By George Maponga
On the southern verges of Masvingo City, two mountains – Chamanyoka and Nyanda – rudely squeeze and dwarf the highway to Beitbridge.
As the road breaks away from the fatigue of hairpin curves, and buries behind it the craggy mountains, it stretches in breathtaking energy and on its verges suddenly appear the lush greenery of an irrigation scheme.
This is Mushandike Irrigation Scheme, Masvingo’s long time green lung of life.
At its commissioning in 1986, the irrigation scheme was touted as a game-changer in the thrust to achieve food security in Masvingo, a province known for perennial poor rains that hinder sustainable rain-fed crop farming.
The scheme’s location within the vicinity of Masvingo City, gave hope to the inaugural group of indigenous plot-holders that their journey towards achieving food self-sufficiency and disposable income was now just one lap away from the final destination.
Fired up by the euphoria of independence six years before, the opening of Mushandike Irrigation Scheme, then straddling over 673 hectares, gave the new beneficiary plot-holders, drawn from Masvingo and the adjacent Chivi districts, tangible satisfaction that the fruits of self-rule attained in 1980, were now theirs to enjoy.
Covering three wards, 7,9 and 10 in Charumbira and Bere communal lands, the new irrigation scheme gave birth to a bustling Mushandike resettlement area as its lush and exciting fields attracted new settlers from around the province.
The new-found agricultural mighty of Mushandike soon saw the irrigation scheme, that started with 417 plot-holders, being a major wheat and maize producing hub and influencing the rapid development of Bhuka business centre, about 15kms south of Masvingo City.
The tremors of Mushandike were also felt far afield in the city, where the then approximately 20 000 residents relied on the scheme for green produce and also for staple maize grain.
The GMB depot in the ancient town had Mushandike as a usual supplier of both wheat and maize in abundance. The local community watched and revelled in the glory of their new-found source of livelihood.
The population continued to expand, so did the resettlement area, buoyed by the wonders of an irrigation scheme that transformed lives of previously marginalised rural communities worn out by years of tilling dry land without dividends.
Besides wheat and maize, the crop portfolio at the scheme also covered tobacco, sugar beans, cotton and horticulture among others that changed lives of plot-holders in typical rags to riches story. Plot-holders managed to build modern homes and acquire symbols of rural wealth such as livestock and even automobiles as they grew crops all-year round.
At the zenith of its powers, Mushandike, which accounts for 22 percent of Masvingo province’s 3 800ha of irrigated communal land, the scheme supplied GMB, National Foods and other private companies like Cairns with its produce.
In the while, close to 50 000 people directly and indirectly benefited from the scheme as its star continued to shine and scale the heavens in the sphere of food security.
At the turn of the millennium, however, things began to take a dip with average yield per hectare losing its lustre synonymous with the late 1980s and 1990s boom.
From a high of 8-10 tonnes per hectare of maize in the formative days, yields began to nosedive gradually to the current average of 4 tonnes/ha.
Wheat fell from a high of 7 tonnes/ha then, to the current 3 tonnes/ha while cotton knocked down by half from 12tonnes/ha to the current 6.
Water challenges that started rearing their ugly head at about the same time, also worsened as time went by, sounding a death knell for an irrigation scheme which is now a pale shadow of its former self.
Today, due to the law of diminishing returns, Mushandike is a place deserted by its yesteryear swagger as an oasis of food security in a land of lack and hunger.
Plot holders now rely on dryland farming, making use of only half of the irrigable 847,5ha because of water dearth.
Demoralised by unsustainably low yields now dependent on favourable rains after Mushandike Dam water levels dropped to around 4 percent, weary plot holders gave in and abandoned crop irrigation in August last year.
Agritex supervisor for the scheme Mr Callisto Mukarati blames a host of debilitating negatives for taking their toll on Mushandike.
“The scheme started with 417 plot-holders in 1986 and the number rose to the current 565, meaning the hectarage under irrigation also grew from 673ha to the current 847,5ha. That put a strain on water supplies.”
Water conveyancing and storage infrastructure short of repairs also caused the collapse of the once vibrant scheme.
“The canals built more than 30 years ago are now in a state of disrepair and this caused loss of lots of water before it got to the fields. When there is not enough water, yields fall. The outdated overnight storage dams are now heavily silted, causing seepage hence there is a severe water problem.
“Mushandike Dam is now 4 percent full, forcing farmers to stop irrigation,” said Mr Mukarati.
The current prohibitive cost of inputs was also a bane for the continued survival of the scheme.
To compound plot holders’ woes, the only combine harvester at the scheme broke down many years ago.
“Most of the farmers cannot afford the high inputs because their yields were dropping over the years, limiting their capacity to sustain operations. There was also loss of harvest in the years gone by as farmers ended up using bare hands to harvest wheat after their only combine harvester broke down. The crop ended up being damaged by rains and rotting in the fields.”
The rapid expansion of the scheme coupled with high costs of fuel also limited farmer/extension worker interaction, forcing most farmers to swim in the dark by using poor farming methods that hurt yields.
Population pressure that continued to increase around Mushandike also saw some plot-holders losing their treasured crops to livestock.
Mr Mukarati said with each farmer having a maximum of 1,5ha under irrigation, the issue of reducing leakages and maintaining high yields was key to sustainability.
Mushandike Dam was also heavily silted, a flaw blamed on increasing population pressure in the dam’s catchment area in Mashava and Zimuto communal lands.
Erratic rains caused by climate change also accentuated the many challenges haunting Mushandike.
Masvingo provincial Agritex officer Mr Aaron Muchazivepi said while footprints of climate change were visible along Mushandike’s path to infamy, poor yields remained the elephant in the room.
“Yields per hectare started going down long back owing to a number of factors which of course, hover around availability of water,” he said.
“A closer look shows that yields were gradually going down until the bubble eventually burst. Now the farmers at the scheme are depending on rains and doing dryland agriculture because the dam is empty.”
Minister of State for Masvingo Provincial Affairs and Devolution Ezra Chadzamira said all hope is not lost on Mushandike.
Government was committed to its resuscitation to bring back its yesteryear glory.
“The Second Republic wants to revive the fortunes of Masvingo’s biggest irrigation scheme by land area. Mushandike used to be a major source of wheat, but now its history.”
“We are working on increasing the size of the scheme by 2 000ha to nearly 3 000ha and that can only happen when there is adequate water supply to irrigate the land.”
According to Minister Chadzamira, the panacea to Mushandike’s water woes lay with building a canal linking up with the idle Muzhwi Dam in northern Chivi.
This, he says, will permanently obliterate the ghost of water shortages and bring Mushandike back to life.
The feasibility study has been completed and what is left is funding mobilisation to pave way for the gradual journey to Mushandike’s redemption to start.
It will not be easy, but there is unanimity that the entire infield water storage and conveyancing network is in shambles, at least something is being done.
Before work starts on the ground to redeem this once vibrant facility, talk by both passers-by, the Charumbira and Bere communities in Mushandike resettlement will be centred on the sad tale of the collapse of a once shining beacon on Masvingo’s agricultural trajectory.