Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
In the dry and arid Vela area of Gwanda North rural district, which is part of the vast stretch of the southern part of the country where back-to-back droughts have led to acute water shortages, the construction of the Mayide River Sand Dam has become the picture of hope and optimism.
Villagers here travel for several kilometres to fetch water on shallow and unprotected wells commonly known as 'umthombo' or 'mufuku' on the Thuli River sand bed.
At the crack of dawn, Esnath Sibanda (61) of Manyange village and other women and children wake up to a different exercise.
They walk for several kilometres to hunt for water along the Thuli River bed.
Thuli River is no longer flowing and when they reach the water point, the real work begins.
The women start digging the ground for water in the essentially dry Thuli River bed.
"Water here is very scarce," said Sibanda. "It's very precious and more than just gold. As women, we carry the burden of looking for water. Walking to Thuli River is just the beginning and the real hard work begins when we have to dig deep into the river bed to get the water.
"We dig three or four metres deep so that we can reach the water. It's tough and the water we get is at times little."
Another villager Lovemore Nyathi said: "We are very desperate for water. Mayide River, a tributary of Thuli River is dry for most part of the year. All this makes life difficult here.
"We have no water for own consumption, our livestock, for our clinics and business centre."
Construction of Manyange Dam on Thuli River remains incomplete and all this has piled pressure on villagers in the area who are desperate for water.
However, there is a glimmer of hope.
As part of its emergency response to the severe drought and climate change adaptation and resilience building, Practical Action, through the Renewable Energy Empowering Women Farmers (REEWF), is now working with villagers from Vela to build the Mayide River Sand Dam to improve water availability in the area.
This project is being constructed with funding from a nearly US$1,3 million facility supported by the Isle of Man government.
The project funding was also supporting solar powered irrigation gardens dotted around Gwanda and Matobo districts that seek to empower women.
The Mayide River Sand Dam aims to empower the women in this drought prone area of Gwanda North to increase crop productivity and improve livelihoods through access to water.
"This sand dam is our only hope," said Regina Sibanda (56), from Manyange village. "We don't have a choice. Every day we have worked hard to carry stones from the surrounding mountains and water from Thuli River to construct the sand dam. It's not easy, but we remain determined to finish this project.
"Water scarcity has united our people. This area is very dry and we are grateful for the support we are receiving from Practical Action to complete this sand dam. This dam is carrying our hopes for the future."
Village head Jimmy Sibanda is quite optimistic about the future.
"This work is quite amazing for us," he said. "The sand dam is one of the major projects we have. Water is very precious for us and no development can take place without water.
"This is our heritage and it will not only benefit us, but future generations as well."
Sand dams make it possible for thousands of people to obtain water, even at the height of a drought.
Through the sand, the villagers are hoping to access water a couple of feet beneath the dry surface of the seasonal Mayide River which flows into Thuli River, a major river in Matabeleland South province.
Precious water that normally runs off would be trapped by the sand dam, making water accessible for the members of the Vela area of Gwanda North.
The 75-metre sand dam wall will allow water to collect in the sand a few feet below the surface, making it easily reachable for irrigation, watering animals, drinking and cleaning.
Interest in sand dams has been rekindled as an inexpensive, but effective response to drought conditions.
Through the installation of solar systems to power irrigation gardens and abstraction of water from sand dams, local communities will make significant savings on energy costs, while at the same time promoting a cleaner environment.
Sand dams consist of a concrete embankment built across seasonal streams that flow during the rainy season and run dry during the dry season.
When seasonal rains fall, water collects behind the dam underneath the sand on streams and rivers.
The sand acts like a sponge which filters the water that can be harnessed for up to several months after the rains have fallen through sand water abstraction methods or by simply digging a hole in the sand.
Water from sand dams is accessed by digging up holes and through installation of infiltration galleries that drain into shallow wells, where water is then extracted with either a solar pump, hand pump, or submersible electric pumps.
Water experts say sand dams provide a sustainable solution for water-scarce regions in the country which have seen many smallholder farmers relying on food aid and losing cattle to drought.
Sand dams, which are relatively easier to build and maintain, can survive for many years providing water to local communities.
When sand dams are built closer to their villages, it reduces time they spend looking for water.
"Sand dams are vital in building the resilience of this community which is prone to drought and other changing climatic conditions," said Innocent Katsande, communications specialist for Practical Action.
"We are supporting this community in the construction of this sand dam. Sand dams are a cost-effective and sustainable solution to mitigating the impacts of climate change."
The local community is now dreaming big.
"We can now see Canaan," said Sibanda. "The construction of the sand dam has rallied our people together. There is unity of purpose and we are confident that once its fully operational, we will overcome the water challenges we are facing.
"We hope to establish a thriving community garden to supply fresh vegetables and clean portable water to our clinic, school and a business centre nearby.
"Water from this sand dam will surely wipe away our water worries clean."