Adapting to a hotter, hungrier world in Zimbabwe

25th Mar 2014

Ipaishe cycles the 6 km to work on the land she now owns, Gutu District, Zimbabwe. Credit:Annie Bungeroth/Oxfam

As we launch our new briefing on the impact of climate change on hunger, John Magrath introduces Ipaishe, a Zimbabwean farmer who has experienced both the benefits and limitations of schemes that aim to adapt to a changing climate.  

"Being a widow is hard enough to deal with, without the stigma that comes with the fact you've returned home"Ipaishe Masvingise was overjoyed when she received land to grow her own food; and what was more, not just a plot of land, but land with a regular water supply. Ipaishe was one of the first of 270 poor smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe's semi-arid south-east who opted to join an Oxfam irrigation scheme back in 2009. 

Ipaishe is a thin, wiry bundle of energy whose face lights up with a flashing smile when she speaks. She has just celebrated her 50th birthday, and the arrival of her first grandchild. Her life has turned around remarkably. In 1997 her husband died; without any source of income, her in-laws sent her and her son back to her parent's home with nothing but a few belongings.  She said:

"Being a widow is hard enough to deal with, without the stigma that comes with the fact you've returned home after having been married".  

It's unusual for women to own land

In Ruti rainfall has always been erratic. Poor smallholder farmers in the dry lands are dependent on the rains to grow their one crop of maize each year; if the rains fail, as they often do, then the crop fails and hunger is a regular occurrence. 

Ipaishe Masvingise with her family, Guti District, Zimbabwe. Credit: Annie Bungeroth/Oxfam But Ruti is also the site of a large dam, capable of supplying irrigation water to nearby farms as well as to Zimbabwe's big sugar estates downriver. In 2009 Oxfam, the government of Zimbabwe and the local farmers teamed up to make the dream a reality and worked together to create a huge 60-hectare gravity-fed irrigation scheme.

Each scheme member was given 0.25 ha of irrigated land and received start-up support in the form of seeds, tools, fertilizers, pesticides and training. A key feature of the scheme was that women like Ipaishe gained access to plots and today nearly half the farmers are women. 

Ipaishe said: "With Oxfam and the government we worked together and cleared shrubs and trees, levelled the ground, dug the ditches, laid the pipelines and irrigation canals, built toilets and set up drinking points."

"For the first time I was given my own land to work on... it's just been a dream"

"For the first time I was given my own land to work on. I come from a long line of farmers but it's unusual for women to own land so it's just been a dream". 

As the water flowed the land blossomed. The results in the first two years of the scheme being operational were remarkable. By the end of 2012 farmers on the irrigation scheme were producing three crops a year instead of one and yields were three times as big as on their dry land plots. Household incomes increased by 286% for the very poor and 173% for the poor. Parents were able to spend significantly more on their children's education. People were able to build decent houses. 

Ipaishe said: "For two years I had money for hospital treatment for my mother and for school fees, and I had a granary built and a chicken-run. I have a five-year plan and my goal is to build a house 'in town' and let it out so we have income". 

Climate change can disrupt even the best schemes

The Ruti irrigation scheme is, rightly, seen as a success story. But the story did not end in 2012 and what has happened since shows how climate change can disrupt even the best schemes. 

Rainfall in south east Zimbabwe has been declining and becoming more erratic over the last 30 years. The 2011-2012 rains came late and then there was a mid-season dry spell that lasted for seven weeks. The 2012-2013 rains were not good, and then it did not rain at all for all the rest of the year until the very end of 2013. It was "a different year altogether…one of the worst years of recent times" said Mr Lovemore Chisema, Gutu Assistant District Commissioner. 

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority decided to allocate what water was available to the big sugar estates downstreamBy mid-2013 the level of the lake behind the dam had fallen dramatically. The water pressure was low and the amount of water flowing to the scheme had reduced to a trickle. Then, to make matters worse, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority decided to allocate what water was available to the big sugar estates downstream. The sugar estates pay a lot more for the water than the smallholders so they got priority. 

The combination of low water pressure, allocation decisions and late rains meant farmers at Ruti harvested their first crop that year, but their second crop was poor and their third crop "a complete write-off". The farmers felt they were back to square one.   

Ipaishe agrees: "It was so bad we ended up going to the people in the dry lands to buy food off them. They couldn't believe it. They thought we were mocking them". 

"My five-year plan is still on track" 

Ipaishe inspects her field of wheat. Credit Annie Bungeroth/OxfamThe good news now is that the dam is once again full. In theory, the water should be flowing in abundance to the irrigated plots. The bad news is that the rains that filled the dam were so extraordinarily intense that the water levels rose at a rate that exploded over the spillway, tumbling boulders down the valley and smashing them onto the irrigation pipeline. Now the pipe is bent and a joint has split so water is shooting out, reducing the water pressure and once again reducing the flow.  

Ipaishe is optimistic, however. After such heavy rains she should have a good maize harvest soon. When the flood goes down she and her fellow farmers will get the pipeline repaired. And in case there is another drought, they are proposing to build another pipeline to a deep pool below the dam that is said never to dry up. If they get the right support from government they believe they can overcome the obstacles.    

"My five-year plan is still on track" says Ipaishe. 


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