Irrigation not magic bullet for Climate Change adaptation
By Anna Brazier
Eyebrows were raised at a World Bank validation workshop in Harare where top economists presented preliminary findings of a modelling exercise on the impacts of Climate Change variability and shocks on the agriculture sector and how this will in turn affect the Zimbabwean economy.
The study was conducted under the auspices of the Zimbabwe Climate Change Technical Assistance Programme (ZIM-CLIM), which is implemented by the World Bank in partnership with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate (MEWC), with financial assistance from the Zimbabwe Reconstruction Fund.
Veteran Zimbabwean economist, Professor Rob Davies and Climate Change Specialist, Dr. Brent Boehlert used a Social Accounting Matrix of the Zimbabwean economy to feed Climate Change variables and shocks into a Computable General Equilibrium Model, producing a complex, dynamic analysis using various Climate Change scenarios.
It was no surprise that one of the findings was that the impacts of Climate Change and variability are likely to hit the small holder farming sector with greater intensity than the commercial sector.
In addition, under an extreme hot/dry Climate Change scenario, we can expect a decline of about 2.5% in the economy in relation to past economic performances as a result of these impacts.
Most intriguing was the suggestion, from the modelling analysis, that focussing finance on irrigation infrastructure would not be as effective as investing in research and development of new crops and inputs.
This was unexpected, particularly for representatives from the commercial farming sector. Although these findings are preliminary and need to be analysed further before final publication in July, they back up what some analysts had been suggesting – that ‘soft’ investments rather than infrastructure may make more sense from an economic point of view.
As some of the participants at the meeting noted, Zimbabwean policy makers and farmers must accept that water is a limited resource and Climate Change, coupled with an increasing population and growing economy, will put more stress on it.
Spending money on extracting water from underground reserves or building large dams will not be sustainable, particularly if measures are not put in place to ensure that future unpredictable rainfall reaches underground and surface stores effectively.
To the contrary, there is ongoing concern that soil erosion, wetland destruction and other poor land-use practices are reducing replenishment of underground reserves and silting dams and rivers.
The study noted that global Climate Change models pointed to increased climate variability, reduced rainfall and hotter temperatures, implying that a considerable amount of water will be lost through evapo-transpiration.
This was argued in a World Bank report on Climate Change and Water Resources Planning, Development and Management in Zimbabwe published in 2014.
It proposed that due to reduced rainfall and increased evapo-transpiration from Climate Change “increasing investment in infrastructure, by itself, is not likely to be an efficient response to reduced water availability”.
The economists did not want to dismiss investment in irrigation completely and emphasised that it must be part of the portfolio of adaptation options, but there was also a discussion about what types of agriculture irrigation is used for.
If irrigation investment is going to focus on cash cropping then a food and nutrition security issue, not to mention a clash between domestic water and commercial farming endeavours, is likely to arise.
Such a situation is already being seen in the Cape region of South Africa where communities are accusing commercial farmers of squandering the dwindling water supply on their vineyards and dairy farms, to the exclusion of the broader food and nutrition basket.
The study noted, however, that agricultural trade could help mitigate the impacts of Climate Change on agriculture, by allowing food to be imported and exported as production fluctuates under a more variable climate.
The problem of virtual water has been extensively discussed in academic circles, whereby water-scarce developing countries are pressured to export their water in the form of irrigated agricultural produce.
It would be tragic if Zimbabwean farmers sold the nation’s water to Europe in the form of flowers, or to China in the form of tobacco.
Meanwhile, back in Zimbabwe, rising micronutrient deficiencies indicate that a more socially, ecologically and economically sustainable use of irrigation water would be to grow fruit and vegetables for consumption by local communities.
About the author: Anna Brazier is a sustainable development consultant specializing in resilient food systems. She has trained journalists in Africa on reporting Climate Change.
She has written a book: Climate Change in Zimbabwe. A Guide for Planners and Decision Makers.