Improving Community Resilience to Climate Change; Piloting of Rainwater Harvesting and Conservation Agriculture

Written by Rainwater Harvesting Association of Malawi  |  Added on January 17, 2017   |   Filed under Publications


1.0 Introduction

The UNDP – GEF Small grants Project in June 2012 approved a grant award and committed USD44, 650 for a project entitled “Best Practices Demonstrations for Climate Change Mitigation – Rainwater Harvesting and Conservation Agriculture”.

The project was being implemented by the Rainwater Harvesting Association of Malawi in collaboration with other key stakeholders including World Vision Malawi, Department of Land Resources Conservation and Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation. The overall objective of the project was to improve the livelihoods of 1000 households by increasing their resilience to the effects of climate change. Central to this objective is the overall purpose of the project, the project promoted the implementation of participatory and locale specific climate mitigation/adaptation techniques in the two targeted districts. Specific objectives were;

  • Raise the awareness of the communities on the potential of rainwater harvesting and conservation agriculture to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.
  • Build capacity of communities on the design and construction of rainwater harvesting structures.
  • Demonstrate a number of environmental conservation interventions that can be implemented at local level but can make an impact at global level.
  • To transfer and promote technologies that support and enhance livelihood system activities of smallholder farmers in a spate/flood based irrigation scheme.
  • To create awareness to policy makers both at national government and district and local level on flood/spate irrigation based schemes.


2.0 Project outputs

The overall objective of the project was to improve the livelihoods of 1000 households by increasing their resilience to the effects of climate change. To achieve this, the project piloted various rainwater harvesting techniques including Flood water harvesting, spate irrigation and the promotion of Conservation Agriculture. The emphasis of the project was to provide alternative livelihoods to charcoal burning and selling activities to these communities.

3.0       Description of Project Areas

Neno District

Neno district is located in Southern Malawi with a total land area of about 1469 km2 with a population density of 742 persons per square kilometer. The climate of Neno is subtropical characterized by two main seasons: wet and dry. The wet season starts in November and ends in March when rainfall ranging from 500mm to 1200mm is received with January being the wettest month. The topography of the district is largely mountainous and hilly with several areas having slopes of more than 12 degrees with elevations exceeding 1200m above sea level.

However, the district also has low-lying areas in the Shire valley with altitude ranging from 250 to 500 meters above sea level creating a stark contrast in agro-ecological conditions within the district. Neno district is not spared from the common environmental problems facing other districts in the country. The main environmental concern is the high rate at which forest cover is lost in the district, particularly on customary land, and increasing incidences of encroachment on gazetted forest areas.

Ntcheu District

Ntcheu District is located to the southern end of Central Region of Malawi. It borders Dedza District to the north, Neno District to the south, Mangochi District to the northeast, Balaka District to the southeast and  Mozambique to the west. Ntcheu District has a total of ten Traditional Authorities, eight Chiefs and two Sub-Chiefs. The project areas was situated in the area of STA Tsikulamowa of Senzani The area of STA Tsikulamowa, which has a total population of approximately 33,620 people, lies to south-easterly tip of Ntcheu District.

The villagers eke their living mainly from smallholder agriculture and charcoal trading. The charcoal burning business has turned the once forest thicket into bushes with trees that hardly live for more than five years. The wanton cutting down of trees for charcoal burning has also exposed the soil to erosion waters that have left behind red stony sub-soils where crop production can only be achieved through use of fertilizers. Rainfall in the area is also erratic, and the area is prone to floods.


4.0       Methodology

Steering committee Meetings

Before the commencement of the second year of project implementation, the Project Coordination team sought the approval of the Steering Committee for the proposed activities. As such a meeting was held at which the second year plan of action was presented.


During the meetings, it was emphasized that group work would be more a preferable approach more than individual efforts. Communities were encouraged to take farming as a business so as to boost their incomes. It was emphasized that all the water harvesting initiatives to be undertaken by the project should aim at production of high value crops. The project management team assured the staff that communities will be supported with inputs such as seedlings for fruit trees and other cash crops.

