For three days on end in March 2018, wild waters roared down the gentle slopes on the eastern edge of Salankhuku Irrigation Scheme in Sub-Traditional Authority Maoni in Phalombe District.
The waters, sweeping everything along their way down to the expansive field which at that time had only 16 hectares put to use, dumped huge chunks of silt which eventually buried wells that had, for six years, been the source of water for crops in dry seasons.
“The amount of rains that fell in those three days was something that I had never experienced before in this area,” says smallholder farmer Fatima Nandolo from Mwala one of several villages that used to rely on the scheme for irrigation farming before it was destroyed by the heavy rains.
The mother of three recalls that across her village dozens of houses collapsed after their walls got too wet or roofs or foundations sunk deeper into the ground.
A maize field outside her small grass-thatched house also had its fair share of the angry waters which she says also washed away her six chickens and two goats.
“It was like everything about life had finally come to its end. For three days, I could not see the sun. When the rain finally stopped falling, the running water faded, it was time to count the loss,” she says with disinclined nostalgia.
Nandolo states that with the support from well-wishers, she managed to lift her family up again even though the trauma lived with her for a few more months before it finally dawned on her that time, by its nature, sometimes brings the least expected.
“I had to move on. It was when the rainy season was gone and I thought about going to the scheme to start clearing my plot when I realised there was no water. I could not even locate where the wells had been,” she says.
The occurrence of the rain that had damaged Salankhuku Irrigation Scheme had been predicted by weather experts. But as is often the case with such messages, most locals did not imagine the devastation would be to such scales.
Across the country, over 50 irrigation schemes got crushed by raging waters brought about by the Tropical Cyclone Idai that hit several countries in southern Africa.
Nandolo and 109 other individuals who banked their hopes on Salankhuku Irrigation Scheme to beat the perennial hunger crises that their families met mumbled silent prayers for the rehabilitation of the scheme.
Today, the area is on its swift path to recovery after government, through the Agriculture Commercialisation (Agcom), included it on the list of schemes to be revitalised after being damaged by the cyclone.
The $95-million loan, which government is accessing from the World Bank for improving agriculture in Malawi by targeting smallholder farmers so that they engage in farming as a business, has a component for responding to disasters such as the tropical cyclone.
President Peter Mutharika’s declaration of a national disaster in the wake of the pain that Cyclone Idai was inflicting on Malawi compelled the bank to permit the ‘diversion’ of funds towards rehabilitating irrigation schemes.
Salankhuku Irrigation Scheme chairperson, George Kadzuwa, is optimistic that after the repairing works of the scheme—which are being undertaken by Fisd Limited—are completed by next October, lives of households surrounding the facility will never be the same.
“Now, there are 222 of us who are members of the scheme. We expect more people to join us. We are increasing the land for irrigation from 16 to 110 hectares. Up to 1,300 people can benefit from the scheme once it is revamped,” Kadzuwa says.
Such sentiments are shared by Minister of Agriculture and Food Security, Francis Kasaila who toured the scheme recently and concluded that the smallholder farmers who use it will never be the same in terms of their socio-economic status.
“The rehabilitation of the scheme is going on very well, if what we see on the ground is anything to go by. The contractor is progressing well in terms of drilling the boreholes that will be supplying water.
“Perhaps, we should come back two or three years from now to see how the farmers will be faring by that time. I am confident that their lives will never be the same,” Kasaila said.
He had the same confidence in Kanjedza Irrigation Scheme which is situated a few kilometres west of Salankhuku Scheme. It was also damaged by the floods which killed at least 60 people across Malawi.
“Before the onset of the next rainy season, the schemes must be operational. Rainfall patterns are unpredictable these days and irrigation is the way to go. With this kind of farming, we will be assured of food security,” Kasaila said.
He also urged farmers who will be benefitting from the rehabilitated fields to own them and consequently be at the forefront in taking care of the solar-powered equipment.
The minister is confident that the advanced renovation of the schemes will eventually achieve the Agcom’s commercialisation driver.
With the roads to the two schemes being rehabilitated too, the farmers will also have it easy visiting and leaving the schemes with farm inputs and produce.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje