In recent years more recognition is given to the benefits and risks of private smallholder irrigation development across sub-Saharan Africa. It is acknowledged for its capacity to adapt to local circumstances and challenges. This study assesses the heterogeneous character of private smallholder irrigation in the challenging environment of southern arid Zimbabwe, where family farms operate along sand river aquifers, forming a reliable natural storage of shallow groundwater. It investigates the drivers, characteristics, obstacles and adaptive capacity of this yet undocumented form of private irrigation in a historically marginalised area, and in particular also the discontinuation of these informal irrigation ventures. The research combines results from analysing satellite images, and quantitative and qualitative field work, whereby a social-ecological system perspective is applied. This form of private smallholder irrigation is distinct from most other documented cases in sub-Saharan Africa. First, because of the unique interrelation between the water source, technology need and fuel-dependency in an economically marginalised area. Second, because drivers for the emergence of private smallholder irrigation are not market-based but crisis-driven; recurrent droughts and frequent dry-spells, failure of collectively-managed irrigation schemes, and persistent economic instability. As a result, many families cease operations because they reach the limits of their adaptive capacity or they migrate. Those who succeed, manage to benefit from the abundance of water stored in sand rivers, the mobilisation of knowledge and cash through rural networks, and the existence of cross-border trade opportunities. However, they hardly ever pass the level of subsistence in an area where stable markets are absent. Organising potential support to private smallholder irrigation remains a challenging and disputable avenue as this might undermine its independent and adaptive nature.
- Private smallholder irrigation
- Rural livelihoods
- Sand river aquifers
- Social-ecological systems