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Earlier this year I had the opportunity to return to Zimbabwe and to the farm of some of my prime water-harvesting mentors, Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and his family. While in the region, I also visited the farms of many other innovative farmers who are enhancing their soils’ hydrology and fertility by cooperating with natural systems. In this blog entry, and some to follow, I will share some of the inspiring things I saw.

I was in country with fellow colleagues Warren Brush and Thomas Cole to share and learn with model farmers affiliated with the Muonde Trust, and to work with a USAID-funded program that facilitates the training of technical field staff working with smallholder farmers (small-scale family farms).

My trip began with revisiting the farm of Mr. Phiri and family. In 1995 Mr. Phiri set me on my water-harvesting path by way of his productive example of numerous innovations and applications of very effective and accessible systems that plant the rain throughout his land with simple water- and fertility-harvesting earthworks. From that experience, I realized we all already have what we need to enhance our lives and those of others wherever we live—we just need to learn to see what is naturally and freely at hand, and then to live and work cooperatively with those resources and opportunities, rather than against them. For example, we need to plant/infiltrate/invest rainfall within our soils, vegetation, and watersheds rather than wastefully drain it away, and to do so in a way that enhances the health of all life, rather than benefiting some at the expense of others.

Since Mr Phiri’s learning kept pace with him over the decades, through this blog entry I will share a number of photos comparing what I saw on his farm in 1995, again on a visit in 2014, and on my latest visit this year (2016). Things kept getting better and better—not because of more and more investments of money into the farm, but due to better and better cooperation with the natural systems at play.

This blog entry is meant as a supplement to chapter one of my award-winning book, Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition, where you will find Mr. Phiri’s story, his water-harvesting evolution, and universal water-harvesting principles that were derived in part from his innovations and learning. I recommend you read that story first, then read on here to see how things have evolved.

Figure 1. Map of the Phiri family farm, drawn in 1996.

On the eroded hill slope above his farm, Mr. Phiri noticed that rocks placed across the slope could slow down stormwater-runoff flow, allowing sediment to drop out of the flow and accumulate behind the rock. Thus soil was captured, rather than lost. Moisture lingered. Seeds germinated. Plants grew, and a living sponge started to form on what was previously a bare bedrock drain (figures 2A, 2B, 3, and 4).

2A sediment trap 1995 rwm

Figure 2A. Rocks as water-and-sediment trap: 1995 dry season and drought

2B. Sediment trap 2016 IMG_5420 rwm

Figure 2B. Rocks as water-and-sediment trap: 2016 wet season. Photo taken from same vantage point as figure 2A.

3 rock structures 2014 IMG_1139 rwm

Figure 3. 2014 wet season. More of the simple rock structures built across the slope, enabling sponges to form atop once-bare bedrock. See Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1, 2nd Edition, for two variations of this strategy: sheet-flow spreaders and one-rock check dams.

4 rock structures 2014 IMG_1140 rwm

Figure 4. 2014 wet season. Notice the ephemeral seep spring that appears beneath the sponge after rains due to the slow release of rainfall captured within the sponge.

At the keypoint of the land, where the steeper, erosional section of the slope becomes more gradual, soil starts to settle out of the runoff flow and creates deposits.

Above and below the keypoint, Mr. Phiri created low, unmortared stone walls (figures 5A & 5B) to slow and spread the flow of stormwater runoff (thus gathering sediment behind the walls). Just below the keypoint he created a small ephemeral reservoir dug down to bedrock. He digs out the sediment that accumulates behind it after a storm, then uses that sediment elsewhere for building projects, berm reinforcement, etc.

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Read about and see more photos of Mr. Phiri’s strategies—earthworks and simple technology—and their results here, where you can also meet members of the Phiri family and apprentices who are carrying forth and building on Mr. Phiri’s water-harvesting examples with their own innovations and teachings that spread the knowledge and practices throughout their communities.

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