the benefit of the early right holders.
What is important to highlight is that State intervention in smallholder irrigation development in Zimbabwe materially changed the concept and practices that allowed hydraulic property/hydro rights to thrive. The result has been that smallholder irrigation schemes are characterised by lack of clarity of farmer rights, be they individual or group rights.
This situation perhaps poses the greatest obstacle to the development of sustainable smallholder irrigation.
Dr Tony Monda BSc, DVM, is currently conducting veterinary epidemiology, agronomy and food security and agro-economic research in Zimbabwe.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com