Most of the country's low rainfall areas are prone to seasonal droughts resulting in acute water supply problems for both humans and animals.
In these dry and arid parts, people and animals are forced to travel long distances in search of water.
Agriculture in most areas in the country is predominantly rain-fed and is increasingly adversely affected by the climate change and lack of consistency characterised by erratic rain patterns, prolonged dry spells and floods.
As a result, smallholder farm-level productivity is far below the attainable potential for most crops in the dry and arid regions.
Participants at a national workshop on sustainable smallholder irrigation development organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation -- Smallholder Irrigation Support Programme (FAO-SIP) -- in conjunction with the Irrigation Working Group recently, say sand abstraction can help promote the growth of irrigation as an instrument to fight hunger and poverty.
Even though Zimbabwe has made great strides in developing the National Irrigation and Mechanisation Policy, agricultural experts believe strongly that sand abstraction could provide a key ingredient to boosting food security and tackling water scarcity in drought prone areas.
All participants agreed that promoting the use of the sand abstraction system could help speed up the uptake of irrigation by smallholder farmers and prepare them to cope with droughts.
Failure to tap the potential of irrigation as a strategic way to achieve food security, create wealth and prosperity for its citizens, still remains a major weakness of Zimbabwe and numerous others on the continent.
Sand abstraction is the extraction of water flowing through large sand deposits in a river channel.
Ricky Forster, a sand abstraction expert, told participants at this FAO workshop which was held in Harare recently that about 10 000 hectares of land in Matabeleland South alone could be put under irrigation if efforts are made to harness the potential of sand abstraction in this drought-prone province alone.
"Zimbabwe has a huge potential to tap into this system and improve its own irrigation agricultural system," he said. "Across the Limpopo, in South Africa, spread across some 21km, about 6 000ha is under irrigation using the sand abstraction method. The Zimbabwe side has a similar potential and we can harness it to green our country."
The agricultural experts at this meeting critically examined factors constraining exploitation of irrigation potential in the country and explored ways that could address them.
From the meeting, it was evident that there is no single blanket solution to constraints of irrigation development in Zimbabwe.
Most participants said all strategies should be implemented in a holistic manner dictated by specific local conditions.
And, sand abstraction in dry and arid regions was identified as a critical ingredient to the successful adoption of irrigation by smallholder farmers.
This, they argued, could help build the national irrigation capacity, improve access to reliable water for irrigation, streamline extension services for farmers, address economic aspects of irrigation and streamline land tenure systems and management of irrigation schemes.
Loris Palentini, head CESVI, an Italian humanitarian NGO in Zimbabwe, said Government involvement is critical in the development of irrigation agriculture in the country.
"Without Government involvement, most irrigation schemes cannot be sustainable," he told experts at this meeting. "Government involevement is key in the sustainability of most rural irrigation schemes. We need to have a vision for irrigation in Zimbabwe . . . say for 2030 to 2050. This could be in citrus development or other high value crops that can enhance earnings of our farmers."
Palentini also said there was greater scope to promote centre pivots and hose reel irrigation systems in the country as evidenced by successful pilot schemes at the Valley Irrigation Scheme in Kezi and others at Mugore.
The experts together with smallholder farmers who attended the meeting discussed extensively strategies that could improve production and productivity while at the same time increasing farmers' resilience and coping mechanisms to climate change effects.
Major areas identified by the experts included:
Scaling up capacity building for irrigation management committees (IMCs)
Use of high technology must be matched by high end operations
Promoting engagement with markets according to specific needs
Making linkages between farmers and contractors flexible depending on the economic situation..e.g reviewing prices to meet the changing economic circumstances
Boosting commercial production by smallholder farmers
Provision of starter packs and productive finance to jumpstart irrigation schemes
Promoting a culture of saving and reinvestment by irrigation schemes
Promoting good leadership in IMCs and increasing women's participation
Promoting systemic planning in irrigation schemes and understanding of laws on tenure, water rights and use
Promoting the use of new energy and water saving technologies
Irrigation farming is vital, especially in dry regions where there are more failed crops. This calls for greater support for the local community's livelihood.
Partnerships with international agencies have helped to revive the irrigation schemes at a time when the fiscus is hard-pressed.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture has rehabilitated a number of irrigation schemes after years of neglect.
Despite the numerous challenges encountered, this augurs well with the country's National Agriculture Policy Framework and the drive to make Zimbabwe a middle- income economy by 2030.
Tapping into sand abstraction systems to improve access to water and food cropping can also help Zimbabwe to meet its Sustainable Development Goals on hunger and poverty, creating jobs and improving livelihoods as well as ensuring environmental sustainability.