By Andrew Mambondiyani
CHIPINGE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Several rivers pass from Zimbabwe's lush Eastern highlands through the lowlands of drought-hit Chipinge, Mutare and Chimanimani districts. But while river water is plentiful, hard-up farmers have no way to get enough of it to their fields.
"We did not harvest anything in the past two seasons," said Amon Vhumbu, the traditional leader of a small, isolated village in Chipinge district, where many fields have been left barren by drought, despite a river flowing nearby.
"As you can see, without irrigation our hopes of a good crop yield have now become unrealistic," he said.
But a project to build dams and irrigation systems to bring water to parched fields is set to help – and could protect at least some families against the more frequent droughts climate change is bringing in southern Africa.
The Enhancing Nutrition, Stepping Up Resilience and Enterprise (ENSURE) program, a $55 million effort led by charity World Vision and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), aims to address some of the causes underlying chronic food security and malnutrition in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland and Masvingo provinces, where stunting rates among children are 34 and 31 per cent respectively.
In Birirano, in Chipinge district, ENSURE has built a new dam and irrigation system that is expected to start functioning in June, in time for planting of winter crops. The system uses pipes to carry water from the dam to the fields.
With this and 10 similar projects already running in Chimanimani, Chipinge and Buhera districts, the program plans to irrigate more than 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of farmland. Forty hectares are already receiving water.
Ultimately, the program aims to bring 154 hectares of farmland under irrigation by 2018, according to Richard Ndou, the deputy chief of party for World Vision Zimbabwe.
Turning to irrigation is crucial as rain-fed agriculture becomes increasingly unreliable, said Freeman Mavhiza, the Chipinge assistant district administrator.
"The irrigation projects are community driven and for years to come many people will benefit from these projects," he said.
TAPPING THE POTENTIAL
Zimbabwe's current El Nino-induced drought is one of the most devastating in recent history, leaving up to 4.5 million in need of food aid, officials say. And the country still hasn't recovered from a previous serious drought that hit the 2014-15 farming season.
Some of the worst-affected districts are in Manicaland province where, according to provincial administrator Fungai Mbetsa, up to 85,000 households are receiving government food assistance. And that figure, he said, is far below the actual number of food insecure households in the province.
Government efforts to put more people on the food assistance program are hamstrung by lack of financial resources. "What we are giving people is not enough," Mbetsa said.
But many of these districts lie along the Save River valley, an area with lots of potential for irrigation. Building dams and irrigation systems is helping villagers tap into that potential, said Thabisani Moyo, a food security specialist with USAID.
The ENSURE program shows them how to build and fix dams and irrigation schemes, and provides materials and technical support, he said.
Villagers who work on constructing the systems get 50 kg (110 lb) of sorghum every month for their labor. So far 2,334 people have received such payments.
"Because of these irrigation schemes we are going to see a reduction in the number of people needing aid," Moyo said.
Not everyone is persuaded the irrigation push will work effectively to combat food insecurity. The area covered by irrigation is still small, and critics point out that recurrent droughts could diminish water levels in the dams so much that the irrigation systems become useless.
But Manicaland provincial administrator Mbetsa said most of the dams get water from rivers that are unaffected by drought.
"We have perennial rivers in the Eastern Highlands passing through drought regions and this water can be harnessed for irrigation," Mbetsa said. "Water harvesting is key to sustaining communities in the dry areas."
During a tour of the some of the projects in May, Stephanie Funk, the USAID director in Zimbabwe, said the effort needs to expand to reach many more of the country’s increasingly drought-hit farmers.
"The drought will continue probably throughout the whole next year," Funk said. "More assistance is needed, not only from us but other donors and the government."
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)