Winter cropping is now in full swing and most farmers are looking forward to harvests ranging from average to bumper ones. Those involved in horticulture are also smiling all the way to the bank as almost every day truckloads of cabbages, carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes find their way to places like Mbare Musika and some big supermarkets. Those fortunate enough will be shunting their produce to markets beyond the borders where they fetch high competitive gains.
All these farmers are enjoying the benefits of irrigation, having water for their crops all year round. In the fields, one will find centre pivots and sprinklers busy feeding water to blossoming crop. In places like the South Eastern Lowveld, canals of different sizes and capacities will be running along the field edges marshalling large volumes of water into the sugar cane fields. In this agricultural business no component is as important or as strategic as WATER. no farmer can go into the field without this resource.
A farmer may have all the necessary land, fertilisers and manpower but it is only water that can determine his or her hectarage. Such is the strategic nature of water to agriculture. However, over the years, this crucial role of water has been overlooked in most farming budgets. Most farming budgets would include electricity, labour, fertilisers and transport among others but excluding water. This has led to most farmers failing or even neglecting to pay for this single most important resource in their business.
For years now, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) has been battling to collect in excess of $35 million owed by irrigating farmers across the country. The figure accounts for farmers who are registered and are irrigating with permits or agreements and does not include those irrigating illegally without the relevant documentation.
The major question which most farmers seem to put forward in most cases is WHY they are being compelled to pay for water. Firstly, farmers have to pay for water because water is a highly sensitive resource whose availability can only be ensured through sound management. Most farmers today draw water from rivers that are downstream of major dams and the rivers that flow past their farming areas have water all year round simply because of the dam upstream whose water is released into the river channel to sustain life and human activity downstream. This is so common in Zimbabwe, a country which enjoys two distinct seasons, a short wet season and a long dry one. The country only has water all year round because of storage facilities such as dams which were put in place to avert droughts and other related catastrophes. Most interesting is the fact that there are quite a number of dams that are solely for irrigation purposes such as Mazvikadei, Bangala, Mazowe, Manjirenji, Osborne and Muzhwi. The dams have to be kept in a very safe and sound state or else they risk collapsing and killing thousands of people in the process. ZINWA is currently operating on very tight budgets to give the dams the minimal safety standards because the beneficiaries of the water bodies are not paying.
A look at the prevailing water tariffs also shows that the country has the lowest of raw water tariffs with commercial farmers being expected to pay $9, 45 for every one million litres of water drawn from a ZINWA operated dam. The amount is far below the amounts people spend on other less important needs. The amount is also negligible when compared to the amounts which some farmers realise after selling their agricultural produce.
Furthermore the country is still lagging behind in terms of dam construction. More dams are still needed and the country can only construct them when there is some return for the water bodies already in existence. This is in line with the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) where water is recognised as an economic good and users have to pay for water to allow more investment in the sector.
Farmers also need to know the position of the law regarding water use. The Water Act (Chapter 20:24), Sections 34 and 39, and The ZINWA Act (Chapter 20:25) Section 30 are clear that anyone using water for commercial purposes should do so in terms of a permit issued by the relevant Catchment Council or an agreement entered into with ZINWA, and should pay. The Act also answers one of the most burning questions which usually confronts ZINWA officials when they engage farmers. Most farmers have been asking how ZINWA comes up with raw water bills for water from dams or rivers. The same Act requires all irrigating farmers to have meters or other measuring devices at their points of abstraction for both billing and statistical reasons. Once abstraction is measured, farmers can have proper water budgets and can also understand their bills.
It is therefore imperative for all farmers to appreciate the strategic and central role of water to their businesses and start having provisions for water in their budgets. They also need to immediately start paying their outstanding bills if they are to be guaranteed of year round flows. Such a paradigm shift in the minds of many farmers will have a good impact on the country’s capacity to further develop the water sector.