Bulawayo, Zimbabwe - Sibangani Ngwenya raises his arm to show how tall his maize should be standing in a normal March, but a lack of rain means his crop will be a write-off this year.
"There is no water as you can see. This crop should be about this size," said the 55-year-old subsistence farmer in Lower Gweru in Zimbabwe's Midlands Province.
Here rains have been erratic, as in many parts of the country, exposing the need for new ways to help rural farming communities access enough water and produce enough food.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that up to 1.6 million Zimbabweans require aid this year after poor harvests left subsistence farmers short of food for their families.
The government has long touted irrigation schemes as key infrastructure that could boost agricultural production. But financing such projects has been tough since Zimbabwe's chaotic land reform programme, which began in 2000, pushed many banks to withdraw support for agricultural activities.
"In many parts of the country, particularly in the south, the maize they harvested barely lasted a few months, bringing an early start to the 'hunger season.'"
- Felix Bamezon, World Food Programme
According to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), land seizures under the programme led to a rapid decline in farming as the new owners had little or no expertise. Some were dubbed "cell phone farmers" as, unlike the former white landowners, they did not live on the land but in cities, keeping in touch with their farm managers by phone.
Food production plunged in that period, from 2 million tonnes of maize in 2000 to 400,000 in 2010, according to the CFU, which represents mainly white farmers.
Now, as the farm sector starts out on the arduous road to recovery amid shifting climate patterns, the government is planning to support its revival by crafting new legislation on irrigation.
The mechanisation and irrigation ministry is on a countrywide consultation drive to meet with farmers and collect their views to feed into the drafting of an act of parliament, officials said recently in Bulawayo.
Ngwenya and thousands more farmers in Zimbabwe's south and southwestern regions have suffered from a mix of erratic rains and flash floods. In areas without irrigation schemes, farmers have been left counting their losses. Even at times of abundant water, they are unable to collect and store it for later use.
Zimbabwe, once a major food producer in Africa, has been hit by acute food insecurity in recent years as it grapples with poor farming infrastructure and low levels of investment in the sector.
The land reform programme left millions of dollars' worth of farm assets, including irrigation schemes, in a shambles.
On top of this, the irrigation ministry says climate change is making water scarcer, and because much of the country's agriculture is rain-fed, improving irrigation systems is an urgent priority.
"The country has been experiencing droughts, and this has resulted in food shortages which threaten food security," said Reston Muzamhindo, a principal director in the ministry.
"The government has seen the need to formulate a legal framework for irrigation development to make the country self-sufficient by increasing productivity and production," he added.
The new legislation, if approved, would make it mandatory for the government to allocate spending for large-scale irrigation schemes. Today, support comes mainly from international aid agencies.
Building community assets
Jonathan Tsoka, an engineer with the ministry, said the planned legislation would also introduce policies to coordinate irrigation activities across the country.
"There is a need to come with clear guidelines (as soon as possible) noting that the current policies … are often in conflict and sometimes work against the gains of irrigation development," Tsoka said.
Felix Bamezon, country director for the WFP, said the UN agency is already assisting communities across the country with irrigation, because it offers the best hope for ensuring food security.
"The programme provides assistance to mainly subsistence farmers and other food-insecure vulnerable people who were badly hit by last year's drought," Bamezon said.
"In many parts of the country, particularly in the south, the maize they harvested barely lasted a few months, bringing an early start to the 'hunger season'," he said, adding that food production is increasingly being hit by unpredictable rainfall.
The provision of food aid "makes it possible for vulnerable communities to devote more time and energy to building new infrastructure and learning new skills that will improve their food security", Bamezon added.
In 2012, the WFP helped local communities set up more than 260 assets, such as irrigation schemes, bridges and village gardens, he noted.
As Zimbabwe attempts to regain its position as a net food exporter in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), legislation on irrigation could be a first step towards realising that goal.
"Any potential investor in state-of-the art irrigation still has in mind what has happened here, with expropriation of land and other local economic empowerment initiatives, and all commitments to rebuilding farming will take more than legislation."
- Tomupei Horodza, agro-economist
But government engineer Tsoka said any new irrigation policy must address sources of funding for developing and maintaining irrigation schemes. He raised concerns about the lack of participation by private finance and multilateral finance institutions.
Many consider agriculture a risky investment, especially given ongoing reports of land takeovers by supporters of President Robert Mugabe. Analysts say this has spooked investors, who have turned to other sectors of the economy like mining.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) have drawn attention to the low level of funding for African farming. In December, they appealed for a "global push for increased smart investments in Africa's agriculture, both by governments and the private sector".
In the absence of more financing, Zimbabwe's farmers face "a long road ahead", warned Tomupei Horodza, an agro-economist in Bulawayo.
"Government commitment to transform the sector will mean re-boosting investor confidence, considering the country's recent history in the farming sector," he said.
"Any potential investor in state-of-the art irrigation still has in mind what has happened here, with expropriation of land and other local economic empowerment initiatives, and all commitments to rebuilding farming will take more than legislation," he added.
Analysts say that, unless the government puts a stop to farm seizures and assures that property rights are respected, Zimbabwean agriculture may struggle to regain its full potential.
The legacy of past policies means that Ngwenya and other smallholders like him may not benefit from government-backed irrigation schemes for some time to come.
This article first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service
Source: Al Jazeera