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Alfie Riley & Tavengwa Chitata

Groundwater Infrastructure and Local Sustainability in Zimbabwe

​Alfred Riley is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. 


Tavengwa Chitata’s Ph.D. research concerns issues of groundwater use and sustainability in irrigated agriculture in Zimbabwe. His work deals with restructuring traditional notions of social, political, and technical expertise concerning the use and governance of groundwater and associated irrigation infrastructure. This research is focused on understanding the issues of both social equity and environmental sustainability that surround groundwater use in irrigated agriculture. 


The social realities of water in Zimbabwe are shaped by a stark difference between urban and rural communities. In urban areas, most people have the resources to access groundwater. Groundwater use is thus widespread throughout these communities. In rural areas however, many people lack the resources required to invest in groundwater technologies. Here, groundwater access is restricted to a small group of social elites. This imbalance is due to the fact that most people in rural communities are subsistence farmers. They grow enough food to support themselves and their families, but not enough to sell their crop and make a profit. Unlike surface water, which is relatively easy to utilize, groundwater use requires a significant initial investment in drilling and pumping infrastructure. This investment is often out of reach for small- scale farmers. 


These crops are then sold in urban markets, limiting benefits to urban communities and the rural elites. This creates significant food-insecurity among rural farming communities. Additionally, groundwater over-exploitation by these elites leads to depletion of the water table, impacting the surface water supplies that the less wealthy farmers are reliant on. This system thus works to perpetuate existing states of socio-economic imbalance. 


In recent years, this imbalance has been further exacerbated by climate change. As temperatures rise, rainfall has decreased. Decreasing rainfall has immediate effects on those farmers reliant on rain to feed their crops. It also has long-term effects on the state of the water table. With insufficient rainfall, groundwater basins are being depleted more quickly than they are recharging. This causes groundwater levels to fall, forcing groundwater users to dig deeper to access aquifers. 


A significant aspect of this research is understanding communities’ local knowledges and how they shape their relationship with groundwater and irrigation infrastructure. Often, local people use reasonings based on folklore, intuition, and intimacy with the land that lead to effective sustainable practices. For example, there are some groundwater springs where people are not allowed to wash their clothes on the basis that there is a mermaid-spirit living there. There are other groundwater sites where people are not permitted to bring containers to fetch water because of a spirit who dislikes certain materials. Observing these practices reveals that they are essentially a form of water quality control. These local practices are effective means of preventing overdraft or contamination of a local groundwater supply. 


These local understandings have been shaped by the needs of a community over generations. As such, they are more readily accepted by these communities than technological solutions implemented by outsiders. Groundwater boreholes that are found via traditional local techniques or with the leadership of a trusted community member are reported to be far more widely used than those created with technical methods. Boreholes informed by local knowledge hold a closer relationship with local communities. During my conversation with Chitata, he described this connection as “a relationship of care instead of a relationship of extraction ”. Even if a groundwater source is technically functional, it is worthless if the surrounding community holds no relationship with the water. 


Similarly, different technologies can lead to different understandings of groundwater. One interesting example is the difference in understandings surrounding the use of a manual groundwater pump versus an electric pump. For instance, in one area there are two boreholes connected to the same groundwater basin. One, used for domestic use by the local community, has a manual hand pump, the other, used for irrigation by a large farm, has an electric pump. The people (mostly local women who use the manual pump are aware that the groundwater level is subsiding. They know this because, as they use the hand pump every day, they have noticed that it is becoming increasingly hard to pump water to the surface, meaning that the water table is sinking increasingly deep underground. The engineers running the nearby electric pump are completely oblivious to this change. They have no physical relationship to the water and are thus blind to any subtle changes that may be occurring underground. 


This is not to say that local practices are always sustainable, sometimes they are not. However, it is vital for engineers and water management authorities to understand local knowledges instead of just dismissing them as primitive or irrelevant. In this regard, the most technologically advanced solution is not always the best. In some cases, it is far better to have a simple solution that is easy to maintain rather than a complex solution that requires constant technical oversight. In studying local knowledge, Chitata’s work hopes to inform more effective water policy.

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