Madalitso Mwando, Al Jazeera, April 16, 2013
Sibangani Ngwenya raises his arm to show how tall his maize should be standing in a normal March, but a lack of rain means his crop will be a write-off this year.
“There is no water as you can see. This crop should be about this size,” said the 55-year-old subsistence farmer in Lower Gweru in Zimbabwe’s Midlands Province.
Here rains have been erratic, as in many parts of the country, exposing the need for new ways to help rural farming communities access enough water and produce enough food.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that up to 1.6 million Zimbabweans require aid this year after poor harvests left subsistence farmers short of food for their families.
The government has long touted irrigation schemes as key infrastructure that could boost agricultural production. But financing such projects has been tough since Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme, which began in 2000, pushed many banks to withdraw support for agricultural activities.
According to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), land seizures under the programme led to a rapid decline in farming as the new owners had little or no expertise. Some were dubbed “cell phone farmers” as, unlike the former white landowners, they did not live on the land but in cities, keeping in touch with their farm managers by phone.
Food production plunged in that period, from 2 million tonnes of maize in 2000 to 400,000 in 2010, according to the CFU, which represents mainly white farmers.
Now, as the farm sector starts out on the arduous road to recovery amid shifting climate patterns, the government is planning to support its revival by crafting new legislation on irrigation.
As Zimbabwe attempts to regain its position as a net food exporter in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), legislation on irrigation could be a first step towards realising that goal.
But government engineer Tsoka said any new irrigation policy must address sources of funding for developing and maintaining irrigation schemes. He raised concerns about the lack of participation by private finance and multilateral finance institutions.
Many consider agriculture a risky investment, especially given ongoing reports of land takeovers by supporters of President Robert Mugabe. Analysts say this has spooked investors, who have turned to other sectors of the economy like mining.