Reports that crops have already started wilting in some parts of the country owing to moisture-stress caused by the late onset of the rains are very worrying. Some farmers planted their maize early anticipating normal to above normal rainfall as has been predicted by the Meteorological Services Department.
Although there have been some scattered rains in some parts of the country, the rainfall amounts have not been significant enough to sustain the growth of the early-planted crops.
After a long period of sunny, hot days, there was a thunderstorm that hit Harare yesterday afternoon, giving many people a glimmer of hope that the long-awaited rains were now upon us.
Farmers depend on the predictions given by the Met Department to plan their cropping programmes and indeed given a normal rainfall season, there is nothing wrong in having an early-planted crop. With an early-planted crop, farmers stand the chance of achieving high yields.
We have seen in recent years that the rainfall pattern has become very erratic, largely because of the effect of climate change. Dependence on rain-fed agriculture no longer remains the option for attaining food security, but rather focus should be shifted to irrigation. If farmers with the crop that is wilting had irrigation, then obviously they would not worry about the rains coming late. We have often wondered what the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development is doing to ensure farmers have access to irrigation.
It is a fact that most commercial farms have the irrigation infrastructure yet the farmers have continued to depend on the rains instead of irrigating their crops.
We have watched in dismay crops wilting when dams are full. There are many dams in the country, which can easily be used for irrigation. What needs to be done is to rehabilitate the infrastructure and install new equipment in areas that do not have underground irrigation system.
If we are really serious about achieving food security we need to move away from rain-fed agriculture. This is precisely what the Department of Irrigation should be doing yet we do not see evidence of their work on the ground.
We have no reason to continue blaming erratic rainfall for poor crop yields when we know for sure that the way to go is to irrigate. We have irrigation specialists we believe are being under-utilised, as they should be busy developing systems that are affordable to many farmers.
Rain-fed agriculture has worked well in subsistence farming for household consumption for many years and most of our communal farmers still do it and that is as far as it can go. We cannot expect to achieve national food self-sufficiency when we have to wait for the rains, obviously that cannot be a model for commercial farming.
There are very few nations that have agriculturally done well depending on the rains. The only sure way to develop the agriculture sector and attain high crop yields and consequently boost production is by developing irrigation.
With irrigation, it is easy to turn the vast tracts of land into green belts and produce crops all year round. There is not much fear of the rains failing as farmers can quickly switch to irrigation.
Time is now for us to be serious with developing irrigation and use all the water harnessed in dams to irrigate crops. There are quite a number of dams that are reasonably full at the moment, but farmers have not been able to use the water for irrigation because of the absence of the infrastructure to draw the water.
We now need to put our heads together as a country and prioritise irrigation development and this should be reflected in the national budget.