Close collaboration and coordination among the different stakeholders was encouraged to ensure the success of the project. It was noted that apart from World Vision staff, there is Extension staff from the Ministry of Agriculture working in the areas and also other community based organizations such at the Senzani Community Development Organization (SECODO).

Development of community based work plans in Project sites

Following sensitization and mobilization, communities in the project sites were required to development Community based work plans. This schedule is meant to spell out the activities that the communities would like to carry out from the period covering January – December 2014. The activity was done by entire village assembly for each project site but this was facilitated by the front line staff.

The Community based work plans were developed for each of the sites. Communities were implementing activities on the plans. Copies of the Work plans were left with communities for their reference.

Capacity Building of communities in Rainwater Harvesting practices and In-situ water conservation

Within the project, training of communities was given priority as it was seen as a path way to building awareness, participation, capacity and training for greater community mobilization. During the training, a diverse range of educational strategies were used that led to positive changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in support of the projects goals and activities. During the training the following methods of delivering messages were used; lectures, posters, group discussions, Practical field sessions, farmer to farmer visits, field days and focus groups.

6 training sessions were conducted in the targeted sites. A total of 3156 farmers were trained including some 2057 women during the project period. The trainings focused on the following areas;

  • Principles of Conservation Agriculture
  • Soil and water conservation technologies
  • Rainwater harvesting and management
  • Soil fertility improvement technologies
  • Group dynamics and Agri-business skills

During the training sessions, participants comprised of formal and informal community leaders, lead farmers and government field workers. Crosscutting issues about gender, HIV/AIDS, environment and rights were part of the criteria for selecting community structures and beneficiaries to be trained.

Field Days

The field day was conducted during the project period and was attended by a cross section of stakeholders including the Programme Manager for Blantyre ADD, the District Agriculture Development Officer for Neno and Ntcheu districts, Extension staff from Neno and Ntcheu Districts and farmers from Ntcheu who visited their fellow farmers in Matope, Neno District.

The main objectives of hosting the field day were field day

  • Enable stakeholders appreciate project activities so far done by project beneficiaries.
  • Allow farmers explain the impacts of the practices.
  • Understand some of the challenges faced during project implementation
  • Provide a way forward on project implementation

During the field day, participants visited fields under conservation for the last 2 years. Farmers shared their experience on how they manage the field in face of bushfires and free range livestock grazing. Most importantly farmers were able to testify how the crop under CA has been able to withstand droughts and dry spells compared to the one under conventional farming. During plenary it was noted that the benefits of CA cannot be seen with one therefore consistence is vital for farmers to see the full benefits.

Field tours

Farmers from the project implementation sites were taken on an Exchange visit as part of capacity building. During the exchange visits farmer exchanged ideas on how they are implementing the different activities and on the role of local leaders in the project.

Lead farmers interact during Exchange Visit


5.0       Technologies Promoted in the Project

Infiltration Pits

They are large ditches constructed to catch and retain runoff and hold it until it infiltrates into the soil. By slowing down run off, Infiltration pits assist in reducing soil erosion and formation of gullies. They are dual purpose pits in the sense that they can also be used for manure making during winter before being used for rainwater harvesting in the rainy season. A total of 214 infiltration pits of various sizes were dug around farmers’ fields.

Infiltration Pit,  Matope, Neno District

It was noted by farmers that they best time to excavate these pits is during the start of the rainy season. Excavating the pits during the dry season was labor intensive as some of the clayish soils were extremely hard to excavate. Farmers preferred working in groups to undertake this particular task.

On Farm Water Ponds

They were mostly constructed on individual farms and had varying sizes from 15 – 30cubic meters. The ponds collected run off generated from natural (uncultivated land) and from roads sides/ foot paths that run across farmers’ fields. The technology proved popular among the farmers due to scarcity of water. The water was mostly used to recharge cropping fields that were normally located below the ponds. Occasionally they would also be used for livestock watering. Most of them were able to store water for duration of 3 -5 weeks after the rains depending the soil characteristics.


