Categories: Articles, Resource managementPublished On: 13th June 2024

Zimbabwe’s dam construction a slow drip

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Zimbabwe is moving full steam ahead with its dam construction programme as the country touts irrigation as the panacea to food security. The only thing that is standing in the way of those ambitions is funding.

In March, government announced that it was accelerating the construction of thirteen major multi-milliondollar dam projects, raising hopes that one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country was on course to meet deadline. The construction of new dams has stalled for years because of lack of adequate finance, but successive poor harvests have renewed that commitment.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced government was eying the completion of all major dam construction projects by 2025. Authorities say the rehabilitation of old and the construction of large new dams is a response to climate uncertainty that has led to a cycle of droughts and compromised national food production. Zimbabwe already has a vast irrigation infrastructure, most of which was destroyed during violent land seizures more than two decades ago. In the previous dispensation most commercial farms also had small dams that ensured year-round agriculture activity. Government is making spirited efforts to reclaim that infrastructure, and while experts agree on the utility of dams in the agriculture sector, they also warn against the long-term environmental implications of unchecked dam construction.

“Dam construction is a necessary condition to increase agricultural production in the face of climate change. One step in adapting to a changing climate is the adoption of irrigated agriculture, and dam construction will allow farmers to have access to water for irrigation purposes,” said Norman Mupaso, an agricultural economist at the Midlands State University. However, such huge projects come with a caveat, researchers contend. “It is important to acknowledge that dam construction may also have negative consequences, such as displacement of communities, alteration of ecosystems, and impacts on downstream water quality and sedimentation. There is a need to carefully plan and conduct environmental assessments, and mitigation measures to minimise these adverse effects,” Norman said.

According to the Minister of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, Anxious Masuka, these dam projects will enable 350 000 hectares to be under irrigation by 2025. “When it comes to investment in irrigation, we are going to accelerate investments now that we have the water bodies. We have to impound water. So, it is an ongoing programme to complete dams under construction,” Mthuli Ncube, the Minister of Finance has told state media. However, surrounding farming communities are on record expressing reluctance to relocate to make way for dam construction, raising concerns regarding the relocation plans for the beneficiaries of the dams.

“There is a need for proper planning before construction begins so that all the negatives are taken care of. I also think there is a need to think of smart agriculture and technologies that can lessen the disturbance to the natural environment,” Munyanyiwashe Shumba, says a Zimbabwean PhD researcher at the University of Warsaw in Poland whose focus includes climate change.

“Also, construction of dams might mean relocation of local communities to a new and usually overcrowded environment which again brings a lot of ‘environmental ills’ in the long term,” Munyanyiwashe said.

Despite the upbeat projections of completing the dam construction projects, local municipalities such as Bulawayo, the country’s second city, have expressed displeasure that funds allocated by treasury are not enough. The government says it is aiming at a USD2 billion drive to rehabilitate and construct dams across the country, but history has shown that progress has been marred by treasury delays to release funds for the dam projects. Where treasury has released funds, it has proven to be inadequate.

Bulawayo Mayor, David Coltart, has described the 2024 budgetary allocation of ZWL369 billion (USD67 million) as “too little” as an estimated USD400 million is needed for the region’s major dam project. Coupled with an inability to attract private money towards dam construction, the country’s ambitions to spur agriculture production and also provide potable water to millions could be years away, and as Mr Coltart noted, the city of Bulawayo cannot wait another decade.

“More dams will definitely lead to increased agriculture production that is if dam construction is accompanied by installation of irrigation infrastructure for water intake, conveyance and infield irrigation,” said Oliver Masimba, a climate change researcher at the University of Zimbabwe.

“Ready water availability from dams will ensure timeliness of field operations and increased cropping intensity,” Oliver added. For the country’s smallholder farmers reeling under the impact of poor rains, the completion of dam construction couldn’t be more urgent.



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