When crossing the nearly 200-metre Kamuzu Bridge in Chikwawa, one sees millions of litres of water flowing all the time down to Zambezi and finally feed into the Indian Ocean.
Somewhere water from the Shire River is pumped into an expanse of sugarcane fields belonging to Illovo, a sugar manufacturer. One of the fields is close to Lengwe National Park, woodland that generally looks less green in the simmering heat of the Shire Valley.
The park and the sugarcane fields meet at Paramount Chief Lundu’s headquarters. The abrupt change from green carpet of cane fields into dry and unappealing surrounding communities is a constant reminder that not everyone in the Shire Valley benefits from the water of Malawi’s biggest river.
Just about seven kilometres after an outlet water canal from the sugarcane plantation lies Group Village Head Billiati’s villages with roughly 700 families. One of the biggest challenges facing these people is access to water for farming.
“The rivers that pass through Billiati are not perennial; as such, the streams dry up completely during the summer. During this time, the community resorts to digging shallow wells one to 2.5 metres from which they irrigate their gardens using treadle pumps provided by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development,” reads a feasibility study by Sustainable Development Initiative (SDI).
Village Head (VH) Chagwa says her subjects work hard in the fields “but we usually receive less than needed rains that start and end before our crops mature”.
She says this pains her and her subjects a lot.
“I feel sorry seeing hard-working mothers harvest less and end up begging or doing piecework to buy food. Imagine, even crops such as sorghum and millet that tend to do well in dry areas fail to grow properly here.”
The SDI report established that there are no rivers or canal within a 10-kilometre radius.
“So, people in this area know the value of a drop of water,” adds Maynard Nyirenda, SDI Executive Director.
Nyirenda and his team got financial backing from IM Swedish Development Partner, a Swedish non-governmental organisation to fund an irrigation undertaking that has promised constant flow of water for crops and people in the area.
“I am fascinated and encouraged by the zeal from these people. They have dedicated their efforts on the project. Some of them have prior knowledge of irrigation as they previously worked in sugarcane fields of Illovo Sugar Limited,” he adds.
Named Mtendere Irrigation Scheme, the initiative has brought unfathomable excitement among the community members such as Ida Charles, a young mother of five children.
“The first time I saw a drop of water coming out of the pipes into the canal, my heart pounded, I thought I was dreaming. I am really excited that I will now be able to grow various crops outside the rainy season,” she explains.
On average, she indicates that she manages to harvest three 50-kilogramme bags of maize every year just enough to last a few months.
Lloyd Divason, the scheme’s leader from the village adds: “Almost anyone can’t believe that this project is for real. As you can see, this area is dry but with the irrigation coming, we will grow tomatoes, vegetables, maize and many more crops and stop being perennial beggars of food assistance.”
A 2,400-watt solar-powered energy station is already running as the people are constructing the canals; some offer their ox-carts to carry supplies such as sand and bricks. Some men and women carry them on their heads. They have already seen the future as two water tanks each carrying 5,000 litres stand tall ready to quench the dry land’s thirst.
“When I saw the first drop of water come out of the pipe, I breathed a sigh of relief and said this is the water we have always waited for. Our land will be ever green; my subjects will grow enough food to last the year. We will no longer rely on the erratic rains,” VH Chagwa says.
She further links the benefits to education.
“Our children will no longer miss school days by spending hours on a treadle pump just to draw groundwater to irrigate a handful of crops,” she says.
Worse still, the treadle pumps were not pumping water from the river but from underground.
“This is your project; the solar station and any equipment here belong to you people in this area. Please take care of it and jealously guard against vandalism. Every drop of water from the system has a value and please make use of its value,” explains Steve Tahuna, Country Director for IM Swedish Development Partner, the initiative’s financier
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