The Sunday Mail
With generous rains having been received countrywide, every conceivable open space in cities, not least Harare, is being hoed as part of land preparations for planting maize.
As a result, swathes of previously ashen-looking parched land have been systematically turned into mounds of brown earth.
Patches that have been planted after the first rains are already greening with nascent lush maize crops.
For many families, urban agriculture has become a matter of survival and food security, especially with the galloping price of mealie-meal.
A 10kg bag of the staple now costs anything from $70 to $100, which is a steep price for most people, as incomes have remained pitiably low.
But there is a huge problem: Almost every open space in the city is undesignated council property that is left bare specifically because of the direct and indirect role it plays in the city’s water supply.
According to the Harare (Protection of Marginalised Land) By-laws, 2014, it is illegal to cultivate on wetlands, sloppy areas, hills or land within 30 metres of naturally defined banks of a public stream.
Doing so attracts a $200 penalty, or 15 days in prison, or both.
But the army of urban farmers is willing to tempt fate.
Seventy-three-year-old Cephas Magudu, who is currently tending a small piece of land in Lochinvar, Harare, has not sought permission from the city fathers, but he hopes they will be benevolent enough to allow him to put food on his table.
“As old as I am, I should be resting at home, but the current situation in the country is not allowing us to rest,” he told The Sunday Mail last week.
“Council should be considerate and allow us to cultivate here so that we can have something to put on the table for our children and grandchildren.”
Working on these council fields is increasingly providing modest pickings for people like Chipo Samukange, who is hired for piece jobs such as tilling the self-allocated pieces of land.
She is paid variously from US$5 to US$10 depending on the size of the field.
“We survive by doing part-time jobs and if the council is saying they are not allowing residents to cultivate in their small pieces of land, then we will be doomed,” she said.
There is noticeably frenzied off-plot farming activity on open spaces in most high-density suburbs such as Budiriro, Kuwadzana, Mufakose, Glen View, Mabvuku, Dzivarasekwa, Tafara, as well as along Chitungwiza’s Nyatsime River.
And it comes at a heavy cost to the environment and city.
Farming activity generally loosens the soil and makes it easy for rainwater to traffic it into streams, resulting in siltation.
Lake Chivero, the main source of water for the capital’s 1,5 million people, is now heavily silted that its depth has progressively declined from 27 metres to 16 metres.
It means the remaining depth of 11 metres is composed of silt.
Fertilisers used by farmers also feed weeds such as the water hyacinth, which is now choking the capital’s water source.
And not only does the maize crop obstruct motorists, it usually turns into convenient thickets that camouflage criminals, especially during the February-April period.
There are, however, concerns that where farming is done on wetlands, not only does this cause land degradation, but it disturbs “the underground water recharge system, resulting in drying up of boreholes and water bodies like rivers and dams”.
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) education and publicity manager Mrs Amkela Sidange said urban agriculture should be done “in a manner that does not harm the environment”.
“It is getting worrisome because cultivation in urban areas is taking place on every open space, including fragile ecosystems like streambanks and wetlands,” she said.
“Cultivating on wetlands causes land degradation, which means there will be loss of underground water recharge system, resulting in drying up of boreholes and water bodies like rivers and dams.
“Wetlands act as kidneys of the earth by removing impurities from water.”
Council is presently using seven chemicals instead of three to treat the water.
An estimated US$3 million per month is being spent on importing sulphuric acid and hydrated lime, which are both used for pH (acidity or alkalinity) correction.
Harare City Council’s acting spokesperson Mr Innocent Ruwende says the local authority will not brook “unsanctioned urban farming activities this rainy season”.
“Residents are advised to desist from ploughing at undesignated areas and cultivating on wetlands,” he warned.
“Harare, like other authorities around the country, is faced with water supply challenges. Therefore, unsanctioned urban agriculture will exacerbate the situation.
“Those who wish to carry out any farming activities should seek authority from council to avoid disappointment.”