A national treasure: The water harvester of Zvishavane

ZEPHANIAH Phiri Maseko is a well-known pioneer of what has come to be known as “water harvesting” and is the founder of the Zvishavane Water Project.

A visionary with no fear of hard toil, he has over many years transformed his family plot in Msipani — an “Area 5” dryland — into a veritable “wetland” agro-ecosystem.

Having faced many struggles in his life, (which are beautifully documented in a book called The Water Harvester: episodes from the inspired life of Zephaniah Phiri by Mary Witoshynsky), Phiri began his experiments by creating sand traps and water infiltration pits in his fields and yard.

He sought not only to prevent soil erosion but to harvest and plant the water that fell as rain or ran as surface runoff on his land.

Looking for a “poor man’s method” that would be useful to himself and other small farmers in the community, he experimented with various ways of capturing water.

Rainwater harvesting from the roof into these home-made storage tanks is an important strategy

Rainwater harvesting from the roof into these home-made storage tanks is an important strategy

“With contour ridges alone, the rainwater flows out of the field and disappears if it is not properly harvested. But with the pits I have dug in my contour ridges, the water that remains in my pits remains water for my crops.” The water allows crops, trees and flowering plants to thrive, bringing ecological vibrancy and biodiversity to his farm.

“With contour ridges alone, the rainwater flows out of the field and disappears if it is not properly harvested. But with the pits I have dug in my contour ridges, the water that remains in my pits remains water for my crops.” The water allows crops, trees and flowering plants to thrive, bringing ecological vibrancy and biodiversity to his farm.

Phiri has created even a natural pond.  “It is quite large, about a quarter of an acre, and the water in it was harnessed over the years by my water harvesting ideas. A pond is a rare thing in this part of our country and many people have come to my farm to see it for themselves. It never goes dry. During drought, people walk as far as five miles to get water here.” (in The Water Harvester, Page 42).

Phiri has created even a natural pond. “It is quite large, about a quarter of an acre, and the water in it was harnessed over the years by my water harvesting ideas. A pond is a rare thing in this part of our country and many people have come to my farm to see it for themselves. It never goes dry. During drought, people walk as far as five miles to get water here.” (in The Water Harvester, Page 42).

Storing water is not too difficult; the biggest challenge was to channel water to the right place; the fields. Phiri laid underground channels with pipes and used natural gradients of the land to direct the stored water to his crops.

Storing water is not too difficult; the biggest challenge was to channel water to the right place; the fields. Phiri laid underground channels with pipes and used natural gradients of the land to direct the stored water to his crops.

Over time, Phiri was able to sink wells at strategic points in order to draw water and irrigate crops year-round

Over time, Phiri was able to sink wells at strategic points in order to draw water and irrigate crops year-round

Phiri noted the large amount of surface run-off from the granite ruware (rocky outcrop) above his home and built structures and pipes to channel this water into his homestead

Phiri noted the large amount of surface run-off from the granite ruware (rocky outcrop) above his home and built structures and pipes to channel this water into his homestead

A key activity was to dig contour ridges with infiltration pits (or swales) along every field, as well as planting trees to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion

A key activity was to dig contour ridges with infiltration pits (or swales) along every field, as well as planting trees to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion

Conclusion
THANKS to his own great endeavours and compelling innovations, Phiri established the Zvishavane Water Project in 1987 and has since supported the local community in replicating his successes with water harvesting.

This year in June, the first “Phiri award” will be announced. The award is a new programme launched by a new organisation, The Phiri Award for Farm and Food Innovators Trust.

Inspired by the work of Phiri, the award aims boosting recognition of and support for farm and food innovators and their contributions to food sovereignty.

I, for one, am looking forward to the announcement of a winner and learning more from the local heroes and heroines of the food system.

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