WATER resource management in Zimbabwe continued to be governed by the 1976 Water Act, decades into independence.
The water reforms that culminated in the 1998 Water Act began as a direct reaction to the 1991/92 drought, the worst in the country’s history.
The setting up of an inter-Ministerial review committee headed by the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Water Development in mid-1993 was the first step towards reviewing the 1976 Water Act.
The committee recommended a new Water Act be put in place.
This marked the establishment of the 1998 Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), and new Water Acts with the following provisions:
- Water permits, valid for a limited time sufficient to earn back money invested in developing facilities, were to be issued instead of water rights in perpetuity. Priority would be given to efficient irrigation systems;
- The priority date system was replaced with proportional water allocation;
- The ‘polluter pays’ principle was evoked where people who cause pollution of water pay for expenses for removing the pollution;
- The environment was regarded as a legitimate ‘user’ of water competing with other users such as industrial, agricultural, mining and domestic users;
- The State owned all surface and underground water. Except for primary purposes (mainly for domestic uses such as drinking, cooking and washing) any use of water would need approval by the State;
- Water would be managed by catchment areas, as rivers do not match political or administrative boundaries. All people with an interest in the use of water would be involved in making decisions about its use and management. Identified groups included representatives from communal, small-scale, commercial and large farms and mines, as well as urban representatives from industry, manufacturing and municipalities. These would replace the River Boards (which used to supervise day-to-day management) and the Advisory Councils (which used to assist in water planning) and would have the responsibility of granting water permits, a function previously carried out by the Administrative Court;
- Water was recognised as an economic good. People who use water would pay for it;
- A national water authority, ZINWA, would operate as a commercial enterprise. However, the Government would ensure that the poor and disadvantaged would continue to have fair access to water.
In the short-term, smallholder farmers were allocated 10 percent of all water in Government dams.
Though the water reforms were triggered by the 1991-1992 drought, they were in fact shaped by international donors since the independent Government of Zimbabwe predicated its policies on the colonial as well as neo-liberal concept of modern over subsistence farming. The old settler-dominated River Boards were somewhat reincarnated (with some black faces) as Catchment Councils that continued to wield power over water issues to the disempowerment of smallholder farmers.
It should be added that the situation has changed since the fast track land reform.
White commercial farmers who were active in the early stages were replaced by ‘black elite’.
A research-based analysis of the water reforms in relation to their effect on rural livelihoods showed that the reforms failed to facilitate the development of irrigation in the smallholder sector in general.
This is ironic given that the post-colonial State, failed to capitalise on indigenous water and irrigation management experiences.
According to some, this rendered the water reforms somewhat superficial.
Two decades after independence, smallholder irrigation in Zimbabwe accounted for a mere 10 percent of the country’s irrigated area and since its economic contribution was low, it was not considered to be of socio-political significance.
Since the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (2000-2010), smallholder irrigation initiated by the Government and/or Government management, increased to about 26 percent, incorporating the new A1 and A2 Model farms, as well as the communal and resettlement farmers.
However, evaluation studies have shown that these schemes had poor performance and were not sustainable.
Problems identified with the schemes included poor water utilisation and adequacy as well as poor water application to the fields.
While water allocation was the responsibility of the Water Court before the 1998 Water Act, this function has been delegated to the Catchment Councils. Catchment Councils have had to allocate water with no guidelines on how to balance what are sometimes contradictory objectives.
Research indicates that decentralisation to catchment and sub-catchment levels has, in some cases, resulted in a concentration of influence to a few already powerful individuals.
With regards to popular participation in water management, the State allocated itself disproportionately huge powers somewhat in contradiction to the democratic claims showing a lack of appetite for strong local institutions with sufficient political clout to complement the positive aspects of the water reform.
Meanwhile, some of the good clauses have not been put to use.
For example, according to the new Water Act (Zimbabwe, 1998), the Minister has the responsibility to ‘ensure the availability of water to all citizens for primary purposes’. In order to execute this function, it is the duty of the Minister to secure the provision of affordable water to consumers in under-privileged communities and to ensure that water resources are utilised at all times in an efficient manner having special regard to its value and the economic and other benefits that may be derived from it.
It is important to state that these safety nets provided by the Act have not been utilised.
In fact, catchment and sub-catchment councils eager to raise revenue tended to work against the realisation of these.
For example, in Gwayi catchment, suggestions were made to ‘levy a charge for every herd of cattle’, which contradicted the legal provisions.
In Save catchment cases, levies were proposed for ‘any water use where some income was realised’.
Crop yields were low.
The poor agricultural performance translated into poor financial and economic viability, thereby necessitating heavy Government subsidies, in some cases up to 75 percent.
The agro-economic performance of smallholder irrigation schemes depend on a number of factors such as plot size, level of education of plot holders, access to markets and management structure.
It is important to highlight that the State continued the colonial practice of controlling all irrigated activities on the schemes.
For example, farmers were required to follow set cropping programmes, and irrigation schedules.
In 1983, Irrigation Management Committees were introduced in smallholder irrigation schemes to improve co-ordination between irrigators and management. Significantly they failed to take over management of the schemes.
There were also institutional problems where management was located in various Ministries.
This resulted in the duplication of efforts and, in some cases, in lack of clarity on division of responsibilities, thus creating problems of co-ordination.
The various policies failed to change the status of smallholder irrigation.
In some cases, there were clear contradictions.
For example, the restrictions attached to the National Farm Irrigation Fund, established in 1985, resulted in a situation where only ZW$50 000 (US$30 000) was taken up by smallholder farmers compared to ZW$6 million (US$4 million) taken up by white commercial farmers (ZCTU, 1996: 28).
This contributed to the slow growth of smallholder irrigation.
Importantly, no support was given to informal irrigation, which used a mixture of indigenous and introduced technologies and techniques.
This sector, estimated to cover 20 000 hectares in the late 1990s (IFAD, 1997), was said to be more productive than the formal sector.
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