Factoring water harvesting as climate change adaptation

May 12, 2023
4 mins read
A farmers shows her maize crop affected by drought and fall armyworm in drier parts of Zimbabwe. Image: Andrew Mambondiyani

​Elliot Nzarayebani, a smallholder farmer in Zimunya in eastern Zimbabwe, cannot hide his delight as he strolls around his blooming field. 

With his farm appearing like an oasis in the middle of the dry wilderness, he recounted how he had successfully ventured into rainwater harvesting to irrigate his crops. While nearby farms were bone-dry due to recurring droughts, Nzarayebani had thriving bananas, yams, tomatoes, sugar cane, cassava and a variety of leafy vegetables.

“I will also venture into fish farming very soon,” Nzarayebani said.

Elliot Nzarayebani, a farmer in Zimbabwe narrates his experience with rainwater harvesting. Image credit: Andrew Mambondiyani

​Droughts have been recurring in certain parts of Zimbabwe in recent decades, with the most recent occurring in the 2021-2022 crop season, making rainfed agriculture unviable. Experts say rain-fed agriculture has greatly been affected by climate change, threatening livelihoods of many smallholder farmers in Africa. Until recently, more than 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s population depended entirely on agriculture or rural economic activities but these livelihoods are under threat due to persistent droughts. 

With droughts becoming severe with each passing year, thousands of farmers are abandoning their farms, migrating mostly to the country’s Eastern Highlands in search of clean water, better farmlands and pastures for their livestock. The Eastern Highlands, which extend for about 300 kilometres along the eastern border with Mozambique, still receive good rainfall and have fertile soils for various agricultural activities.

In 2019, a research by the City Link Haarlem-Mutare— a twin city arrangement between Haarlem in The Netherlands and Zimbabwe’s Mutare city— revealed that farmers in this region have coped with the increasing droughts in several ways, including migration.

“While studies conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa have suggested that most of the migration is internal and rural-urban, these movements are increasingly involving environmental refugees moving rural to rural as the present study has shown,” the research said.

And according to the World Bank’s updated Groundswell report released in 2021, climate change could force 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050. “Hotspots of internal climate migration could emerge as early as 2030 and continue to spread and intensify by 2050,” the report said.

With thousands of farmers having already migrated to Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands in the past few years, there are already reports of conflicts among farmers in the region as they fight for the control of dwindling resources, water, farmlands, and pastures.

A new homestead built by a climate migrant in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands. Image credit: Andrew Mambondiyani

After releasing the research report, the City Link Haarlem-Mutare coordinator, Gift Sanyanga said a multi stakeholder approach spearheaded by the informed locals, local governments in partnership with other national and international organisations to work on adaptation and resilience building in areas where climate migrants were coming from was the best way forward. 

However, instead of migrating to new areas some farmers in parched parts of Zimbabwe are venturing into harvesting rainwater; enabling them to irrigate their crops during dry seasons. The farmers are now growing crops, even with limited rainfall thereby reducing the number of climate migrants across the country.

“There is no need to go anywhere looking for new farmlands. With rainwater harvesting, I have enough water for my crops throughout the year. I’m able to grow enough food for my family and I sell the surplus,” Nzarayebani said.

Nzarayebani’s water harvesting technology is neither complicated nor is it expensive for smallholder farmers like him; a few deep trenches to trap rainwater from runoff and a small weir to hold rainwater.

“In this part of the country, rain seasons are becoming very short but accompanied by heavy downpours. Most of this rainwater is lost through runoff. But with my trenches, I’m able to hold the water and keep my farm well nourished throughout the dry season,” Nzarayebani said.

And in different parts of the country, farmers are using various rainwater harvesting techniques; from rooftop rainwater harvesting to construction of earth bunds, mulching, dead level contours and gabions on their farms. 

Various nonprofit organisations are working with smallholder farmers to encourage them to venture into rainwater harvesting to combat the effects of climate change.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been funding various projects in the country to enhance climate change resilience among smallholder farmers. In drier parts of Zimbabwe, the USAID funded Enhancing Nutrition, Stepping Up Resilience and Enterprise (ENSURE) program has among other things helped communities to improve their resilience capacity through Food for Asset programming, where communities construct rainwater harvesting reservoirs, irrigation schemes, wells and nutrition gardens.

Some farmers in Zimbabwe use these plastic water tanks to collect rainwater from house roofs. Image credit: Andrew Mambondiyani

A Zimbabwe based NGO – Bopoma Villages, has been spearheading various rainwater harvesting projects in 15 villages across Zaka district in south-eastern Zimbabwe. This project has provided farmers with nutritious food, farming skills and training to the broader community. 

Even though some farmers in Zimbabwe have registered considerable successes with rainwater harvesting, others are still reluctant to harness the technology to irrigate their crops. Anna Brazier— an independent climate change researcher based in Zimbabwe— revealed why some farmers have not fully embraced rainwater harvesting. Brazier noted that rainwater harvesting was labour intensive and required the whole community to participate in constructing the measures. She added that the communities had to agree to manage their catchment areas holistically while adhering to agreed laws controlling deforestation, ploughing on catchments and stream bank cultivation as these activities threaten the sustainability of all water resources in the country.

​Farm​ers like Nzarayebani, on the other hand, claim that in times of chronic drought, rainwater harvesting may save many farmers from hunger. “To me, migration is the last option,” he contends.

Andrew Mambondiyani

Andrew Mambondiyani is a science journalist based in Zimbabwe with bylines in local, regional and international publications including BBC, MIT Technology Review, Yale E360, The Telegraph, Aljazeera, Mongabay, Vice News, Long Now and The Daily Beast among others.

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