Rain harvesting works wonders

– Mutama-Bweengwa community farmers avert drought, hunger

ON A four-hour drive from the country’s capital, Lusaka, to Pemba district in Southern Province, the sight of maize fields located on either side of the highway warn of an impending food crisis.
All fields – large and small – have one thing in common: maize plants turning brown under the scorching heat of the sun’s rays, with stalks bent towards the highway, as though begging for water from the passing motorists.
The plants that are normally grown in between rows of maize for home consumption, such as okra and pumpkins, are nowhere to be seen, having dried before they could mature and provide nutrition to the families.
Maize is widely cultivated throughout the country, as from it comes the nation’s staple, mealie meal, whose final product, nshima, makes part of the meal of arguably every Zambian on a daily basis. To think that this year might be different draws everyone into their own private mental space.
And yet, even in this gloom and hopelessness, there is a glimmer of hope.
A long winding gravel road leads us into the Mutama-Bweengwa valley, where the sight of row upon row of strong green maize plants shaking in obedience to a gentle breeze draws sounds of excitement.
The healthy-looking maize stands in strong contrast to the dry-looking fields along the highway, and the proud field owners are eager to share why.
“Our maize fields in the Mutama-Bweengwa community are still green all because of the rainwater harvesting project we have been implementing since 2019,” says Foster Ng’andu, who is one of the team leaders for the 10 groups that worked under the project.
Ms Ng’andu, who lives in Muzoka village in a household of nine people, says she has been a farmer all her life and can remember the devastating effects of drought in the community from years past. Her prayer is to never experience such hunger again.
“You see that area marks the boundary of my field, so from here I’m very expectant of having a good harvest because this area is still holding underground water that sipped through the trenches,” she explains.
Ms Ng’andu’s field covers about three hectares. A few fields away is another field belonging to her colleague, Angelina Hamalambo, which also bears healthy-looking maize and beans.
In 2019, the Accelerate Water and Agricultural Resources Efficiency (AWARE) programme was launched to enhance climate-smart water resources management and efficient agricultural water use for smallholders in the Lower Kafue Sub-Catchment.
The project was financed bythe European Union and German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Now, a follow-up on a project dubbed the Integrated Water Catchment Management and Landscape Protection in Zambia project – AWARE 2.0, funded again by the EU and Germany – will build on and scale these successes with a landscape approach.
According to water resources management specialist from the AWARE project, Namafe Namafe, effective integrated water resources management, efficient water harvesting and irrigation practices are key in ensuring that water resources are sustainably used.
“To achieve the objective, AWARE 1.0 worked on the national as well as decentralised level on water resources management and supported more than 11,000 smallholders in the sub-catchment to improve their agricultural water management practices,” he said.
He said the process involved the restoration of the degraded headwaters of the MutamaBweengwa stream through construction of water harvesting structures such as soils bunds, trenches and check dams.
The community members also planted trees and grass to reduce soil erosion.
“Without the use of any heavy equipment, the community constructed two check dams, over 16,000 metres of trenches and soil bunds and planted over 7,000 trees. This helped to reduce soil erosion and further recharged the groundwater, creating a rainwater harvesting capacity of over six million litres per downpour.
The water harvested has increased the soil moisture, making crops more resilient to dry spells and drought,” he said.
The process began with the training of over 120 people from different villages located in the valley. The training involved learning about catchment protection measures through integrated watershed management.
As the tour continues, other farmers share their experiences as they point out healthy growing groundnut plants, sunflower and cowpeas.
Namushi Likolo, a community water management expert and executive member of the Mutama-Bweengwa Water User Association, is on hand to share expert information on how the project progressed.
“Even with unpredictable rain patterns, our desire is to restore our water sources and our drying rivers using easyto-adapt techniques to collect underground water and improve the vegetation,” he says.Mr Likolo’s one wish is to see the project replicated in many different communities across the country.
“The successes of MutamaBweengwa are an example of the importance of integrated watershed management.
We now have a spring of water, and on the other side there you can see a borehole was installed where people are now drawing water for domestic use.
That is because of the available groundwater,” he says.
In the distance, away from the maize fields, cattle lazily graze on mounds of vetiver grass, which had also been planted as part of the project.
“This grass is very good for returning moisture in the ground, as well as for folder production.
So, all round, I can just thank the European Union, Germany and the Zambian government. In addition, the Government gave us the fertiliser in good time and that has helped produce these good results,” Mr Likolo says.
The current drought in most parts of Zambia has threatened the harvest of many smallholder and subsistence farmers, who practise rain-fed agriculture.
The El Nino weather conditions have made rainfall, at worst, a rare occurrence and, at best, a series of sporadic occurrences, causing more damage to the already struggling crops through flash floods.
In view of this, President Hakainde Hichilema has declared a drought and national disaster, as results indicate that 84 districts have been severely affected in Lusaka, Central, Copperbelt, Eastern, NorthWestern, Western and Southern provinces.
“The Government, in accordance with the Disaster Management Act No. 13 of 2010 and other relevant legislation, declares the prolonged dry spell a national disaster and
emergency,” he announced.
In his special address, the President indicated that he would call on multi-disciplinary teams, including Government and the private sector, under specific work streams, to comprehensively and effectively respond to the disaster and emergency.
He said the current drought conditions have also affected the availability of both ground and surface water.
The success of the AWARE project in the Mutama-Bweengwa valley provides an opportunity for multi-disciplinary teams to channel communities into working together for restoring and protecting degraded catchments, improving local water availability and enhancing water harvesting systems that can stimulate agricultural production.