Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Sugar industry heads for crisis

By Andrew Kunambura | Financial Gazette |

Zimbabwe’s sugar industry is heading for a major crisis as water at the country’s largest inland lake, Mutirikwi, recedes to dangerously low levels.

Lake Mutirikwi
Lake Mutirikwi

The lake could be de-commissioned around mid November. Statistics availed by the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) paint a grim picture.

As of Sunday, the lake held only 79 980 mega litres of water out of its total capacity of 1 378 082 mega litres. This represents a frightening 87,4 percent drop in water levels, which means the lake is now left with less that 12,96 percent of its water capacity.

According to management at ZINWA’s Runde Catchment Area, the rate of water loss, now between 0,07 and 0,10 per day, is expected to rise significantly as the country enters the peak dry summer season (October and November), which is the hottest period in Zimbabwe.

The consequences of the country’s principal inland, man-made reservoir drying up could spell doom for sugar cane farmers downstream at Chiredzi’s sugar estates.

Water demand in the Lowveld peaks between the hot four months that precede the rain season, which now starts very late in December.

Ever since the construction of Lake Mutirikwi was completed in 1960, the 56-year-old dam has only been decommissioned once, during the devastating drought of 1992.

The lake’s waters retreated to just 0,3 percent at the time. The lake was also nearly decommissioned in November 2013 when water levels dropped to four percent, but was saved by timely rains.

Chiredzi cane famers at Tongaat Hullet’s Triangle and Hippo Valley Estates and thousands other individuals depending on Lake Mutirikwi’s water are already feeling the pitch.

So ominous has the situation become that ZINWA — the custodian of national water resources — has been forced to monitor the water levels around the clock.

Zimbabweans consume around 400 000 tonnes of sugar every year and production of the commodity could be drastically cut due to poor quality of the sugarcane crop, owing to poor water supplies.

Any shortage of sugar can easily impact on downstream industries. It might also force government to lift its ban on sugar imports to augment local supplies.

ZINWA’s Runde Catchment Area operations manager, Jonathan Juma, said they have already been forced to introduce a stringent irrigation water rationing regime due to the dire situation.

ZINWA is currently releasing just 10,1 cubic metres per second downstream, compared to the 32 cubic metres per second it releases when water levels in the lake are normal.

“The sugar industry is actually being affected as we speak. The farmers have reduced their raw water consumption to 43 percent of what they normally require. All the other small dams are nearly empty,” he said.

Bangala and Muzhwi dams that supplement Mutirikwi, have already been decommissioned after they ran out of water in March, while Manjirenji dam, off Chiredzi River, is virtually empty.

Manjirenji irrigates more than 4 000 hectares of sugarcane plantations in Mkwasine, which is dominated by individual farmers who sell their crop to Tongaat Hullet after harvesting.

“If it continues at this rate, there is a very big possibility that we can come to a point where we can no longer release water to the Loweveld for irrigation,” Juma said.

Standing on the dam wall, one can clearly see the substantial depletion of the water.
Outcrops that were once completely covered by the massive lake are now cleary visible.

In addition to irrigating sugarcane plantations, the City of Masvingo also solely relies on the lake for its domestic water, while several other small scale irrigation schemes littered along Mutirikwi River downstream also face collapse.

Juma allayed fears that Masvingo City and Chiredzi town would face serious water shortages. He said if the worst happens, they would stop all irrigation activities and redirect all the remaining water to domestic use. We will be forced to stop releasing water for irrigation just to accommodate the people downstream and for domestic use in Triangle and Chiredzi.

“If we do this, the remaining water can service these areas until March next year when we expect the situation to have improved,” he said.

Zimbabwe Sugarcane Farmers Development Association, Admore Veterai, said farmers are already using improvised water saving mechanisms working hand in hand with ZINWA as they battle to stay on the field.

“It’s a catch 22 situation, but we are fighting to beat it. Given the climate change phenomenon, it’s not surprising that we are experiencing this shortage of water and it’s not going to improve unless we think up strategies to contain the situation.

“As farmers, we are already using water conservation techniques because we know that if rains do not come early, we could be in serious trouble.

“For example, we are now irrigating at 70 percent and jumping some lines so that water only goes where it is required,” said Veterai, a former police chief.

Meanwhile, the completion of Tokwe-Mukorsi dam, with capacity to irrigate at least 25 000 hectares of farmland and expected to replace Mutirikwi as Zimbabwe’s largest inland lake, has for long been touted as the single biggest solution to water woes in the Lowveld.

Government has, however, been struggling to complete the dam, currently at 95 percent complete and requiring US$20 million, owing to shortage of funds. Construction work at the site has since stalled.

Besides Tokwe-Mukorsi, whose construction was first mooted in 1955, but only started in 1998, there are several other dams which are still just pipe dreams.