The technology was found to be highly versatile and adaptable as members of the community were able to excavate the pond by contribution labor only with minimal supervision and without any financial support

  • Flood Detention Weirs/Sand Dams

These were masonry water barriers that were constructed across seasonal or ephemeral streams. The reinforced masonry wall trapped water and a lot of sand upstream which also held subsurface water. Once the dams were full, the water was occasionally used for supplemental irrigation and for livestock watering. Due to high evaporation rates, the water in the dams would only last three months however there was water stored in the pore space between the sand that had accumulated and the dam wall prevented sub surface stream flow.

The structures also saved the purpose of holding back flood water which would have otherwise destroyed cropping fields downstream. Farmers acknowledged that there were a number of fields that had been abandoned due to flooding but the sand dams have rescued their fields. Some farmers excavated infiltration pits to collect the slow moving overflow from the sand dams.

Flood Detention Weir, Senzani, Ntcheu District

Construction of masonry walls can be expensive in terms cement, reinforce bars and other inputs. However communities can also construct those using locally available materials. There is less operational and maintenance cost in sand dams as compared to boreholes and conventional dams. Once constructed, they require very little maintenance except where walls break in which case, they should be reconstructed.

Contour bunds and Ridge Alignment

Despite the introduction of Conservation Agriculture, there were some farmers in the project areas who still preferred to use planting ridges for growing crops. In order to address soil erosion, the project promoted the construction of contour bunds using simple low cost methods like the line-level. Farmers were first of all trained how to peg Marker ridges before they construct the Contour Bunds. The bunds are constructed along contours running across the 1-13% slope. Planting ridges were constructed in the space between the ridges parallel to the contour bunds. Main crops produced included maize, beans and sorghum. The contour bunds were reinforced with Vetiver Grass to make them permanent. The bunds trap extra run off for crops and fruit trees.

Gully reclamation

Due to the lack of conservation measures, a number of gullies had developed in the project erosion. The gullies were reducing the land available for crop production and were also draining water away from cropping fields.

To address the problem, the project trained farmers on a number of methods for Gully Reclamation. The most common method was the construction of check dams using brushwood check dams. This method involved installing trash lines and placing poles of about 2cm diameter placed across the gully. Stakes of up to 5cm diameter were used to hold the cross poles in places, and hammer/stone was used to drive in the stakes into the ground. Freshly cut cross-poles were then weaved in between the stakes working from the base to the top of the gully in the same manner as is done in making fish traps, baskets or grain stores. Stones were placed on one side of the check dam to trap sediments.

Conservation Agriculture

This was on one of the widely promoted practices in the targeted due to the expected social and environmental benefits. After years of conventional tillage which has resulted in a number of negative impacts on the soil e.g. the formation of a hard pad, purvelisation of the soil. Conventional land preparation practices in Malawi are those where ridges are remade every season, and where plant residues are covered, removed, or burnt and in which growth of all vegetation is prevented, except for the desired crop. CA is seen as a means of reversing this trend and restoring the soil.

In both project sites, Conservation agriculture was practiced on plots ranging from 10 square meters to about an Acre. The practice of conservation promoted in the project involved the three main principles minimum tillage, maximum cover and crop rotations or use of crop associations. The goals of these management systems were to maintain adequate plant residues on the soil surface at all times to control wind and water erosion effectively, to conserve water, and to maintain or improve crop yields. Often, conservation tillage is aimed at alleviating specific constraints, e.g. accelerated erosion, drought stress, surface sealing and crusting, subsoil compaction, unfavorable soil temperature regimes, anaerobic conditions in the root zone, and other factors responsible for low fertility. Reductions in energy, labour, amount of equipment, and its frequency of use are often additional benefits.

Conservation Agriculture Field

However the shortage of mulching materials limited the expansion of area under conservation. Besides that, the shortage of conservation agriculture equipment remains a big challenge to most small holder farmers. In Malawi, the limited range of tillage research and the neglect of small-scale tool development have had an adverse effect on food production. Development of alternative methods of seedbed preparation and weed control, such as replacing the backbreaking hoe with improved tools or herbicide technology remains a challenge.

