Zephaniah Phiri Maseko is a well-known pioneer of what has come to be known as ‘water harvesting’ and is the founder of the Zvishavane Water Project. A visionary with no fear of hard toil, he has over many years transformed his family plot in Msipani- an ‘Area 5’ dryland- into a veritable ‘wetland’ agro-ecosystem. Having faced many struggles in his life, (which are beautifully documented in “The Water Harvester: episodes from the inspired life of Zephaniah Phiri” by Mary Witoshynsky), Phiri began his experiments by modifying the Rhodesian government’s protocol ‘contour ridges’ to create sand traps and water infiltration pits. He sought not only to prevent soil erosion but to ‘harvest’ and ‘plant’ the water that fell as rain or ran as surface runoff on his land.  Looking for a ‘poor man’s method’ that would be useful to himself and other small farmers in the community, he experimented with various ways of capturing water.

A key activity was to dig contour ridges with infiltration pits (or swales) along every field, as well as planting trees here to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion

A key activity was to dig contour ridges with infiltration pits (or swales) along every field, as well as planting trees here to stabilise the soil and prevent erosion

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Storing water is not too difficult; the biggest challenge was to channel water to the right place; the fields. Phiri lay underground channels with pipes and used natural gradients to direct the stored water to his crops.

Storing water is not too difficult; the biggest challenge was to channel water to the right place; the fields. Phiri lay underground channels with pipes and used natural gradients to direct the stored water to his crops.

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…”that streambed I mentioned? Well, today that seasonal stream is a pond. It is quite large, about a quarter of an acre, and the water in it was harnessed over the years by my water harvesting ideas. A pond is a rare thing in this part of our country and many people have come to my farm to see it for themselves. It never goes dry. During drought, people walk as far as five miles to get water here”. (p 42)

 

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As well as sharing his experience of water harvesting, through the Zvishavane Water Project, Phiri encourages organic and permaculture practices such as mulching and composting. “We are also discouraging chemicals. (…) These artificial fertilizers damage our soil. I wish farmers would really understand the importance of using nitrogen-fixing plants in their fields. These would serve the soil for quite some time. (…) People should be encouraged to use composts”. (p 49)

Thanks to his own great endeavours and to support from Oxfam (GB), EEC microgrants and NOVIB, he established the Zvishavane Water Project in 1987 and has since supported the local community in replicating his successes with water harvesting. We can see that there are multiple benefits from the socio-ecological transformations brought by water harvesting; for Phiri, the main goal is self-sufficiency at the community level.

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