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November 22, 2011

Irrigation helps Mozambican farmers survive unreliable rains

by Fidelis Zvomuya

It’s mid-morning in Cunze village in Mozambique’s Gaza province, and farmer Antonio Alfonso Chibuto stands in a muddy field by a roaring irrigation stream, trying to work out how soon he dares plant again this season.

Water spills down a hand-hewn dirt canal, bubbling and pooling until it arrives at a deep pond that distributes it to rows of healthy, organically grown crops.

The 87-year-old farmer’s green fields contrast starkly with the surrounding dry landscape, criss-crossed by bumpy dirt roads, and barefoot women and children carrying water jugs and firewood.

Cunze’s inhabitants are highly dependent on subsistence agriculture and livestock production. Over the past two decades, farming families have gone from growing everything to buying everything as increasingly unpredictable weather patterns have left half the fertile fields barren.

“We have been clinging to life on an unforgiving terrain,” says Chibuto. “The past decade has been a lot more difficult than usual because the rains have failed.”

But despite the region’s fourth con­secutive year of alternating drought and heavy floods, Chibuto is enjoying a good harvest for the first time in more than 20 years, thanks to two initiatives to protect local people from weather disasters: an irrigation scheme and a community-led early warning programme.

The irrigation technology, installed as part of the development of Parque Nacional do Limpopo (Limpopo National Park), where Cunze village is located, pumps water from the Olifants River, using a diesel-powered engine, to a reservoir from where a gravity system distributes it to farms.

Thanks to this project, Chibuto and other farmers in Massingir district are finally starting to cope with the worsening weather variability that was damaging their livelihoods.

“If you had been here a year ago, this was a dust bowl,” says Chibuto, gesturing towards his fields. “I am happy now. I have so far had my first harvest and am still calculating the profits.”

A complementary early warning system, introduced by the southeast African nation’s government in 2002, aims to prevent loss of life, homes and crops to flooding and storms. It relies on local people who measure precipitation and river levels, and broadcast radio warnings when key benchmarks are reached.

“Easy-to-read gauges of the river's level are checked regularly. If it rises above a certain point, trained assistants from the local population immediately send a radio message,” explains Parque Nacional do Limpopo administrator Baldeu Chande.

The system proved its effectiveness in 2007, when Cyclone Favio caused severe damage in central Mozambique but did not claim any lives, according to Chande.

The early warning system currently covers 9,500 families in Massingir, and is gradually being expanded. District hazard maps have also been created.

Chande says climate change is likely to be a major contributor to the erratic weather patterns, droughts and storms that have brought growing suffering to Gaza province.

The resulting decrease in the productivity of small-scale farmers has caused a spike in food prices and higher malnutrition rates among children, according to experts.

Short dry spells and unpredictable rainy seasons have destroyed crops and reduced the quality of grazing for livestock. At times, flash floods have caused the region’s spongy peat soils to disintegrate, destabilising homes and wrecking fields.

“Houses and schools are washed away, enormous gullies appear on slopes, and roads simply disappear in the deluge,” Chande says.

In recent years, farmer Chibuto can recall floods sweeping away cattle and goats, and sending mud houses collapsing back into the earth. “We used to lose so much,” he says.

The rains are also coming later, shortening growing seasons, and arriving at unexpected times.

“Such untimely rains are especially bad for us, because most of our crops do not tolerate rain at inappropriate times. And when it does rain, the intensity is higher than we are used to. The soils are not able to take up all of the water and a major amount is lost due to run-off,” says Chibuto.

Farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture, and have few other options, are struggling to adapt to the weather shifts, according to park administrator Chande.

“Sometimes the only coping strategy available is to temporarily abandon fields and look for employment in nearby cities,” he says.

Even under normal rainfall conditions, local soil nutrients have been so depleted that yields of crops such as maize reach only about half a tonne per acre, around one-third of their historical level.

In response, the Parque Nacional do Limpopo began working on the farm irrigation project in 2005 with the German government’s international cooperation agency, GIZ, providing funding as well as training in technical skills such as sharing water resources sustainably.

It now covers three districts - Massingir, Mabalane and Chicualacuala - and benefits some 1,400 people from 165 families.


Wibke Thies, coordinator of a forest management project run by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which supports the management of shared water resources in the region, says the irrigation scheme is boosting food security and will help rural communities adapt to climate change.

Participating families have seen their once dry and dusty fields transformed into carpets of lush green. Most now enjoy a secure food supply all year round, and are even able to sell excess produce on local markets, according to Thies.

Previously they could only provide their own food for six months of the year, after which time they had to sell their cattle or depend on money sent by relatives working in South Africa.

Before the installation of his irrigation system, Chibuto had been experimenting with other ways to deal with the changing climate. He started off by constructing bunds around his fields to stop water and topsoil being swept away.

“I also had to shift my cropping patterns to more heat-adapted and less water-demanding varieties such as groundnuts, maize, mil­lets and vegetables,” he says.

Then in 2010, when he was offered the chance to join the irrigation scheme, he quickly agreed, receiving hoses and a huge bucket - a rudimentary but effective crop sprinkler system for his plot. That developed into the more complex and less laborious set-up he uses today.

The farmer is now looking forward to a whole year of green fields, irrespective of the vagaries of the local climate - and to a life changed for the better.

“I am now raising in the region of around $30 per day - sometimes as much as $50 - from the sale of my vegetables. I also provide some to elderly people who cannot afford to buy fresh produce,” he says. “That is something I could not do previously.”


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