Zimbabwe: Contaminated water forces vegetable farmers to change crops and irrigation techniques

| August 18, 2014

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Killian Moyo earns his living from lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and cabbages. He sells his produce to communities in Bulawayo. But recently he discovered a serious problem: his source of irrigation water is contaminated.

In May 2014, Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology conducted tests on water sources in the Nyamandlovu area of Bulawayo. The tests found that river water was contaminated with bacteria and heavy metals that are harmful for human consumption.

Mr. Moyo lives in the Nyamandlovu area. Like most local farmers, he irrigates his small plot from the Khami River. But he and many other small-scale farmers have been instructed to stop using river water for agriculture. If Mr. Moyo is to continue farming, he will have to find alternative sources of water.

Mr. Moyo was surprised and disappointed by the test results. He says: “This is the worst news ever. My specialty has always been market gardening. It will take a miracle for me and others to pull through.”

People have stopped buying his produce. He explains, “When word came out that our produce is contaminated, prices dropped and people avoided our produce. My tomatoes went bad without finding a buyer.”

A report by the National University of Science and Technology attributes the contamination to raw sewage flowing into the Khami. It is estimated that half of the sewage produced by Bulawayo’s 1.5 million people flows untreated into the river.

Fortune Musoni is the local catchment manager at the Zimbabwe National Water Authority. He says it could take up to 100 years to decontaminate the area. He explains: “The situation is dire. The river and boreholes close by are affected. About 200 farmers who use this water for irrigation are also affected.”

Mexen Mpofu also farms in Nyamandlovu. Because he suspected there was a problem with the river water, he set up a drip irrigation system. But the system is expensive and has eaten into his profits.

Mr. Mpofu says: “I used to water vegetables and at some stage the leaves would turn yellow. I sought advice and the indication was that the water was the issue. [But] Not all of us can afford drip irrigation.” Mr. Mpofu thinks he will be able to recoup the money he invested in the system, as he will benefit from increased market share as other farmers stop growing vegetables.

Mr. Moyo sought advice from water experts and was told to switch to maize and wheat. But he is not happy. He understands that maize and wheat would not be affected because farmers do not irrigate these crops, but worries that he will make less money. While he can grow vegetables all year round, maize and wheat are harvested only once or twice a year. He fears he will have to lay off some of his workforce.

Mr. Moyo says: “I invested a lot of money into my plot. I will engage water experts to find a lasting solution. There must be a way around this. I am thinking of having water harvesting systems [put] in place.”