Turning Water into Wellbeing: How an irrigation scheme changed lives in a Zimbabwean dryland



Climate change is placing increasing stress on the livelihoods of people living in the world’s drylands. Smallholder irrigation has long been seen as a means to improving food security in areas with unpredictable rainfall, and is now being promoted as a component in adaptation strategies. The Ruti Irrigation Project in Zimbabwe was begun by Oxfam in 2009 with these and other objectives in mind. A quantitative evaluation of the project in 2011 found that the scheme had already had significant positive impacts on household agricultural production and asset ownership. There was also some evidence for increased food security in participating households, though this was not as apparent as it might have been.

A follow-up study was commissioned in 2014 to provide a deeper understanding of these results and their wider ramifications, and its findings are presented here. It shows that the irrigation scheme has had much more significant social and economic impacts than those measured by the quantitative study, and that these have spread through the community to the households of participants’ relatives, neighbours and friends. However, these positive impacts for wellbeing have not been as extensive as originally hoped and they have been periodically curtailed by the negative consequences of extreme weather events, including the drying of the Ruti reservoir in 2013 and the decision to reserve its scarce water for use by sugar estates further downstream.

This suggests that while smallholder irrigation schemes can provide important local benefits, these are threatened not only by the usual difficulties associated with their implementation, but also by the greater challenges posed by climate change and the resource conflicts that are being exacerbated as a result. There is no simple local solution to these problems, which require significant changes in policy and practice at catchment-wide, national, and international levels. This is beyond the scope of a single project, but consistent with Oxfam’s approach to tackling global inequality and climate change, which incorporates lessons learned from in-depth research of the kind reported here.