In the two project sites, a total of 234 farmers practiced Conservation to varying degrees of success. Preliminary results show more than 70% improvement on yields on yield on Maize n some farmer’s fields, Maize yields increased 1.3Tonnes on conventional farming to 3.3 Tones over the two year periods of the project. The results showed that farmers were able to almost double their crop yield, without adding extra inputs. The 2015/16 cropping season was particular punctuated by long dry spells, the crop under CA survived better due to the moisture that was trapped under the mulching

6.0       Challenges

  • Farmers more interested in short term benefits and not looking at the bigger picture.

During the project implementation it was clear that the culture of handouts has eroded the patriotism that is required to implement community projects. Most members are used to Food for work or Cash for work type of projects and they are not willing to invest their time in projects whose benefits can be seen in the long term.

  • Problem of dis-adoption of technologies

There were farmers who adopted some techniques in the first year but could not continue with them in the subsequent years. This was common with Conservation Agriculture and tree planting.

  • Lack of ownership of structures

Communally constructed structures were not well maintained compared to individually owned structures. For example flood detention structures on an individual’s farm were well maintained compared those owned by the community at large. This could also be attributed to lack of capity in the local leadership.

  • Poverty and its associated coping strategies affecting conservation initiatives

Due to excessive poverty, farmers tend to spend most of their time doing short term jobs (ganyu) in order to buy food to feed their families. This is done at the expense of land and water management practises


7.0 Recommendations Lessons learnt from the Project

This project has demonstrated that opportunities to slow down land degradation and mitigate the impacts of climate change do exist. Through integrated land and water management, both off and on –site ecosystem services can be derived that would lead to sustainable livelihoods. Rainwater harvesting can assist smallholder farmers to sustainably utilize low quality water to reduce pressure on high quality waters and preserve land. The following lessons have been learnt;

Choice of farmers

Choice of farmers and sites for soil conservation and rainwater harvesting future projects should focus on clusters of farmers who live and work in areas where there are serious and degradation problems and a high potential of showing positive results rather than working with any poor farmer regardless of their location in the watershed. It important that there collaboration with other stakeholders is emphasized and clearly target areas where there is greatest risk of land degradation from uncontrolled runoff.

It has also been noted that the use of lead or champion farmers would produce the desired impacts. While most members of the community were willing to participate in project activities, it appears their motivation was the expectation or some shorter benefits. Not all community members had the long-term ambition of seeing their land scopes change. Both in Senzani and Neno district, champion farmers have over the last couple of years demonstrated that patience pays as it is clear that the micro environment around their fields has been transformed.

Champion Farmer in Matope “a Big”

Stakeholder Analysis

Projects on water harvesting and watershed management need to start with rapid but systematic analyses of the nature and role of stakeholders in a particular catchment area. These analyses will be critical in the coming up with interventions that address threats and opportunities for watershed development or poor in land and water.


Choice of crops

Most projects and development agents tend to put more emphasis on annual staple foods or reforestation while neglecting perennial crops. A balanced combination of both annual and perennial crops will do more for the farm economy. Inclusion of perennial crops such as pigeon peas, black-pepper, citrus fruits coffee or tea will more likely protect hillsides more than annuals.

Promoting few self-perpetuating practices

It will be important for similar project to promote practices that will continue to spread among the farmers beyond the project period. . While provision of inputs will be important but emphasis should be on practices that are of such benefit to a farmer that she or she will continue them independently  and neighbors will emulate and will continue to change the land scape. An example of such practices in the excavation of Swalles and Percolation ponds.

  • Need for timeliness in implementing activities following the farming calendar

Issues of incentives and subsidies

There is a general belief among extension staff that without incentives it would be impossible for conservation measures to be taken up by a significant number of farmers. However in this project no incentives or subsidies were provided to farmers. The project aimed at introducing techniques that improve crop yields and at the same time reduce soil erosion and improve soil fertility. During sensitization meetings, it was important for farmers to realize the type of problems they are experiencing in their fields. Once the root problem is understood by farmers, no incentives or subsidies will be required for them to take remedial measures. It is hoped that the technologies adopted will eventually lead to an increase in crop yields. To achieve that, the strategy adopted by the project was to combines soil conservation technologies with technologies that enhance yields.

© 2018 Rainwater Harvesting Association of Malawi