In 1952, a major report on large-scale irrigation made the case for a substantial increase in investment in irrigation in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. The reason was growing concerns about national food security and the need to improve the production of land recently settled by war veterans. Of course 60 years ago, such support was for white war veteran settlers who had come to the colony following the Second World War. Such new settlers often displaced local populations (without compensation) as the Land Apportionment Act was implemented more vigorously. Expanding populations and the failure of agriculture to meet food security needs in periods of drought (notably 1947, but others too), had resulted in concern at the highest policy levels to do something about agricultural investment.
The arguments made then are just as relevant today – and with some intriguing parallels. Back then, the investments that followed, particularly in what were designated ‘European’ farming areas, provided an unparalleled infrastructure, including dams, schemes, river diversions and more. This became the backbone of the commercial farm economy. The report also advocated investments in the ‘African’ ‘native’ areas, but these were limited by comparison, and focused, particularly in the UDI period on schemes linked to a growth point development strategy led by TILCOR.
By Independence, Zimbabwe had about 150,000 hectares under ‘formal’ irrigation schemes; about 3% of the arable area. 68% of this was in the large-scale commercial farming areas, another 20% linked to commercial estates, 7% part of ARDA estates and outgrower schemes and only 3.4% smallholder irrigation schemes. The distribution of irrigation capacity was even more unequal than that of land and other resources.
So is the answer to the challenges of agriculture, especially following land reform, to take a leaf out of the colonial book and invest in irrigation? The answer is yes, in part. But it depends on what type of irrigation, with what type of support.
Irrigation of course has a much longer history in Zimbabwe than the 60 years sketched above. The ancient systems of Inyanga for example have attracted archaeologists’ attention for many years, as they offer an example of highly intensive and sophisticated small-scale systems. Dambo or vlei cultivation dominated the agriculture of the nineteenth century, as farmers farmed intensively in valley bottoms in the hilly areas, often hiding from raids. In the early colonial era, missionaries encouraged irrigation at times of famine and set up a few schemes near mission stations. Early attempts at government support from late 1920s built on local systems, with support to small irrigation plots under farmer control. The famous agricultural extensionist E.D Alvord supported such efforts and was very keen on irrigation as part of his modernisation project (see an interesting article by Mandi Rukuni on this history).
However the approach took a dangerous turn in 1935 when Alvord visited Native American reserves in the US and he came back with ideas for a much more technical, top-down approach. From then on irrigation development in Zimbabwe in the smallholder sector at least has been dominated by a dirigiste approach to management – highly subsidized schemes require farmers to following particular cropping patterns on standard plot sizes under the direction of an irrigation officer. In some settlement schemes, no off-farm work was allowed. In the 1980s, economic analyses showed that 100% of capital costs and 89% of recurrent costs were covered by the government. This provided little incentive for local control and management – aspects that characterised the success of early initiatives, and still do on informal schemes.
Extensive studies by the University of Zimbabwe and colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands through the 1990s showed the variety of experiences of irrigation in Zimbabwe, ranging from the formal Agritex-run communal area schemes, of which there were around 70, to the much more informal set-ups, involving usually fewer people on smaller areas, with less elaborate technology and infrastructure. This research confirmed earlier findings around some of the key requirements for effective collective action, asserting rights over water and land and sustainable economic management, and chimed with international experience.
A key theme through all of these studies was the argument that a standardised one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and more flexibility and adaptability is required. Since Independence there have been numerous attempts at reviving irrigation in the smallholder sector. An ambitious irrigation fund was established in the 1980s but it went unused; FAO and GTZ invested in new policy frameworks and some investments; small-scale schemes were supported by the EU, and so on. The impact of all of this, both in terms of policy and impacts on the ground, has been desultory. What study after study has found, is that the formal schemes (with some exceptions) have not worked well. And it very often it is the small-scale informal set-ups – more akin to the traditional dambo irrigation of the past – that work best (a theme that I will pick up in next week’s blog). These can be supported through developments in water harvesting, including small dams, storage tanks and soil pits and contours, and also small-scale drip irrigation kits that allow greater water use efficiency in piped or channel systems.
Under the right conditions in the right places, irrigation pays. By smoothing production variability it addresses challenges of food security, felt increasingly since the 1990s, and especially in the last decade, much as was the case in the 1950s. For high value crops, such as horticulture, irrigation is essential, and much of the private investment by commercial farmers from the early 1990s was in these sort of facilities. Yet irrigation infrastructure and technology cannot just be transferred from one system to another. With a different agrarian structure, with different farmers on different farm sizes the old configurations do not make sense. A massive centre-pivot set up is not much use to small-scale farmers, and few new resettlement farmers could afford sophisticated computer synchronized, satellite-linked drip irrigation systems.
Clearly the investments made from the 1950s in the large-scale commercial sector paid dividends. But any government today would balk at the cost, and especially the long-term subsidies, and a consistent policy for handover to farmer control following establishment is required. Today a rethink in irrigation strategy and policy is urgently needed. Perhaps a new high level task force should be convened, with a similar impetus to that of 1952, but with a rather different political and distributional mandate. What is clear is that in order to get agriculture moving in the new resettlements, up-front government or donor capital investment is needed, but tying irrigators into a standard approach with high recurrent subsidy makes little technical or economic sense.
This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland