This Alternative Irrigation Method is Tackling Drought, Hunger in Zimbabwe

Ellah Mazonde's farm equipped with the Olla irrigation system. Photo credit: Stephen Tsoroti/The SolutionsPaper
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The SolutionsPaper/HARARE, ZIMBABWE: The heat was unbearable, backyard vegetable gardens looked brown, scorched, and lifeless. It was the hottest November on record and the 2019 drought was to blame. So severe was the drought, that only about 55 percent of rainfall was recorded leading to massive crop failure that year. 

Water became a scarce commodity and households who depended entirely on water from the local municipal authority had to stop their backyard subsistence vegetable farming. 

Many families had to survive on one meal per day. Prolonged power outages, a dearth of clean drinking water, and economic hyperinflation worsened the situation. Official data from the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) 2019 report shows that 98 percent of communities in Zimbabwe cited drought as the most prevalent shock they experienced in 2018 and 2019.

At the peak of the lean season in 2020, more than 7.7 million Zimbabweans faced food insecurity, as poor rains and erratic weather patterns harmed agricultural harvests and income sources. 

“I look back on 2019 with fear, it was a feat for us to survive as a family. When the drought hit, all the crops we had planted in our backyard dried up. We queued at the only borehole for water for long hours. The water was only enough for drinking, barely enough to water the crops,” Ellah Mazonde, 38, told The SolutionsPaper.

At the height of the 2019 drought, many Zimbabweans struggled to meet their basic food needs and only coped by skipping meals, selling their hard-earned assets, and taking their children out of school. The situation has not improved over the years as the rains have remained unpredictable and its effect, manifold. 

Data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) points to agriculture as the mainstay of Zimbabwe‘s economy, contributing to employment and income for 60-70 percent of the population, 40 percent of total export earnings, and approximately 17 percent to the southern African country’s GDP.

With the effects of climate change on the rise, Zimbabwe has become one of the worst-hit and most vulnerable countries. Research shows that droughts frequently occur with changing patterns across Zimbabwe, with every district affected by drought during the past thirty years. 

The agricultural sector and farmers like Mazonde are naturally the first ones to be affected by droughts, given their dependence on soil and water, which rapidly depletes during these extended dry spells. 

Like most urban families in the area, Mazonde does not wish to relive the 2019 drought nightmare.  However, with more dry spells forecast in some parts of the country, which can also affect her area, it is looking more or less like her reality.

Yet, in a cheery twist this year, in Chegutu (wards 4, 7, and 9), Zimbabwe’s western province, backyard gardens spot different scenes- a green crop belt around the houses and farmlands.


The Cheery Twist 

Mazonde and other urban farmers received training and support from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and Welthungerhilfe (WHH) to use a low-cost pottery irrigation technique called Olla (derived from a Spanish word meaning a cooking pot) to irrigate their farmlands. 

This irrigation system uses a simple technique of osmosis which is the movement of water molecules through a membrane, from a high concentration of water molecules to a low concentration of water molecules.

This is how Olla works; porous clay pots filled with water are buried in the farmland with only the neck of the pots protruding above the soil. Thereafter, crops are planted around the perimeter of the pot allowing it to supply moisture to the surrounding plants. 

A cover is placed on the top of the pot to prevent soil or other debris from entering the pot and to minimise the evaporation of the water from the pot. The pot is filled with water once a week.

Ellah Mazonde’s backyard garden equipped with the Olla irrigation system. Photo credit: Stephen Tsoroti/The SolutionsPaper

Olla uses clay pots with minute holes filled with water to provide controlled irrigation to plants. The water seeps out through the tiny holes in the buried clay pot slowly, at a rate influenced by the plant water use.

A total of 80 households were directly supported by WFP and WHH with training and resources to establish the Olla irrigation system. Each household was provided with three medium-sized clay pots, to begin with. 

Olla irrigation has allowed households and farmers to continue with their vegetable production, ensuring a ready source of diverse nutritious vegetables for their households and income for their pockets.

‘’I have been able to plant all kinds of vegetables, like squash, melons, tomatoes, chilies, and vegetables throughout the year,’’ Mazonde told The SolutionsPaper. 

Theresa Dhlamini, 54, a resident in the heroes area of Chegutu now makes $20 per week from the sale of onions, tomatoes, and vegetables. ‘’I was not used to getting this amount before this project’’, she told The SolutionsPaper. 

Since the project started in January 2022, the WFP and WHH have trained households that are in wards originally not supported by the project due to the success of the Olla method. 

WFP Zimbabwe Assistant Communications Officer, Tatenda Macheka, told The SolutionsPaper that in comparison to other well-known irrigation systems in Zimbabwe like drip irrigation, the Olla method requires few financial resources to set up. 

‘’The high cost of setting up the Olla irrigation system is in the purchase of clay pots. The system is not accompanied by any recurring costs as is the case with other irrigation systems,’’ Macheka said. 

The outcome of the Olla irrigation system is also exciting other experts and agronomists who are seeing its benefits and advantages.

“With drought occurring repeatedly, communities should be equipped with more resilient forms of Irrigation that [can] sustain crops and also conserve water,” an officer with the Agriculture Advisory Services in Zimbabwe’s agriculture ministry, James Ngoma told The SolutionsPaper

“The Olla irrigation system provides that. It is a simple method that is adaptable and reliable,” Ngoma added. 


Not Hundred Percent Flawless

However, the system has not been hundred percent flawless. Farmers have raised concern over the cost of clay pots ($5) which is relatively high, as many households are not able to raise $5 easily. 

To go around this challenge, the partners (WFP and WHH) set up another inventive Olla model that makes use of disused plastic containers instead of clay pots as a cost-cutting measure for the farmers. 

The innovative Olla model that employs disused plastic containers instead of clay pots. Photo credit: Stephen Tsoroti/The SolutionsPaper

Competing water needs are also a major factor in considering irrigation options for urban dwellers and even with the Olla method, farmers still need water to make the system work. 

With threats of droughts, food insecurity, and climate change still widespread, families need to get effective irrigation systems that save water and give families relief from climate change-induced shocks. For now, the Olla irrigation method seems to be doing just that. 

As for Mazonde, she believes that the Olla irrigation technique provides a permanent option for Zimbabwe’s urban farmers and plans to enlarge her backyard farm using the Olla method. 

“[I plan] to expand to a larger scale, but not growing vegetables only. I want to grow fruits using the Olla irrigation system,” Mazonde told The SolutionsPaper.

Editor: Chinonso Kenneth

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Stephen Tsoroti is an award winning journalist from Harare, Zimbabwe, reporting on health, human rights, environment and other social justice concerns.


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