Nelly Bassily | March 11, 2013
When heavy downpours hit Esigodini, just south of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, farmers started digging. The village lies in an arid region where lack of rainfall makes it difficult to grow crops and raise livestock. Over the last few months, heavy rainfalls were welcomed as a godsend. Farmers realized that if they could harness the deluge, they could make good use of it on their thirsty farms.
Brenda Zulu is a farmer in Esigodini. She says, “We have not seen this much rain in years.” The rains arrived in January, destroying homes and even claiming lives. Then the farmers came up with a plan.
Ms. Zulu explains, “It was a community suggestion that we dig the earth to trap the water.” The farmers worked in groups to dig makeshift ponds. Each is about the size of a tennis court and serves as a reservoir for many local farms.
Ms. Zulu scoops water from one of the ponds. She uses the water for her kitchen garden and to fill a trough for her livestock. It’s a big help. Nobody knows exactly how much water the ponds hold. But Ms. Zulu says her community’s pond has enough to sustain its small farms for the next few months.
Farmers in Esigodini have experienced several years of severe weather, including both droughts and floods. Many feel that they can no longer predict the weather patterns.
Sobona Mtisi is a climate change researcher with a British research group called the Overseas Development Institute. He says, “Most villagers in the flood-prone areas are aware of the fact that in the past few decades the frequency and intensity of floods has been increasing.” He adds, “Similarly, policymakers are aware of the increased frequency of droughts and floods in Zimbabwe.”
Zimbabwe had four floods from 2000 to 2010, an average of one every two and a half years. Mr. Mtisi says this fact should act as the basis for communities and policymakers to understand the shifting climate.
But until someone figures out how to use these observations to help farmers deal with the cycle of drought and flood, Zimbabwean farmers will look for ways to help themselves − such as digging ponds and lakes.
Rainwater harvesting is nothing new in Zimbabwe, but it usually involves small containers. Sithabile Fuzwayo is a small-scale farmer in Esigodini. He says, “We have to find ways to trap the water not just with our small buckets.” Digging ponds to trap the coming rain is an innovative step and one that more famers might decide to take.
Some environmentalists warn that hand-dug ponds could create long-term risks. Gilmore Sithole is an environmentalist and agricultural extension officer with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture. He says, “It shows just how poorly the rain problem has been dealt with at local levels, in ways that could in fact bring catastrophic results.” He adds: “We just cannot have people digging up the ground without proper monitoring. We have to imagine what kind of gaping holes will be left in the countryside when the dry season sets in.”
But farmers like Ms. Zulu are not thinking about long-term risks. Her main concern is having enough water to keep her garden and livestock alive. For farmers, the ponds are an opportunity to feel less helpless in the face of Zimbabwe’s unpredictable weather. Ms. Zulu says, “We no longer have any knowledge of the rain cycle. But we welcome all the rain we can get.”